Scrum as you are

Sports Illustrated, 05/04/98

By Jack McCallum and Richard O'Brien


On a recent Saturday afternoon in the London suburb of Streatham-Croydon, a collection of young and not-so-young, fit and not-so-fit men lingered at the train station--just another of Britain's 4,000 or so amateur rugby teams, searching for the pitch upon which they were to do battle that afternoon. "It's this way, lads," said Richard Lee-Heung, the intense team captain. "Let's hop to it! We must warm up." The players slung their bags over their shoulders with good-natured eye-rolling and began the half-mile walk. "Oh, Richard," said assistant coach Ken Lee, putting one hand on his hip. "Stop being so macho."

Lee's arch comment is about as far down the Harvey Fierstein road that the 20 or so members of the world's first openly gay rugby team travel. "I thought they'd show up with handlebar mustaches or something along that line," said an older gentleman, watching the visitors warm up at the Streatham-Croydon pitch. No, nothing along that line. Both in uniform and in mufti, the Kings Cross Steelers -- named for the mucho macho Pittsburgh Steelers of the '70s--look like any other amateur rugby team.

In action, the Steelers look like any other, well, subpar amateur rugby team. Since beginning to play in the fall of '96 in the Surrey Rugby Football Union, the Steelers have won only three of their 28 games, or "fixtures," in British rugby vernacular. All of the victories came late in their second campaign, which lasted from last September to April 25, and two were against fourths, i.e., the fourth and lowest squad fielded by a club. But the wins did end a season and a half of frustration. "I must say it was proving to be a bit of a trudge," says Rob Hayward, a former Conservative Party member of Parliament who is the club's president.

In a way, though, the Steelers' record is spotless. They have now played two seasons without a single on-the-field incident related to their sexual preference, without a single official protest and, perhaps most significantly, without a single lawsuit being filed. It's hard to believe that gay or bisexual rugby players spilling blood in the U.S. would not have run into a litigious club official or a parent concerned about transmission of the AIDS virus during competition, as low as the probability of that is. (There are gay athletic teams and clubs of almost every stripe in America--the San Francisco Gay Windsurfing Club is but one example--but still no gay rugby team.) [This is no longer true. There is now the Washington Renegades. - Wes]

Team sources say they know of only one HIV-positive Steeler. "But it's not like we test everybody or even ask everybody," says Lee-Heung. "We feel that the laws of rugby make it safe for everyone." A few years ago the Rugby Union, the game's governing body, passed a rule (in rugby they're known as "laws") similar to the so-called Magic Johnson rule in the U.S.: Any player with blood on his person or his jersey must immediately leave the game and not return until the wound has been treated and/or he has changed jerseys. That seems to have allayed any fears that opponents of the Steelers might have had. Even the fact that the rule, as the Steelers admit, is observed more in the breach than in the practice doesn't seem to matter.

"And who's to say there's not a bloke on some straight team with the virus?" said Streatham-Croydon's Steve Tillin after the home lads had dispatched the Steelers 32-12. "I think it's pretty much crossed over."

Of course, there are teams that have dodged the Steelers out of either fear or a philosophical disinclination to play a gay team. In trying to line up fixtures for their first season, the Steelers sent 130 prospective opponents a letter that bore the inscription BRITAIN'S FIRST GAY RUGBY CLUB. They got only 20 responses, from which they formed their first-year schedule of 14 fixtures. Their opponent base has not expanded much this season. "I know for a fact that some teams won't play them," says Lai Fun Lok, the Steelers' unofficial cheerleader. Lok, a computer specialist, is a 22-year-old bisexual who used to date the Steelers' player-coach, Ian (Iggy) Samuel-Smith, who is also bisexual. "London is an enlightened city," she continues, "but it's not always easy having an alternative lifestyle. And it's hardest of all for a male homosexual to be accepted."

Nobody has to impress that point upon the Steelers. Some, like Chris Galley, who works for Shell Oil, are out of the closet at work. Others are not. Hayward, who remains in the national political spotlight as a Conservative commentator, did not want the trade association for which he serves as director to be named in this story. Lee-Heung, a civil servant, has the same concerns. "Being identified as gay would diminish my effectiveness," he says. The fact that they still feel the weight of prejudice underscores how odd it is that they have sensed no antagonism on the pitch. The slights and insults directed at them--the ones they hear, anyway--are small, nothing they can't laugh off or drown in a few postgame bitters. When Lordswood loaned the Steelers two players for a game last year, Hayward overheard one of them say to a friend after the game, "Hey, we played for the queers' team." Hayward laughed and slapped the player on the back. In another match last year, an exasperated opponent, reacting to a rare Steelers rally, shouted at his teammates, "Come on, mates, it's not handbags at dawn!" Galley just looked up from the scrum and smiled.

The Steelers have heard that the players on the East London Rugby Club have taken some kidding for loaning the Steelers their practice pitch. "We've heard teams telling them, 'Ah, those poofters are taking the mickey outta you,'" says Hayward. Heterosexuals are welcome on the Steelers' roster--and a few heterosexuals with speed, size and skills would be more than welcome. The first entry in the Steelers' constitution under "Aims and Objectives" says, To provide the means and facilities for gay and bisexual men to play rugby. It doesn't ban participants who are straight. A heterosexual might very well find himself at home with the Steelers, who can be as mindlessly politically incorrect as the next batch of blokes. Or a straight person might feel a bit uncomfortable, just as Galley and other Steelers felt uncomfortable on other clubs. But Hayward defends the club's organization along sexual-preference lines. "Rugby is an athletic and social endeavor for like-minded individuals," he says. "This club is as legitimate as any of them, perhaps more so."

Hayward was one of "Thatcher's children," as the Tories who were swept into Parliament in 1983 were called because they supported the Conservative policies of then prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Hayward was married at the time, and during his nine-year tenure as an MP he never publicly identified himself as a homosexual. Even his parents back on the small family farm near Oxford--you can't be much more of a farm boy than to be from a farming family from Farmoor--didn't know. Says Hayward, "I have a severe case of that British restraint."

By the time he was voted out of office in '92, however, his marriage was history, and so was some of that restraint. He began frequenting gay bars and became active in Stonewall, a gay rights organization named for the New York City gay bar where a riot in response to police harassment launched the movement in the U.S. in 1969. When Hayward saw an announcement in a gay publication calling for rugby players, he knew he had another cause. Rugby was in his blood. During his playing days he was, as he puts it, "a rather ropey left wing," limited by poor eyesight, below-average speed and battles with multiple sclerosis, a disease from which he still suffers. But while he was in Parliament he was a top-level touch judge (the counterpart of a head linesman in American football), meaning that he held two of the most unpopular jobs in Britain at the same time. The Steelers' organizer, Allan Taverner, a fan of that rough-and-tumble team in the Steel City, eventually took a new job and moved out of London. And so Hayward, the suit-wearing, bespectacled Conservative, the guy who looks like every button-down straight man in a Monty Python sketch, became the logical person to lead the Steelers in their first season, the man to sidestep the political rough spots, schmooze the right people and handle the tabloids. One, the News of the World, took particular glee in announcing the existence of the Steelers under the headline IT'S HARLE-QUEENS!, a play on one of Britain's best known teams, the Harlequins.

The Steelers have taken their lead from the now-out Hayward. As Andrew Manley, who heads the Surrey union, says, "The Steelers have set their stool out fairly clearly." But it's also true that they do not swing that stool. They don't get in anyone's face, they don't distribute gay pride leaflets, they don't conduct postfixture seminars on Oscar Wilde.

"I think the main reason we are accepted is that we are not--how do you say it?--very camp," says Nicolas Revel, a speedy back from France who is one of the Steelers' two best players. Club colors are blue and green. "I wouldn't have played if they were pink," says Samuel-Smith. The Steelers show up, they play hard (albeit raggedly), and they drink beer with the opposition, a rugby tradition definitely observed more in the practice than in the breach. "We emphasize to our new players that we are here to play rugby, not pick up men," says Lee-Heung, who has a relationship with Steelers treasurer Patrick Cracroft-Brennan but says he would not get involved with a playing member of the club. "That might compromise my decision-making on the pitch," he says. Most of the Steelers are proud that they have, as Galley puts it, "made a little point without turning it into a big crusade." And they are even prouder now that they've won a few times. Before their first victory, on Jan. 31 against the Braintree Fourths, a few of the team's better players had grown frustrated at losing game after game. Revel would not have his picture taken with the club--not, as one might expect, because he was hiding his homosexuality but because he didn't want to appear to be content to be playing on a losing team. "I think it is important what we are doing," says Revel. "But now that we've actually won some games, it's important and also a lot more fun."