A history of gay rugby worldwide
Adopted from an article first appearing in San Francisco Pride Magazine in 2002. Special thanks to the Washington Renegades for their extensive contributions to this story.
When a dozen gay men’s rugby teams converged in San Francisco June 28-29, 2002 to compete in the inaugural Mark Bingham Cup Rugby Tournament, it was the first time many spectators had ever seen a rugby match. What many in attendance saw confirmed every suspicion they had about rugby. It looked exhausting. The game was played non-stop for 80 minutes with only a five-minute break at half-time. It looked brutal, in the extreme. It looked violent, like an elegant, organised riot played by men with seemingly questionable wills to live.
But they also saw men from all stripes of life come together as teams, in genuine support of one another. These guys were positively addicted to the game. There was a palpable sense of sportsmanship and brotherhood, made all the more remarkable because the rugby teams were comprised of gay men.
A rugby club of their own
Founded in 1995 as the world’s first gay men’s rugby club, London’s Kings Cross Steelers had become something of a legend by the time the first Bingham Cup was played. The club began at a meeting that took place in Central Station, a gay pub in London’s King’s Cross district, on November 1, 1995. Ironically, they took the name “Steelers” because many of the club’s founder members were big fans of American football, a game originally derived from rugby.
Rugby has long been a haven for lesbian and bisexual women. It is not unusual for a women’s rugby team to consist of 50% lesbian and bisexual women. On the other hand gay and bisexual men, if they knew anything about the game at all, had often perceived rugby as an unwelcoming and unsafe space,. Gay and bisexual male ruggers existed, but they often do not know where to find each other.
The Steelers set out to change all of that by providing a supportive playing environment for men who identify as gay or bisexual. The Steelers’ practices started at the beginning of 1996 and the club joined the Surrey County Union (the local league of rugby clubs) as a provisional member in the summer of 1996. Their first match took place on September 21, 1996. They became a permanent member of the Surrey County Union in June 1999, which, importantly, required a majority vote of all the other clubs in the union.
Rugby takes off with gay men
News of the Steelers’ success in England was reported around the world. Following the Steelers’ example, gay men’s rugby teams sprouted up in other areas with strong rugby traditions. In August 1998, England’s second gay men’s rugby club, the Manchester Village Spartans, setting the stage for what would become a strong contingent of gay clubs in Northern Europe.
Meanwhile, in the United States rugby was less known and less played on a nationwide level. However, teams began to develop in areas with a history of rugby participation. A group of gay men from Washington, D.C. formed Renegades in October 1998. As America’s first gay rugby team, the Renegades were pioneers in that, unlike previous gay men’s rugby clubs, almost all of their members had no previous rugby playing experience. The San Francisco Fog, based in what is arguably America’s strongest rugby region, followed suit two years later, to become the second gay men’s rugby team in the U.S.
Neither the Renegades nor the Fog found much resistance or prejudice fro their local unions. This was due in part to the nature of the people who choose to play rugby in America — highly educated individualists who come out of a tradition in the 1960s being the “outsiders” who didn’t play or like American football. They have a healthy respect for letting other people lead their lives however they wish. The lack of resistance and prejudice was also likely due to the “housetraining” lesbians and bisexual women ruggers had done in American rugby over the previous two decades in making all ruggers aware of and more comfortable around issues of sexuality.
“The Bingham Effect” on the U.S. and the rugby world
Gay men’s rugby in the United States received an unexpected impetus after September 11, 2001, when one of the Fog’s leading members, Mark Bingham, became a national hero in the face of tragedy. Bingham was one of the four passengers credited with overtaking terrorist hijackers on United Flight 93. Bingham defied all stereotypes. He embodied a “regular guy” approach to being a gay man rarely seen in gay or straight media.
In an email to the Fog after their acceptance into their local Union, Bingham wrote, “We have the chance to be role models for other gay folks who wanted to play sports, but never felt good enough or strong enough. More importantly, we have the chance to show the other teams in the league that we are as good as they are. Good rugby players. Good partiers. Good sports. Good men.”
A lot of gay men across America identified with Bingham because they saw him as a guy who was just being himself. Because Bingham was an avid rugby player, his admirers became interested in rugby, too. Before his death, Bingham had been working with New Yorker Scott Glaessgen to form what would become Gotham Knights, RFC. Gotham adopted the blue and gold strip of Mark’s university team, the University of California-Berkley, in his honour. The Seattle Quake and Los Angeles Rebellion quickly formed in the months following September 11, also helped in part to the publicity generated by Bingham’s death. Shortly after the first Bingham Cup teams, these teams began seeding other gay rugby clubs parts of America, while in the more established parts of the rugby world, most notably Australia, club organisers also got into the game. This “Bingham Effect”, to be further explored in Part 2, has had a profound impact of the worldwide growth of the sport of Rugby Union.
A “gay World Cup”
One feature that made these early gay rugby clubs unique in the gay male sports world was that they competed in local rugby unions against traditionally straight teams. Nonetheless, these clubs had the desire to compete against other gay rugby teams. On August 28, 1999, the Steelers and the Manchester Village Spartans played in the first match ever between two gay men’s rugby teams. The Steelers won a 15-12 nail biter, setting the stage for years of tight contests among gay rugby teams.
An informal network emerged among the gay men’s rugby teams eager to join in the competition. The Renegades completed their first international tour by participating in the United Kingdom Gay Sports Festival in London in July 2000, playing both the Spartans and the Steelers. It was during this tour that the teams realised that a formal network of gay rugby teams was necessary. Three months later, the International Gay Rugby Association and Board (IGRAB) was born.
The idea for a “gay World Cup” to settle once and for all who was the best among the gay men’s rugby teams was one of the motivations for forming IGRAB. As a test run of this idea, the Renegades held an International Invitational in May 2001, in a competition included teams from San Francisco, Manchester, and Buenos Aires, as well as individual players from Chicago, London, and Melbourne, Australia.
The event was a huge success and fomented momentum to create an IGRAB event attended by all member teams. San Francisco was chosen as the next for the competition and the first IGRAB Rugby Tournament and Festival was slated for June 2002. Following September 11, the competition became known as the Bingham Cup in honour of the Fog’s fallen brother. A dozen teams competed at Golden Gate Park, with the Fog emerging as the first IGRAB World Champions.
The game had quickly become very addictive.