One a recent Tuesday evening at Los Angeles's Poinsettia Park near West Hollywood, about a dozen men a grass field were running head on into a practice tackle, grunting loudly as they shoved the hapless dummy around.
It was all just part of the weekly chill of the area's straight-inclusive gay rugby club, the L.A. Rebellion. "That was good--if you were wearing a skirt," joked coach Gary Patterson, after one lightning-fast player smashed into the dummy. That kind of smack talk is common on rugby pitches around the world, but the Rebellion's trash talk is a bit unusual.
"And high heels," one player added.
"Only on weekends," another chimed in. Although the number of participants is tiny in comparison to that of other league sports (the gay men's softball league boasts 30 teams and 450 players in Los Angeles alone), rough-and-tumble rugby is becoming a passion for a growing number of gay men, plus more than a few straight men who have no problem playing on teams that celebrate sexual diversity.
While there may be a few campy comments, there is no such thing as touch rugby. Since ruggers don't wear protective equipment or helmets, the hits are real. Most Rebellion team members can list numerous rugby-related injuries, including torn biceps, dislocated fingers, and black eyes.
For gay rugger Richard Cardona, who has been playing for less than a year (and is currently off the field with a shoulder injury), the extreme physical nature of the game is the real attraction.
"There is something to be said for taking someone down, but in a sportsmanlike manner," Cardona says.
Gay rugger Ralph Peschek, a longtime softball and football player, learned about rugby through his partner.
"I started to come out and watch matches and thought, This is way better than football," he says.
The L.A. Rebellion is one of roughly 20 gay rugby teams that have popped up in the United States since 2001; the sport received great attention after the September 11 attacks, when gay rugby player Mark Bingham became a hero to gays and straights alike after he died thwarting the United Flight 93 hijackers.
While in most large cities there are all-gay leagues for sports such as softball or tennis, gay rugby teams compete in local leagues that are primarily straight. The Rebellion belongs to the Southern California Rugby Football Union, a well-organized league that has been in existence since 1937 and boasts significant Hollywood roots (horror master Boris Karloff was its first president). The Rebellion, whose player makeup is 25%-30% straight, has been something of a basement dweller in its league, which is understandable given that it's a new team with players who are mostly newcomers to the game.
"I never actually played a team sport before," says out player Len Lanzi, who has been with the Rebellion for a year and a half. "I've always been a person drawn toward groups. [Rugby] reminds me of being in a fraternity. I like that sense of brotherhood."
When the team first started, losing by 50, 60, or even 100 points was common. But losses haven't diminished the Rebellion players' enthusiasm for rugby. Over the last two seasons the team has increased its level of play and become more competitive, with team members giving credit to out Rebellion president Will Tabor's leadership and Patterson and Tabor's coaching.
"We have a really good team now," Patterson says. "They are going to surprise some people next year."
In 2008 the Rebellion will go to Dublin to participate in the Bingham Cup, a biennial international rugby tournament established in 2002 for gay and bisexual teams. The increased interest Mark Bingham spurred in the sport continues thanks to people like Tabor, who has been with the Rebellion as a player and coach for more than four years. He's developing the team with hopes of turning losses into wins.
Tabor has always gone in for contact sports, but like virtually all the other members of the team, he says he is drawn to rugby's spirit of camaraderie. …