I Ruck, Therefore I Am

Rugby and the gay male body


London. To my right, a dozen burly Irishmen clap their arms around each other's shoulders. Kicking their legs as self-proclaimed "international drag terrorist" Rose Garden belts show tunes from the stage, the members of the Emerald Warriors—Ireland's first gay rugby team—personify the high spirits of the room. The carnival tone had already been set by a Queen Elizabeth II look-alike. "I thought I would be meeting with heads of state," Her Faux Majesty had twittered as she looked at the throng of ruggers, "since my advisers told me that a load of queens were visiting London. All I see is a jolly good bunch of boys." Welcome to the 2004 Bingham Cup.

Facing other gay teams, our playing feels different. We engage in the game's smashmouth violence without feeling the usual pressure to dominate or to judge. What we begin to realize is that, for this weekend, we can take the hyper-masculine elements of the sport and live them differently. In the end, the San Francisco Fog won the tournament, but we made the quarter-finals—and that was fine. It's not that we are athletically gifted, but rugby allows us to be gay and tough. And it allows us to forge a brotherhood based on mutual risk and sacrifice.

Gotham Knights at rest: For gay bodies, rugby rituals seem both ironic and real.
photo: Dennis Kleiman
Gotham Knights at rest: For gay bodies, rugby rituals seem both ironic and real.

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    Since most gay teams are geographically scattered, we join straight leagues (or unions) where we are met initially with curiosity or hostility. On the eve of our first match last fall, someone on the opposing team sent a warning to his club's message board that we would hit on them during the game. One of his teammates tersely replied that perhaps he ought to just worry about being hit, period.

    Such toughness causes straight ruggers to reassess what they consider manly. Initial perceptions of the Knights as weak shifted after the first few league games. "Other captains would tell us their teams would lose it when they were down a few tries. To see us come back and lay it on the line with the crazy scores we had was inspiring," notes our club's president, Adam Josephs. "We got their respect as ruggers and men." We learn how to get hit and to fall. We learn to hit back, to live in those moments of intense play, and we all go out drinking and singing afterward.

    In our last game of the fall season, I witness rugby-playing gay men create a world where these rough practices are transformed into something wonderful and unexpected. Sidelined by my injury, I feel out of place watching my teammates hurl themselves again and again at their opponents, a straight team from Long Island. Suddenly, a Knight sees an opening, and charges through. He's tackled, but another is there to take the ball from him. Then we are all in the pack of men rucking near the goal line. The referee's flag goes up. A whistle splits the air. After a stunned silence, we erupt in shouts. One teammate has tears streaming down his face. We have scored our first goal (or try) against a straight team, and now the world is different.

    "Who did it? Who did it?" we whisper to one another. But it doesn't matter, because in that moment we all have done it. We are divine. It is who I want to be.

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