By Jennifer Mascia
On any given weeknight you can find real estate developers, pharmacists, doctors and architects sprinting across rugby pitches in Charlotte, Dallas and New York, doing something they rarely got a chance to do in high school: be jocks.
That’s because these rugby players are gay, and they’re joining all-gay rugby teams in major cities across the country in order to compete in amateur athletics, from which they’ve long felt excluded.
“For gay men, our relationship with sports is like being the last one picked on the team,” said Ted Perkins, a New York real estate developer and gay rugby player.
Attracting mostly urban professionals in their 20s and 30s, the sport came to prominence in the gay community in the United States after Mark Bingham, a star player on the first American team, the San Francisco Fog, died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Like soccer and cricket, rugby is a sport appreciated outside the United States, primarily in Great Britain. That’s where historians believe it was born centuries ago out of a tradition that involved young men herding startled pigs from town square to town square.
But unlike soccer, it is rarely played in U.S. elementary and high schools, and only occasionally in colleges and universities.
Rugby’s obscurity creates an advantage for some gay players who felt excluded from contact sports, allowing them to start on a level playing field with other first-time competitors.
As a result, a lot of gay athletes stuck to solitary sports, like running and cycling.
Though well-known in the gay community, gay rugby’s existence is practically unheard of elsewhere. While most recruiting is done at gay pride parades or at gay bars in cities like New York and San Francisco, many players find their future teams on the Internet.
Gay rugby is said to have started in the 1990s with informal teams in South Africa. The first formally established club was London’s Kings Cross Steelers in 1995, and soon teams popped up in Manchester, England, as well as in Australia and New Zealand. But the growth of gay rugby in the United States can be credited to Bingham.
A public relations executive who was a star runner with the Fog, the 6 foot 5 Bingham helped organize the Knights, the third American gay rugby team after the Washington Renegades.
Bingham died before he could help franchise the idea across the country. But his fame helped foster teams in Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., and Dallas. The biannual international gay rugby tournament, which is scheduled for May 2006 in New York, has been renamed the Bingham World Cup.
Cash says that a gay rugby team would have been impossible in Charlotte a decade ago.
“I am sure the county council would have had something to say about it in 1996,” Cash said. Though some straight teams resist playing the Royals, “I respect that and don’t pursue it,” Cash said. “Some people still think HIV and being gay go hand in hand.”
However, not everyone is impressed with the level of play. While the New York-Manhattan Rugby Football Club is a straight Division 1 team that has not been matched up against all-gay clubs, team member Sean Aiken, 32, has seen the Knights play and they got “clobbered.”
“I think that level of skill is due to a lack of experience,” Aiken said.
Nevertheless, C. Brian Devinney, 31, tournament director for the Knights, said straight rugby teams are often impressed by what he calls the players’ “never say die” attitude. The Knights hold their own when they play against the New York Police Department team.
In the end, Devinney said, gay rugby is not about sports alone, or sexuality.
“It’s about remembering a man who made a difference that day,” he said.