Kaue Garcia, left, and his husband Ryan O'Neill are helping to drive Keighley Cougars forward on and off the pitch | Photo courtesy of Kaue Garcia

When Kaue Garcia left Brazil 14 years ago to go traveling, he could never have imagined his journey would take him to a sports team in a West Yorkshire market town, in the north of England.

But it’s not just the destination of Keighley Cougars — a rugby league club with a history going back nearly 150 years — that is so unexpected. It’s also what Garcia is helping to achieve there as a champion for equality.

Cougar Park doesn’t merely welcome LGBTQ people. The team’s stadium and those who call it home truly celebrate the community, from the permanent Pride rainbow-colored terrace to a series of headline-grabbing activations — the latest of which has just been announced.

The Cougars have appointed broadcaster India Willoughby — Britain’s first TV newsreader who is transgender — as a club patron, making her the first trans person to hold such a role.

In addition, the team will wear a special kit in the colors of the trans flag for Keighley’s annual Pride game on July 7. It’s part of a season-long commitment to advocating for trans rights, amid an increasingly toxic “culture wars” battle playing out across the UK.

“We say that with visibility comes understanding,” Garcia tells Outsports. “People often come with a perception or a misconception.

“They need contact, getting to know someone, making those experiences, knowing people — it changes minds. I think that’s so powerful.

“That’s why India is representing, to open up dialogue so that people actually start looking at it differently, by educating themselves.”

‘We have to outdo ourselves’

Getting into sports ownership has certainly been an education for Garcia. He was in his early 20s when his trip overseas took him to Thailand. It was there that he met Ryan O’Neill, taking time out from a business trip.

O’Neill’s father Mick had previously been at the helm of Keighley, during the club’s “Cougarmania” glory days in the 1990s when thousands of townsfolk regularly turned out at home games.

Kaue and Ryan fell in love, got married, and returned to the UK to live in London. When the Cougars fell on hard times, Mick rode to the rescue in early 2019 as leader of a consortium buy-out — with his son and son-in-law part of the ownership team.

They became Europe’s first out gay owners of a pro sports club (and no others are yet known). Having been made to feel welcome by Cougars fans, they staged a Pride game during their first summer as directors — the first of its kind at a pro club in either rugby league or union — and found the party atmosphere went down rather well with locals.

Former Super League star Keegan Hirst, who came out publicly as gay in 2015, was the guest of honour.

There was no rugby played in June 2020, but the Pride game returned in 2021, and then again in 2022, putting extra numbers on the gate each time.

Last year saw the unveiling of the ‘Pride Terrace’ and there was also a recent match in February designated to the UK’s LGBTQ History Month, when nearly 4,000 fans turned out for a derby against Bradford Bulls.

“When we first incorporated the Pride fixture, people were skeptical. Fast forward five years, and everybody has embraced it,” explains Garcia.

“There is now this natural expectation — because we have done so much, every year we have to outdo ourselves. We have to shock the world and give something so that it becomes relevant again. It’s the process of educating.”

On occasions, they come up against vocal opposition, much of it online, which can be exacerbated by the team’s results. Last season was a struggle and ended in the disappointment of relegation.

But the two co-owners will not compromise when it comes to equality.

Garcia is appalled by increasingly “toxic” attitudes around trans rights, with the issue recently ratcheted up again due to the publication of the Cass Review examining NHS England services for young people questioning their gender identity. Several prominent figures in the media and on social media have been staunch in their criticism of trans-inclusive healthcare.

Willoughby, defending her trans community, often finds herself on the frontline. She was among those invited to the Cougars game in February by O’Neill and Garcia in a spirit of LGBTQ solidarity. A huge “Trans Rights are Human Rights” flag was also on display.

Since then, the trio have kept talking, resulting in her patron appointment last week.

Garcia says the false narratives being perpetuated about trans people are “horrendous” and that nominating Willoughby for an honorary role is a way to create greater respect and counter confusion. He is more than happy to talk it through with supporters.

“The fans have an open communication with me and Ryan, and they contacted us privately. They support what we have done at the club — they just didn’t understand why we made this nomination.

“We explained the reasons and now they understand.”

Garcia recommended they talk with Willoughby too. “She loves the club and she’s going to be coming to the games a lot — just give her a chance and you’ll see that we have a lot more similarities than differences. We are all just human beings, trying to to live our lives.”

There will always be a few dissenters but it’s hard to question the commitment level from himself, O’Neill and the rest of the leadership team. “Every year, it gets easier because we become louder. People will embrace it. I think that’s the mission, really.”

Keighley Cougars’ special edition Pride kit for 2024 will be worn by the team in July and is on pre-order now

‘A player came out as bi to us’

Meanwhile, new plans have just been approved for a stadium redevelopment while on the field, the target is promotion.

Having won all 20 of their fixtures in 2022, Keighley were promoted to the second tier — but they were narrowly consigned to the drop a year later. The current campaign has started perfectly, however, with four wins in four matches.

Rugby league always comes first, but causes are important too. And it’s not just LGBTQ rights — the Cougars have won praise for raising awareness around men’s mental health; they’ve helped raise money for local charity Day One Trauma Support; and even the local Conservative MP has praised the club as “a cornerstone” of the community

Because of Garcia and O’Neill, Pride is now firmly woven into the fabric of Keighley — the team’s regular home and away kits have Progress flags sewn into every shirt.

Kaue Garcia, India Willoughby and Ryan O’Neill at Cougar Park | Keighley Cougars

As for the future, they would like to see more LGBTQ inclusion activations at other rugby league clubs and one anecdote from Garcia demonstrates the need.

“We spoke to our players about how words impact on people. There is banter in the locker room — language that is perhaps being used as a joke.

“But someone might be struggling. You might have someone that is still in the closet so we said, just be very careful with your words. 

“We did have a player that then came out as being bisexual to us. He came to me and Ryan first and said he was going to tell the rest of the boys.

“And when he did, they said it was no big deal.

“Teams are a funny thing because they are like a family — they are brothers and they fight for each other. They have each other’s backs and in rugby, it’s quite beautiful to see that.”