(This story was published in 2002).
By: Spencer Windes
Special to Outsports
I play on a gay rugby team. That's not quite right, because there is no such thing as gay rugby. I play on a rugby team composed primarily of gay men.
I have quite a time explaining this to people, both gay and straight. Rugby and homosexuality are both outside the mainstream of American life. They are both marked by a lot of confusion about their various rules and motivations. So I end up explaining the gay part of gay rugby to straight people and the rugby part of gay rugby to gay people. They both usually respond with the same glassy smile, the one reserved for lengthy explanations of other people's strange enthusiasms.
Like homosexuality itself, the propensity to really play and enjoy any sport lays not so much in the logic of the mind but an alchemy of physical and emotional need. Sport has always served a deeper purpose than mere pastime, and whatever it is that drives the masculine desire to compete athletically, whether redirected warrior impulse, the need for emotional validation, or the simple physical pleasure of the act, sport is a universal human phenomenon.
It is also one that, for men especially, is heavily intertwined with gender. Sport, like war and religion, is one of the sanctioned places where men are allowed to show love and concern for each other. In the army, the church and the team, the normal rules of masculine indifference are lifted, and you are permitted to show affection for your buddy, your brother, your teammate. Since homosexuality is perceived by many straight men as a possible corruption of this "natural" affection, it is in these arenas that homosexuality is most visibly scorned and punished.
At the Winter Olympics last January in Utah, there was not one competing athlete, not one out of 12,000, who was openly gay. There were probably hundreds who were gay and lesbian, as Salt Lake¹s packed gay bars indicated, but not a single one who felt that he could give an interview where he casually mentioned "my boyfriend." In a nation less homophobic then ever, there is not one openly gay athlete in a professional team sport. Not one in the NFL. Not one in the NBA. The NHL. Major League Baseball. None.
Yet something is happening. Rather than waiting for Jackie Robinson, gays are starting to colonize sports with their own local amateur teams. Across America and abroad, teams are forming of gay men and lesbians who wish to practice their sports not in a gay way, but in an open one.
Mark Bingham Changed My Life
This weekend, in San Francisco, there will be the first Mark Bingham Rugby Tournament. It will bring together five teams from the U.S., two from England, and one each from New Zealand and Argentina. Amateur rugby tournaments are very common. Ruggers are famous for their love of turning up in strange towns and making themselves at home with the host team they hope to obliterate on the pitch. This tournament will be a typical one, with the only exception being that most of the players, like the man for which the tournament is named, are gay.
Mark Bingham was the 6-f-oot-5 former rugby player at Berkeley who helped wrest control of United Flight 93 from the Sept. 11 terrorists. Mark was a member of the San Francisco Fog, a rugby team formed two years ago to welcome gay men to the sport. I play on the Fog's sister team, the L.A. Rebellion. I joined the team after reading a story about Bingham and rugby in the New York Times. If it weren't for Mark Bingham, I might never have discovered rugby. In a way, Mark Bingham changed my life. I guess that¹s what role models are supposed to do.
Our team is a mixture of experiences. Some of the guys have played rugby all their lives, playing on teams where knowledge of their sexual orientation would have meant their exclusion. Others have never played team sports before, put off in their youth by a culture of disdainful machismo that pounced on any perceived queerness. Some are guys who have played lots of sports but have had little contact with other gay men. For them it is a chance to get to know guys in a non-sexual environment, to come out in a known context. Most encouraging, for the whole "can¹t we all get along" prospect, is that some of the guys aren't gay at all; they are straight guys who like playing on our teams, who think we are a good bunch of fellows; who like that, unlike straight teams, they can bring their wives or girlfriends to our after-match socials (We still sing the same bawdy songs, of course, but we change the pronouns).
What is most surprising is how not gay the teams are. Sure, on Derby Weekend we had mint juleps after practice (yes, we had beer as well). And one straight player recently had to remind us that a team social should be called a bar-be-que, not a potluck. Still, there is no higher level of the homoerotic present on gay sports teams; if anything, there is less. The hazing and double-entendres are different, but we are a team first. Some people who I tell of my gay rugby team probably still think of how a queer is supposed to throw a ball. But the whole point of gay-friendly sports teams is that a queer can throw a ball just like anyone else. The radical egalitarianism of the sports field is what gay athletes crave. In a world where discrimination happens, in a match the only discrimination is winners and losers.
Gay Teams in a Straight League
The Washington Renegades Rugby Club played their first season of regular regulation play last year. They did not win a match. As a new team, this is not unusual. But while they were performing quite poorly early in the season, their play improved, until they barely lost a squeaker to the best team in their Level Three league. Their next two opponents forfeited.
"They were both weak teams we would have beaten had we played them," said one highly experienced player, whose name I won't use because he is an officer in the armed forces, and playing on a gay rugby team is exactly the sort of "appearance of homosexuality" that is grounds for dismissal under the "Don¹t Ask, Don¹t Tell" policy. "Neither of them wanted to be the first team on the league to lose to the homos. Once we win our first game this coming season though, that'll probably change."
The San Francisco Fog are in their first regulation season this year. "The response of other teams in the league has been great" said team captain Derrick Mickle. "They have been very encouraging. The whole gay thing hasn¹t been an issue."
In the discredited school of psychology known as Reparative Therapy, it is postulated that homosexuality arises when boys are excluded from the normal rituals that socialize them into being men. They then seek a substitute for this socialization in the ritual of homosexual sex. While this kind of warmed-over Freudianism may or may not have any truth to it, it has spawned some interesting consequences as counselors, mostly conservative Christians, seek to treat homosexuality through a kind of gender therapy. For women, this might mean learning to dress and comport yourself like a lady (never mind the whole lipstick lesbian thing). For a gay man, this means doing manly things. Which means sports.
They will take a bunch of guys out on a baseball diamond and teach them how to field a pop fly. By learning to swing a bat, it is hoped that these young men will receive enough male bonding in a wholesome way to make up for wanting it in an unwholesome one.
If this theory worked well, gay sports teams would soon write themselves out of existence. But of course it doesn't work. When I was in the closet, I only practiced solitary sports. I never would have joined a team sport, for the proximity to other males, the need in the sport to touch them, created far too much stress. Since coming out, that stress has evaporated. I feel more comfortable with other men. I do bond with my fellow players, bond in a way that is wholesome and non-sexual. But this does not change my sexual desire. It only increases my prospective dating pool. From what I hear, this is also true of the reparative therapy programs.
The Greeks Had It
Rugby is not a sport traditionally associated with homosexuality. There is not a "gay problem" in rugby like there is in women's golf or men's gymnastics. Instead, it is a sport that has a well-deserved roughneck reputation. It requires and rewards a kind of physical toughness and aggressiveness that straights, and many gays, consider anything but queer.
Which is strange. The larger cultural view of homosexuality is tied firmly to effeminacy. But of course they are not the same things. Effeminacy, which may be as set in blood and experience as sexual orientation, is it's own unique phenomenon. Many effeminate friends of mine are straight (and usually married to beautiful women), but many effeminate men are gay. There is some connection between the two, of course. For some gay men, accepting their homosexuality has meant also accepting their effeminacy, embracing it like a new language, a way to broadcast who they are. But many gay men are no more enticed towards effeminacy then they are towards being French. Witness the code language of gay personal ads, where the abbreviation S/A has become a popular, if ironic, adjective. It means Straight Acting.
The oft-cited Greeks considered homosexuality not a lack of masculinity but a surfeit of it. Gay men are men who worship masculinity in a way. It is no wonder they want to find a legitimate place in the most masculine institutions in American life. There is nothing sordid in this desire. It is the same desire that drives most boys into sport, the desire to compete with and mold themselves against others, the desire to be the strongest, fastest, or toughest boy on the block.
Mark Bingham and his fellow travelers are unequivocal American heroes. Mark is already undergoing the type of mythologizing that creates legends. Stories abound: the time he wrestled a gun from a mugger's hand, when he was gored at Pamplona, the remarkable things he did on the Rugby pitch. He was named Man Of The Year by the Advocate magazine. Of course the gay rugby invitational would be named after him. He broke the backs of so many ridiculous arguments about gays in sports. Heroes in American culture are not princes. They are normal people with one moment to be brave. He was.
Some day soon the story will come out about a pro athlete, a quarterback or shortstop or center, some millionaire rookie with an iron-clad contract and a Nike deal, who will also have his moment to be brave. All it might take is holding his boyfriend¹s hand at the grocery store. There will be a fury. People will have opinions. And then it will pass and all seem silly in retrospective.
Maybe some day there will even be a backlash, like there has been against blacks, because there will be so many openly gay athletes. Who knows. But when that day comes, one thing will most likely be the same. Rugby will still be a quirky, minor, overlooked sport in America. The U.S. rugby team will still hover in the basement of the international rankings, behind Fiji and Tonga. And every year rugby teams will gather, teams composed of a lot of gay men, and we'll play and we'll hurt each other and at the end we'll gather in some bar and raise pitchers of beer and toast a man few of us ever knew. We'll do so not because that's what gays do, but because that's what sports teams do. We create heroes, something that every boy, gay or not, wants desperately to be.