Rugby is a sport filled with controlled violence and occasional brutality. And, as a new film demonstrates, also ... inspirational triumphs of the human spirit?
Next month, the Glasgow Film Festival is set to premiere “Steelers: The World’s First Gay Rugby Club,” a documentary about a barrier-breaking British LGBTQ sports organization, the Kings Cross Steelers.
In a detail that feels almost scripted out of every sports movie ever made, the Steelers were founded in 1995 by six guys hanging out in a pub who pondered what would happen if they decided to create a rugby club for gay players.
It turned out that those six helped start a movement in their sport that eventually led to about 80 LGBTQ-friendly clubs around the world who travel to play each other in non-pandemic times for a bi-annual tournament called The Bingham Cup.
The documentary follows the modern incarnation of Kings Cross as they travel to Amsterdam for the 2018 Cup. It’s written and directed by Eammon Ashton-Atkinson, a TV correspondent for Australia’s Network 10.
Ashton-Atkinson was a member of that Steelers roster who had to miss the tournament due to a concussion. Instead of staying away, he harkened back to his day job and brought a camera to shoot footage of the team’s matches.
But the film didn’t gain its narrative shape until a year later when Rugby Australia reached a settlement with Israel Folau in the wake of his horrific “Hell Awaits” anti-gay social media post. When that news became public, Ashton-Atkinson told the BBC’s Paul Glynn:
“His bigotry kind of inspired this film and got it happening again. Because there are kids that are seeing what he’s saying and it might be affecting them, and I needed to counter that with this film. That’s when I decided to put my story in it.”
That story is of a young gay rugby fan who was severely bullied during his school years in Australia. And after escaping to the UK for his mental health, Ashton-Atkinson got involved with the Steelers and finally found a sense of community—as well as his future husband.
Looking at how the film turned out, Ashton-Atkinson turned pensive: “It’s funny, isn’t it? Something that was such a negative in my life, I’ve been able to turn into this wonderful positive thing with this film.”
The documentary highlights many fascinating characters making up the 2018 Kings Cross roster including female coach Nic Evans and Drew McDowell, an American player who also performs as the drag queen Coco Extra.
Tickets to see “Steelers” streaming online are on sale via the Glasgow Film Festival website.