Rugby is a brutal sport. It rewards power and toughness. Collisions and crunching tackles regularly leave players with bloody noses, black eyes and broken bones. The sport’s rawness is on full display on a bright but blustery Saturday morning in early April on Randall’s Island, situated between Manhattan and Queens in the East River. The Gotham Knights Rugby Football Club is locked in a tense battle with Old Maroon Rugby Football Club. With the first half nearing a close, an Old Maroon player stumbles off the field and sprawls out on the sideline. Blood pours from his nose and covers his face.
Even at the amateur level, rugby conjures up images of gladiatorial sports from centuries past. And while Old Maroon and Gotham — as they are known in local rugby circles — may be amateur teams, the players’ intense desire to win is clear. Gotham lines the field’s west side, dressed in yellow and navy blue jerseys. Players pepper their teammates with an amalgam of instruction and encouragement.
“Come on, guys. Pick that shit up.”
“All fucking day.”
“Kick it out, you fucking motherfuckers.”
Among the Gotham players is a tall, chiseled, handsome man. He started the game on the sidelines and hasn’t yet changed into a uniform, instead wearing a tight sleeveless shirt and short black shorts. His eyes are locked on the game. As he watches, another man, dressed in jeans, a maroon sweatshirt and dark Ray-Ban sunglasses, sneaks up behind him and places his hands on the Gotham player’s backside. Startled, the player turns around. He immediately recognizes the man and laughs. The two exchange a kiss that, while subtle, is anything but perfunctory.
On some sidelines, a player kissing another man might turn heads. But very few members of Gotham even notice, let alone care.
That’s because a vast majority of Gotham’s thirty-five players are gay men. Like any team, the scoreboard is the primary measuring stick for success, but Gotham also strives to promote inclusivity and eviscerate the notion that what happens on the field is in any way related to sexual orientation.
Gotham is not rugby’s sole flag bearer in the battle for equality in athletics. The team belongs to the International Gay Rugby Association & Board (IGRAB), an umbrella group for gay rugby teams around the world.
IGRAB’s roots can be traced back to 1995 and the formation of London’s Kings Cross Steelers Rugby Football Club, the first gay rugby team. Over the next seven years, other gay teams formed in San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and Manchester, England. In 2002, the Gotham Knights were born, and the five clubs officially founded IGRAB.
A dozen years later, fifty-five IGRAB teams compete in fourteen countries across Europe, Australia and North America. In the U.S. alone, more than twenty gay rugby teams represent liberal bastions like San Francisco and Boston, as well as smaller locales like Charlotte, North Carolina, and Charleston, South Carolina.
Jeff Wilson, IGRAB’s current chairman and trustee, described the organization’s growth as “organic,” with gay players spreading the word while playing games in other cities.
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Gotham’s history is inextricably linked to tragedy. The team formed after the September 11 terrorist attacks as a tribute to a hero of that day, Mark Bingham, one of the men believed to have fought terrorists aboard United Airlines Flight 93, the plane that crashed in a Pennsylvania field. Bingham, a gay man and former college rugby player at the University of California, Berkeley, was a member of the San Francisco Fog, one of the first American gay rugby teams. With his burgeoning public relations career forcing him to spend more time on the East Coast, Bingham had planned to start a rugby team in New York City with friend Scott Glaessgen. Shortly after 9/11, Glaessgen carried on that dream.
“This is life out of death,” says Toby Butterfield, Gotham’s former president, who played in the club’s very first game.
Rugby’s flame still burns brightly inside Butterfield, a forty-eight-year-old Englishman with an imposing build and gentleman’s disposition. He stopped regularly playing in matches three years ago, but hasn’t quit Gotham cold turkey. Despite closing in on fifty, Butterfield still plays in the occasional game, getting his fix of the sport he loves and staying connected to the team he helped build.
Butterfield says Gotham is about empowering its members and letting them know “there is nothing about being gay that should hold me back from what I want to do.”
The club officially entered the Metropolitan New York Rugby Football Union, now the Empire Rugby Football Union Geographic Union (Empire GU), in spring 2002. Butterfield says that while the league and most opposing squads were “very supportive” of a gay team, it wasn’t an unmitigated atmosphere of acceptance.
“At the very beginning, there was skepticism and trepidation in some corners,” he says.
But Butterfield’s quick to note that any questions about Gotham’s purpose and dedication to rugby have since dissipated.
“All that has completely gone away,” he says.
Gotham plays fall and spring seasons in the lowest of Empire GU’s four men’s divisions, and is the fifty-four-squad league’s only predominately gay team. Renee Ovrut, a former Empire GU president, says Gotham has a reputation as one of the league’s more organized groups, and serves as a model for new teams looking to join.
“They’ve garnered a lot of respect with what they’ve done in a short period of time with the club,” says Ovrut.
It’s a respect Gotham players say they see from opposing teams every time they take the field. Most of them cannot recall a single instance of discrimination during games. Even those who have heard off-color remarks or slurs say it’s very much the exception rather than the rule.
While the evolution of gay rights and the team’s location in a live-and-let-live city like New York may play roles in Gotham’s acceptance, players are quick to point to rugby’s fraternal nature as the main reason why opposing teams don’t discriminate. They say rugby’s intrinsic brutality creates a culture in which anyone brave enough to lace up boots is welcome, regardless of creed, color or sexual orientation.
“It’s a barbarians’ sport played by gentlemen,” says Ryan Carlino, twenty-six, Gotham’s social chair.
Prejudice may not exist between the lines, but Gotham players say opposing teams have occasionally responded tepidly to socializing off the field. As social chair, Carlino’s job is to organize post-game “drink-ups,” a rugby tradition during which both teams imbibe together. Gotham hosts its drink-ups at Boxers NYC, a Hell’s Kitchen establishment that touts itself as New York City’s “premier gay sports bar.”
“There would be maybe a team or two where only a few guys would show up, but it’s not a huge issue,” says Carlino.
Some of Gotham’s players didn’t even realize they were on a gay rugby team until they arrived at their first drink-up, according to Rob Mesika, twenty-four, Gotham’s communications director and one of the team’s straight players.
“They just think it’s a team with a handful of gay players,” says Mesika. “Everyone is so open and accepting, no one even notices.”
Mesika played rugby at Brandeis University before interning at the White House’s Office of National AIDS Policy and landing a job with a nonprofit in New York, where he moved in 2013 to be closer to his girlfriend. He chose Gotham specifically because of the team’s mission to promote inclusivity in athletics.
“I felt like the emphasis on diversity and breaking down stereotypes was something I could relate to,” he says. He is, however, careful to emphasize that competing on the field is paramount for Gotham.
“Playing rugby is our primary goal,” he says.
That sentiment is shared throughout the Gotham ranks. For many players, advancing social causes is a distant second to the scoreboard. Sebastian Cray, twenty-nine, is a burly 6’5”, 250-pound Canadian who looks like he came out of the womb with facial hair. He says that while he appreciates playing for a team that “stands for something,” it was the opportunity to coach that lured him to Gotham.
Cray and his girlfriend moved to New York from Ottawa, Canada last September so she could earn a master’s degree in social work from NYU. A mutual friend put him in touch with then Gotham head coach Junior Blaber, who offered Cray an opportunity as a player and assistant coach. Cray, whose rugby career started at his Ottawa high school, jumped at the opportunity.
“Being around gay rugby players is nothing new to me,” says Cray, who took over as the team’s head coach in January. “There are very clearly talented athletes on this team.”
Gotham’s athleticism is obvious. A spate of players possesses the speed and strength rugby requires. But many of them are also raw. Part of Gotham’s mission to promote inclusivity means the team accepts players of all skill levels, from erudite rugby veterans to those who’ve never touched a ball.
“It’s definitely a challenge,” Cray says of coaching a group with such varied skill levels.
Never will Cray’s challenge be more acute than when Gotham travels to Sydney, Australia in August to compete in the Bingham Cup, gay rugby’s world championships. The biennial tournament, founded by IGRAB in 2002, is named for Mark Bingham, the man who helped conceive Gotham almost fifteen years ago.
The team spent the better part of the spring raising money to help defray the cost of a trip that will cost each player between $2,500 and $3,000. Fundraising efforts have included everything from raffles to more unconventional methods, like a drag show.
Gotham’s president, Elliot Massuda, thirty-three, is a Bingham Cup veteran, having played in the tournament in Dublin, Ireland and Manchester, England. He was also part of the Gotham team that won the 2010 tournament in St. Paul, Minnesota. Massuda, a former Division 1 collegiate diver at Northwestern University, is one of Gotham’s best players, according to Cray. His veteran sagacity and bruising running style make the 5’6,” 200-pound Massuda an invaluable part of the roster. After the game against Old Maroon, a teammate aptly referred to him as “a fucking tank.”
Massuda knows as well as anyone that Gotham’s trip to Sydney will be in the name of celebrating diversity and the camaraderie rugby fosters. But like most of Gotham’s players, Massuda is steadfast in his belief that the best way to shatter stereotypes is performing on the field.
“We shatter them by going out there and playing,” he says. “We are wanting to win the Bingham Cup. That’s the reason we’re going.”
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Jonathan Williamson is a writer and television producer whose work has appeared on NBC, PBS and AskMen.com. He has also written two feature-length screenplays. Follow him @JonoWilly.
Jessica Bal hails from a two-stoplight town in Massachusetts and now resides in a city with too many lights to count, where she produces media for an arts education organization and looks for any excuse to write, photograph and film stories that she’s curious about.