A Hero, a Brother, a Lesson in Tolerance and Understanding

(This story was published in 2001).

By: Peter FitzSimons

Sydney Morning Herald

(Reprinted by permission of the author)

The connections between sport and the terrorist atrocities in New York are mercifully few, but one of them is hopefully inspiring.

In my column on [Sept. 15], I mentioned one Mark Bingham, a 31-year-old rugby-playing American who it is believed was one of three passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco who charged the cockpit, where hijackers had taken control and were redirecting the plane towards Washington, possibly the White House.

Precisely what occurred remains a mystery, but what is known is that the plane crashed in western Pennsylvania, in all likelihood saving countless lives.

Since the column was published, I have been contacted by several of Bingham's Australian friends, who pointed out another interesting fact about him - that the [6'5'', 230-pound] second-rower was also one of the pioneers of gay rugby in the United States, and his exclusively gay team, the San Francisco Fog, had just been accepted into the wider Californian rugby competition.

Bingham's friends say he planned to attend next year's Gay Games in Sydney--just as he has visited this city on rugby trips three times previously. They also speak of a friendly, outgoing bloke, who had a great passion for the game which he often defined by quoting Shakespeare's Henry V: "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother ..."

In a recent email to friends in his rugby club, Bingham revealed his thoughts about being gay and being a rugby player, and his excitement at his side being accepted into the competition.

"When I started playing rugby at the age of 16," he wrote, "I always thought that my interest in other guys would be an anathema - completely repulsive to the guys on my team and to the people I was knocking the shit out of on the other team. I loved the game, but KNEW I would need to keep my sexuality a secret forever. I feared total rejection.

"As we worked and sweated and ran and talked together this year, I finally felt accepted as a gay man and a rugby player. My two irreconcilable worlds came together.

"Now we've been accepted into the union and the road is going to get harder. We need to work harder. We need to get better. We have the chance to be role models for other gay folks who wanted to play sports but never felt good enough or strong enough. More importantly, we have the chance to show the other teams in the league that we are as good as they are. Good rugby players. Good partiers. Good sports. Good men.

"Gay men weren't always wallflowers waiting on the sideline. We have the opportunity to let these other athletes know that gay men were around all along - on their little league teams, in their classes, being their friends.

"This is a great opportunity to change a lot of people's minds and to reach a group that might never have had to know or hear about gay people. Let's go make some new friends ... and win a few games.

"Congratulations, my brothers in rugby."

Why do I include all this in a column now? Dunno, precisely. Probably just because, beyond helping to save perhaps thousands of people, it would also be good if Bingham's death could stand towards what the entire world needs right now - the lessening of hate and bigotry, and the maximising of friendship and understanding.

I'll say it again. On ya, Mark, you did the old game proud. And we, your brothers in rugby from around the world, salute you.

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