Field of Queens

The life and loves of Eric Merfalen, a gay athlete who forged his sexual identity while playing America's most macho, bone-crushing sport

Eric Merfalen walks into the Gym Bar in Chelsea looking straight ahead, not meeting the eyes of any of the men who turn to watch him. He carries a leather suitcase and wears a blue shirt with light-pink stripes and pink tie with blue stripes under a navy Polo blazer. Eric is handsome and he knows it. Everyone calls him Enrique, as in Enrique Iglesias, the Latino musician and teen-magazine cover boy. Although he's not tall at 5-9, Eric has smooth skin the color of coffee with two creamers and black hair brushed back and gelled. At turns, he looks either overtly serious or overcome by his own smile. There is no in-between.

Finding the coat check locked on this Tuesday night in January, the 25-year-old Eric heads to the bar and leans over it to kiss the bartender, Juan Bonilla, on the lips. They play together on the Gotham Knights Rugby Football Club. "What will it be tonight?" Juan asks. Eric, who works as an assistant at an art auction house, has arrived before any of his teammates for the monthly "Hang Out With the Knights" promotion, so that he can get a few half-price beers before happy hour ends. He orders a Sam Adams. Juan pours it and slides both the glass and a poker chip good for a free drink over to Eric. As he takes his first sip, Eric turns and leans back against the bar, resting his elbows on the ledge, and looks over the crowd from left to right. About 40 people of various ages fill the bar, alternately watching one of the large flat-screen televisions—showing college and pro basketball games on this night—and talking to friends.

Eric is well into his second beer when he nods toward a fair-skinned man with thinning hair and a bushy beard, both red. The man leans in to kiss Eric as he pulls off his jacket.

photo: David Yellen

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"Yeah, I'm a dork," the bearded man says. "I wore my jersey."

Across the back of the blue-and-gold jersey the name Bearitone runs over the number four. Steve Gaertner earned his nickname because of his burly build, facial hair, and the fact that he is a professional opera singer, a baritone. As for the number four, it indicates his position on the pitch and, to an initiated rugby fan, a glaring deficiency for the Knights. Gaertner is only 5-11 and probably no more than 170 pounds (the Knights' website wishfully lists him at six feet and 190 pounds). He plays the position of lock, typically reserved for the tallest and strongest man of the 15 players on a rugby team.

Ostensibly, this night hanging out at Gym Bar serves three purposes for the Knights, who are in the off-season and won't even begin informal practices until February. First, it's a reason for teammates to get together and build chemistry; second, it's a way to enhance the club's status in the gay community, especially the jock corner of it; and finally, it's a way to recruit new members.

As potential new members go, Luke should be the center of this conversation. He's not athletically built, but he's big, and the first words out of his mouth are these: "I played football at a Division III college and all I liked was to hurt people." But he also speaks in a slightly affected "gay" voice; there's a hint of a lisp and slight rise in tone. When he talks on the phone his voice lowers and is tinged with a slight Southern twang. Plus, he's a professional singer, who surely has terrific control of his voice. It is clear he has developed a normal voice and a flirt voice. Luke also constantly brings his fingers to his mouth, and doesn't shy from laying his other hand on Eric's leg, moving it up each time.

"You're cute, Enrique," Luke says. "I can't lie. You're a cute guy, Enrique."

Eric doesn't smile, but waits for Luke to continue.

"You're not straight, are you?" Luke asks Eric. "Straight guys confuse me."

"What's wrong with it if I was?" Eric says. "What's wrong with it?"

"Nothing, they just confuse me. I slept with five girls in college. It was OK."

"Well, I slept with 58," says Eric. "And I dated most of them."

Luke giggles. "I've been with, umm, about 150 men."

Eric just stares at him.

"Not counting blowjobs. Then, it's like . . . "

"You're talking to the wrong guy," Eric cuts in. "You're talking to the wrong guy."

"A prude."

"No," Eric says. "I've been with five guys, and three of them were my boyfriends. That's just how I am."

Eric abhors the way many gay men his age embrace promiscuity, which he believes perpetuates a damaging stereotype. But even though he has a boyfriend of several months—"We've been having our problems," he says—he has dates lined up with other men every night the rest of the week.

"I'm a conservative," Eric says.

Luke jumps back.

"Did you . . . "

"Twice," Eric says. "I voted for George W. Bush twice."

Here comes that smile, drilling up through the steely veneer and spreading wide on Eric's face.


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