In 2004, the number of people on a gay rugby team — and the number of teams themselves — tripled worldwide, and the reason had partly to do with a player named Mark Bingham. Bingham is best known for being one of the passengers onboard United Airlines Flight 93 who, along with others, tried to retake control from the Sept. 11 hijackers. He even had a documentary made about his heroism.
But few people realize that Bingham had hoped to move to New York City to start a gay rugby team similar to the San Francisco Fog, the one he helped found in 2000.
Though Bingham perished during the hijacking, in his honor a few of his friends founded the Gotham Knights RFC, a gay rugby team currently thriving in New York City that is also sponsored by Hornet. A few members of the team recently spoke with Time magazine and shot a Sports Illustrated video discussing what it means as gay men to play a sport long characterized by hyper-masculine stereotypes.
“Gotham plays in a regular league, and the gay thing is secondary,” explains Gotham Knights RFC member Ted Perkins. “This was a really big deal. Especially in rugby, which is competitive, it really flies in the face of what a lot of negative imagery of gay men was. We’re going to play with everybody else, we’re not about to get sidelined or marginalized.”
In rugby, the players wear cleats, shorts, socks, a mouth guard and a jersey. (Protective cups aren’t allowed.) And while rugby players have an undeniable sex appeal as rough-and-tumble jocks, for gay men who may have grown up afraid of athletics — fearful their same-sex attraction made them too “sissy” for contact sports — the gay rugby team provides a chance to reclaim their identities, re-connect with their own bodies and bond with other men in a way seemingly impossible as younger gay people.
Watch the Gotham Knights gay rugby team explain the sport’s appeal:
“I came out at 14,” says Gotham player Alex Ghinger. “When you come out at a really young age, you don’t feel sports are an option. You’re told, ‘That’s not what someone who is gay does.’ I missed out on a huge opportunity because I was scared of the way I would be treated.”
In the video, Ghinger says, “When you’re training to become a better athlete, your sexual orientation doesn’t matter. You can be whoever you want and still be an athlete.”
Despite the team marching annually in the New York City Pride parade and occasionally holding events with other local LGBTQ organizations, the team isn’t exclusively a gay rugby team. The Gotham Knights have straight and bisexual players as well.
Michael Kengmana is one of the team’s straight members. He grew up hearing the word “faggot” thrown around in high school locker rooms, never thinking about its meaning or effect on others. Playing with this gay rugby team made him realize that being an LGBTQ ally is much more than merely supporting LGBTQ causes.
“So much of sports culture is directly tied to what has hurt so many of my teammates growing up,” he says. “It’s been really cool seeing that sports has a way of doing good things, especially for people who are marginalized.”