Jess Booth talks about their Wales debut

North Wales Crusaders’ Jess Booth became the first-ever out non-binary player to win a Wales Rugby League cap when they played for the Wales Wheelchair side in Ireland the weekend before last.

The 22-year old was selected after a series of outstanding performances for their North Wales Crusaders club over the last two years, and came on to the pitch for the last ten minutes of the narrow defeat against Scotland.

They said: “It was an incredible experience from start to finish. Playing for Wales was something I never thought I’d ever be able to do, and even though I was only on the pitch for a short amount of time, even just to be there in an international environment was just incredible. My family and I went over to Ireland for two nights, so we had a little bit longer there and saw some sights, it was a weekend I’ll never forget.”

Booth has a condition in their knee which means the muscle in their knee doesn’t work correctly and causes chronic pain. They can walk short distances, like going around the house, but uses a wheelchair for longer distances.

“Growing up, I was very active and playing sports most nights of the week,” Booth said. “Then when my knee started playing up, I couldn’t do everything that I wanted to do, so my mental health took a big dip. Getting back into sport now with Wheelchair Rugby League has definitely improved my mental health, my confidence and my quality of life in general.

“When I was in university, I was connected with the Wheelchair Basketball club Cheshire Phoenix. I was then invited to do a taster session with North Wales Crusaders Wheelchair Rugby League club, so I went down to see what it was about and I instantly fell in love with the sport. From the minute we were there, it was incredible. So I started doing both things every week and very quickly realised that I couldn’t sustain doing both sports at the same time. So I picked Crusaders and it went up from there.

“When I first started with Crusaders, I was terrified of playing against anyone that I didn’t know. I refused to compete, I went to training and that was it. Then the Peacock Cup, a charity tournament, came along just over two years ago and I was so glad I played in that as it was incredible.

“I played in the North Wales Crusaders development side last year and I was top try scorer for the whole league. I was then put into the first team for their semi-final game which was incredible.”

Booth came out as non-binary two years ago. Whilst many people will have different experiences and feeling, for them it was because they didn’t ever fit in with girls or boys.

“I was never a girly girl,” they said. “And I also wasn’t someone who wanted to be a boy, that didn’t seem right to me either.

“I’m still figuring it out every day when I think about it in different ways. It does move a bit but for me it was all about not fitting into either of the binary spaces. Non-binary feels the most right for me now. This may change as I develop as life changes, it may move one way or the other, but right now either binary doesn’t work for me so I’m definitely somewhere in the middle.”

And this is where Wheelchair Rugby League comes in. Because there are no gender leagues in the sport or any gender division, it’s not an issue for Booth.

“There was no discussion about which league I’m meant to be in,” Booth adds. “North Wales Crusaders are incredible in making sure that if there was an issue in something like the signing up process, then they’d sort it.

“I don’t expect everyone to know everything about genders and non-binary, but I have felt in my experience that almost everyone is open to be educated, including in WRL who ensured that a non-binary/other tickbox was on the sign-up form this year. And all that is really nice – for people in North Wales Crusader and Wales to want to learn about my life is refreshing.

“Rugby League in general is such a welcoming sport. We just need to keep promoting the fact that everyone is able to be here and that everyone is willing to learn. It makes it a safe place to come into and people are more willing to play. If LGBTQ+ sportspeople know they can come into an environment that’s safe and will welcome us and not create any issues, then they’re more likely to play this sport.”

Jess Booth and their North Wales Crusaders side will be in action all weekend. On Saturday at Deeside Leisure Centre, they face Warrington Wolves in the RFL Championship West (kick-off 11.30am) and on Sunday it’s the next round of the WRL Wheelchair Invitational League where North Wales Crusaders take on Crusaders Celts and Torfaen Tigers with the action starting at 11.30am.