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.)
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
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
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
"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."
handbags at dawn!"