An exclusive interview with Typhoons RUFC's Kris Barber-Midgley

By Eventus Recruitment Group

01 Jul 2024

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To honour Pride the Eventus Recruitment Group sat down with the Typhoons RUFC's Chair Kris Barber-Midgley for a discussion about the Typhoons, his career and his advice for LGBTQ professionals. Eventus Recruitment has been a sponsor of the Typhoons for the last three years.

What was the inspiration for setting up Typhoons RUFC?

The typhoons started in 2018. It came about as a result of a conversation between a man called Lawrence Howard and some of the community coaches from the Rugby Football Union (RFU). They’d noticed some interest nationally in inclusive rugby teams and realised that up until that point, all these inclusive teams focused on large city areas that typically had quite a mature LGBT community. But what they hadn't seen was inclusive clubs in rural areas. And they wondered whether such a club could exist in somewhere like Lancashire, which has got an LGBT community, but it's spread out.

So, the Typhoons was formed to encourage LGBT people into sport in Lancashire. And traditionally, I think it's fair to say that our community has not felt the comfiest, whether that's from experiencing school PE or for any other reason. And a lot of people come to our club and to other inclusive clubs in from the same position that I did.

I've never played sport and never relished the idea of team sport. I wasn’t sure that I even could catch a ball or throw a ball and thought I was going to embarrass myself. That's usually where people start. They've got this idea of what it means to be a sporty person and what it means to be on a rugby team. However, people come along very quickly and feel supported almost immediately.

If only I had a tenner for every time someone said it just feels like a family. Everyone is just very friendly and that's what it means certainly to us to be a Typhoon.  

How has the Typhoons grown from the very beginning to now?

Howard and the RFU coaches started by putting an advert in the LEP and on Facebook. I was one of the first people to see and respond to it. I remember turning up to that first session being absolutely terrified, but I had a very warm reception at Preston Grasshoppers. However, to be frank I was a little surprised at the lack of turn out that there was. There were around six of us in total.

We all came from a similar position of having not played a lot of rugby. The coach, a guy called Kai Burns, was an experienced coach. We started playing what I could only like to describe as an adult game of Tig. Building on this over the course of the session, the rules evolved into something that started to look a little bit like rugby.

We were all buzzing, we'd allayed our fears that we couldn't catch or throw a ball. And little by little, week after week, we got more and more players, and it wasn't long before we had just enough players to play our first game. Surprisingly, we won our first game against another team, which was also a surprise I think to the opposition at that time.

Now we play rugby union and touch rugby. Our team has performed very well in terms of sporting ability over the years. The rugby union team this year went through to the International Gay Rugby (IGR) national final, and we won the northern finals. Unfortunately, we lost in the national finals. But what an incredible achievement to go from nothing six years ago to be playing at the very highest level within our leagues just a few years later. Also, our touch team, which came about a couple of years after the start of the Typhoons, placed third place in their league this year. 

How has the Typhoons grown off the playing field?

Quite early on the initial individuals formed a committee and developed a plan to grow Lancashire’s first rugby club. We’d never been part of a rugby club before, so we had to learn on the spot. Also, we had to consider how does an inclusive club work in Lancashire. We’ve got to be seen and heard in the community and be recognised as a club that’s willing to put back into the community as well as take from it. So, we've got involved in some local charity events.

We pulled a fire engine across the front in Blackpool, we attended local Pride events, local fairs and done talks in colleges and workplaces about inclusion. Always we continue to move forward and try to broaden what it means to be an inclusive rugby club. Month by month we get more interest and six years in we now have over 100 members of the Typhoons.

Additionally, off the pitch, we've been recognised on a national scale. We won an award at the National Diversity Awards and were nominated for King's Award for voluntary Service. So, the Typhoons have grown not just in numbers, but in a really positive way, certainly to be recognised locally as a voice of inclusion. We hope to be a set of role models that people can look to; continue to challenge what it means to be LGBT, and what it means to have something different; and show that you can be proud of yourself for that difference.

What does it mean to be a Typhoon?

It is about challenging yourself. Being a Typhoon is more than just learning to play sport. There is a social element too. You come along and you're instantly surrounded by the support of friends. People have gone through some incredibly challenging life experiences, things that ordinarily might not have been able to overcome, but now they have the support network of 100 individuals at their disposal.

And people are very generous with their time and their energy. So, because of being part of the club, people have found work and support where they might have struggled. They’ve avoided homelessness, where again they might not have previously been able to and they've thrived as a result of it. So, it's hard to say why the club was set up, but I'd like to imagine this was all very much part of the reason of setting something up here in Lancashire that we can be proud of and can continue to make that difference. 

What did winning the IGR Northern League mean to you?

To me personally, I cried, and I don't know if I'm turning into a soft sort in my later years because I've not historically been known to cry a lot. But the funny thing was we've worked hard year on year to improve. The dedication and the hard work of the players has been absolutely incredible.

What was nice about this year is that we didn't go out to win, that wasn't the aim of our season. We were conscious that we'd grown a lot last summer with a lot of new players. So our aspiration was just to play some competitive rugby and bring these newer players up to a point where they'll feel confident to play competitively next season. The coaching team have been brilliant at putting in a really good structure and support. But what happened as a result is we kept winning the matches.

And, so, the side effect of winning a lot of matches is that you win a lot, score a lot of points and you end up at the top of the league. And we found ourselves at the end of the season neck and neck with another local team, the Manchester Spartans. A very good team and who've been around for 20 years, and they've got hundreds of members, not just 100.

There was never a point when we thought we must win. The team had already patted themselves on the back and said we didn't think we'd get this far. We were just proud to have got so far. So, when we came out with the points and we won, it was just the cherry on the cake of the year that nobody expected at our club. And what a win. I don't think there's a better way to get to the top of the league.

I think if you push and push and push at all costs, you can upset people, and some people get lost along the way because we're not all here for competitiveness. Some people are here for the social side or to get fit. So, it was a lovely celebration of how far we've come as a team and what exciting position to be in because you know, 10 out of the 20 people that we took to the national finals hadn't picked up a rugby ball until September last year. And so it's an incredible credit to them how they've integrated into the team and picked up the sport quickly.

It feels like they’ve been part of the team for the whole six years. I just hope that can be everybody's experience when they come to the club, that they can surprise themselves and all of us in the process.

What’s next and your hopes for the Typhoons?

I have some really high hopes for this team, I have since the very beginning. This team with the coaches behind it, with the captains and the players that we have are absolutely going to do well on the pitch. I have absolutely no doubt about that and they're going to continue to be recognised for their sporting ability.

Also, I hope it continues to be more than just a rugby club. The thing that I go to bed at night proud of is the impact that they have off the pitch. You see individuals join and they grow as a result. Either directly of what the club's doing or because of the people around them. People often come to the club with some form of baggage, and we support each other.

At the Typhoons people often talk about their mental health, it’s a safe space and everyone is careful about others’ mental health.

Always, I’m proud of the impact we have outside of the club. A few years back some of the players did an interview on BBC Radio Lancashire during Mental Health Awareness Week. Admirably, some of our players opened up on the radio about their own personal struggles and we had the presenter in tears and some of the listeners too, according to the tweets. It was refreshing to hear people talk so publicly about their struggles, as often people just show their best self. That was such a proud moment thinking someone has heard that it’s made a difference to them.

In addition, something I've been really surprised at this year is the number of invites we've had. Particularly during Pride month, to go to local schools, to workplaces in the community to talk about inclusion and some difficult topics as well. And so, hopefully there’s people out there that are looking at our club, maybe not interested in picking up a rugby ball, but are proud of the difference that we're making to people's perceptions and their relationship with our community as well. Hopefully that's an impact that will last, and something that Lancashire can be proud of and can own. 

How can people get involved with the Typhoons and do they have to want to play rugby?

To get involved with the Typhoons, simply get in touch. Usually, people will send us a DM on one of our social channels saying that they're interested in taking part. Alternatively, you can go to our website where there's a contact us form or just come and approach us at one of the many events that we attend. At Pride events we will be in our kits and our flags are super visible. Everyone's super friendly.

You absolutely don't have to want to play any form of rugby. Although don't be surprised if we try to encourage you to because we've all had a go and really enjoyed it. But we've actually got what we call a social membership, which is growing.

These are people who have said, I really want to be part of the club, its atmosphere and its community, but don’t want to play. They come to all of our social events and take part in volunteering opportunities and they're very much as part of the club as anybody else. 

How can businesses like Eventus get involved with the Typhoons? 

So, this is one of the topics that I'm really passionate about because for the first five years of the Typhoons, I was the sponsorship officer. My approach was to go out into the local business community and source sponsorship. And it meant so much that businesses took an interest in our little rugby club and bought into the values of our club and what we were trying to achieve. And in return for that, we would try and give some sort of benefit back.

Honestly, in those first few months I sent out hundreds of emails to local businesses and at times I wasn't sure whether we'd be able to sort or get an income to support our club. However, one by one we met some wonderfully generous, philanthropic individuals who absolutely bought into what we were trying to do, who have seen first-hand the importance of inclusion and have started to sponsor our team.

A lot of our sponsors have been with us now for a number of years. We're very lucky that we don't have a high turnover and pretty much all of our sponsors don't come to us with a commercial outcome in mind. They come to us because they believe in what we're doing and out of gratitude, the club tries to do everything it can for those businesses to redress that generosity. I think our sponsorship model works very well. We have 100 members who understand the value of what those sponsors bring to our community.

It costs a lot of money to hire pitches and to train coaches, have first aiders and to deliver the sort of things that we do. Without the generosity of local businesses, it simply wouldn't happen. 

So, for any businesses out there that are interested in supporting the Typhoons, the ways to get involved are not prohibitively expensive. However, the impact of that money has, and is, changing directly the lives of at least 100 individuals and others who come into contact with the Typhoons through the various events and activities that we do too. So, it's money, I think well spent in the community and often those businesses are seeing the benefit of being associated with the club as well. If you would like to sponsor the Typhoons send us a message on social media or contact us through our website.

How can being involved in the Typhoons or a similar LGBTQ club support or enhance a person's career?

I've worked in the legal sector now for seven or eight years and before that within professional services. Generally, I'd like to think I've been relatively successful during that time. Over my life I've heard about people talking about the benefit of team sports, of working as part of a team. I never really understood it until I became part of a rugby club.

Also, I've often reflected on where I'm at now in my career and wondered whether I would have got here had I not been involved with the Typhoons. And the easy answer is no, I wouldn't. I’ve built networks, I've built connections, I've learned different ways to deal with people that I have brought into my professional life. And, the two often lean into each other and it's beneficial in both directions.

From an LGBTQ perspective, I gave a speech recently about the importance of pride and what that means. And, I said, people often approach us and say, “is there any need for pride in this day and age? You know, isn't the world inclusive enough?” I answered with, “the world has changed a lot since I was quite little and people are generally more, and I hate the word accepting, that they're more accepting of and inclusive in general. People's understanding of the LGBT community has come a long way, but you can't open the papers in a given week at the moment without people's gender identity or sexuality being politicised even right now. Their very liberties and freedoms challenged.” As a result, clubs like ours matter. 

It's a symbol for people to understand that we're here regardless of whether people like it or not. It isn't about acceptance, it's about saying we're here. For some people in our club and for people that look at our club, it matters that there's an organisation there, that’s challenging the stereotypes and the norms. Consequently, it gives them the confidence to go out into the world and to be themselves.

There's nothing worse than living a life where you're having to wear a mask or hide a part of you. So, being part of something like the Typhoons makes an incredible difference. Whether that's in terms of the professional skills that you gain as being part of a sporting organisation or any sort of voluntary organisation. But it also gives you the pride to be yourself in your day-to-day life too.

With the Typhoons growing rapidly, how do you juggle being the chairperson alongside managing work and personal commitments?

That is a challenge, which I’m sure every volunteer in the land has experienced at some point. This year I became the chair of the Typhoons. I didn't know what to expect even though I've been on the committee now for half a decade and it has been one of the proudest things I’ve done. Understanding all the different cogs and levers that make this club work has been incredible and working alongside our volunteers has been a very humbling experience. But alongside that, I work in a very busy industry with some of the world's and the country's biggest law firms. That comes with a lot of expectations. And I'm also a Dad and a husband. So balancing those, I'll be lying if I say I got it down to a fine art. Usually I am trading on the goodwill of one of those to allow me to do the other. But I think what's most important in anything you do in life is to do the things that matter to you and to make time for those things that are important and not to get bogged down by anything that isn't delivering value. 

Also, I'm very lucky that my little boy Jacob, who is about to turn 4, has a real passion for rugby. So, he's quite often my little cheerleader. All of the events that I go to, he joins me on stage with the microphone. He's there at the side of the pitch cheering me on. So, it gives me a lot of pride that he sees his Dad doing these things and hopefully he gets a better relationship with sport and things at an earlier age than I did. He’s brilliant, he’s my world.

What policies or practises do you think are the most effective in promoting LGBTQ and inclusivity in the workplace?

I think it's got to start with your external appearance as an organisation. In our community it's very hard to speak on behalf of other people. However, I know for myself when I don't see organisations engaging with diversity externally, I’m not necessarily inclined to believe that it's a particularly inclusive organisation. If you want to attract and retain inclusive talent, you've got to live by your values. It's not just good enough to have them written down on a piece of paper and then to have senior individuals in those organisations be seen to not live by those values.

We all like seeing ourselves reflected in the places that we work, so that we can see a part of us reflected in that workplace. And that isn't to say that people at senior levels must be LGBT, but they have to be engaging with it. For example, I look at the organisation I work for and we regularly participate and attend Nottingham Pride. That's an organisational activity and there's some really enthusiastic individuals internally that go and champion that. We participate in a cross organisational LGBT network, even though we are a small organisation in terms of headcount. 

Also, perhaps I'm slightly biased here, when I see organisations that sponsor LGBT or inclusive organisations, again, it reflects the values of the organisation and the difference that they want to make as a business in the local communities too.

So, those things work very well and to give a voice to inclusion in an organisation that matters. As diversity impacts all of us, because it's not just diversity of gender, sexuality or identity. It’s diversity of thought, and diversity of experience that can really enrich our workplace and bring different and innovative ways of working that often benefits everybody.

How can organisations address any issues related to inclusivity? 

In terms of dealing with issues, people are often terrified of saying the wrong things. Henceforth, they often say nothing, and I think that's a very dangerous place to be in. I understand the desire of HR individuals for their reaction to be risk averse, but I think openness and empathy to the challenges specific to the different strands of diversity is often the right place to start a conversation around issues. Sometimes issues are directly related to one’s diversity, but sometimes it's secondary and not directly related. However, I think being able to talk openly with empathy is always the best starting point.

Do you feel that being part of the LGBTQ community has impacted your career progression anyway?

I was very shy about coming out professionally for a large portion of my career. That wasn't necessarily because of the organisations or other people that I worked with. It was that fear of being treated differently in my career. However, the more and more I’ve done it, it’s become less and less of an issue for me. Initially, I think that reluctance to be open with people I worked with probably impacted my early career. At some points I probably came across as a bit cagey and not open to my colleagues for a little while due to the anxiety of coming out.

However, my actual experience in the workplace has been incredibly positive. I worked for a local law firm up until a couple of years ago that was very supportive and encouraging. They all came to my wedding. It was a wonderful place to work and helped me with some of those anxieties, by facilitating an incredibly professional environment where diversity was welcomed and accepted. I've seen that that’s also reflected in my current workplace. However, I have no doubt that there are people out there that either through discrimination, but just as likely through the fear of discrimination, have had their careers impacted.

Do you have any LGBTQ role models or mentors who have influenced your career? 

I'm rubbish with pop culture and celebrities, and probably a lot of the role models I had when I was younger, I wasn't particularly tuned into their own sort of diversity. In recent years, I look at individuals like local legend Serene McKellen, who has just been unapologetically himself and actually thrived on who he is. There are so many individuals out there that make a difference and whether these are people we see on TV, on the radio or perhaps people in our own lives, for example our manager. But I think role models are very important and they often set the tone on how people feel about themselves and the direction they choose to go in.

Most recently, the person that stands out to me as a role model was my Dad, who passed away just before Christmas. Through his entire life, he was a firefighter and he was someone who went out and saved lives. So, that is someone that makes a difference in the world in a very real sense. He was in a very senior position in the fire service, he was involved in training and setting the standard for others.

I can't really compare me being the chair of a community rugby club to him being in a senior position in the fire service. But I always looked at his leadership style as one that has been very empathetic and very person centric. Also, I often reflect on what he would have done or how he would have dealt with people.

When it came to people's diversity, he was always someone that I think in his own way, he said, “I just don't care, they are who they are, it’s what they choose to bring to the world that matters to me. I don't care how somebody identifies, they are who they are. And that's all that matters.” And so for me, my role model is him because I quite often look at the people in our club and say “how can we get the best out of these people? How can we deliver the best? How can we make the biggest difference? How can we make sure they enjoy their experience?” And that's very much my Dad in me.

What resources or support networks other than the Typhoons do you rely on as an LGBTQ professional?

There's some really good resources. So, we have a wonderful organisation called Lancashire LGBT who provide a whole range of signposting and services to the local community to try and help build that idea of connectivity. Also, they help professional organisations in putting strategies in place to be more inclusive. 

In addition, there's some wonderful resources now online and any professional that are on LinkedIn can find community groups of like-minded individuals. I'm part of a number of inclusive professional networks. So, you can network with individuals across the country and across the world, which is very beneficial.

In each local area there’s support groups too. So, speaking specifically about Lancaster, there's an organisation called Out in the Bay that offers a range of support from connecting individuals and businesses with other local services, to mental health and crisis support. So, there are support networks out there either for individuals or for businesses. Consequently, I encourage people to reach out and take that support because regardless of whether you are an LGBT person or not, we all get points in our life where support makes a big difference.

Usually, we find ourselves in trouble when we think we can do it alone or we should do it alone. Quite often you hear people say, “I'm not the sort of person that needs that help”. And usually those are the people that probably do. So, by making yourself familiar with what's available and then when life throws you a curveball, you’ll have those resources available to you.

What advice would you give to LGBTQ individuals who are just starting their careers?

To always be yourself and I know to some people that means be confident in coming out. Our sexualities, our identities, are only a part of us. Be yourself in every respect and if you find yourself in a situation where you feel that you won't be accepted or you won't be tolerated, don't feel stuck.

Our generation, and younger generations, are switching on to the idea that careers don't have to be permanent. It can be stepping stones and you might be somewhere that is not ideal right now. Don't feel stuck there, move on and keep being true to yourself. Keep moving until you find somewhere that you feel that your whole self can be appreciated.

It sounds corny, but your difference is your superpower. As I worked for a long time in marketing in professional services, I always say marketing isn't blending in with the crowd, it's standing out. When you're talking about your own identity and your own personal branding and organisation, you can make a career of blending in. However, the way to really make a difference in your career is to stand out.

There are lots of ways that you can do that. Find the things that make you different, find the ways that enable you to do your job better and go and do that. And if you're in the wrong workplace or if you've got a manager that can't utilise that version of you, then it's time to look to go elsewhere. So, that's my advice, never feel trapped in a place where you don't feel like you can be yourself. There is always a place that can make better use of your whole self than places like that.

Photo credit: Typhoons RUFC.

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