05 May 2010

The Cultural Incongruence of Queer Men Playing Contact Sports

Today I had a callback for a print ad I'd initially auditioned for on Saturday. The spot is an LGBT focused ad for AMTRAK and they are casting LGBT models. Since they already had four pictures of me and a resume, I figured this was the point at which I was going to have to be handsome and charming and win over casting directors on the spot, and I was right.

The instructions were something like “OK, come right here and stand on this mark. State your name....OK Rudy, and why don't you tell us one interesting fact about yourself.” There was a momentary beat, probably imperceptible to them, when I had no idea what I could say to put my best foot forward and engage them. Then, without any input from my conscious mind, my mouth was off and running.

“Well, I played rugby in college. Nobody that knew me before or after could ever really believe it. Here it is, one of the most violent contact sports in the world, and I'm a keep the peace kind of guy.” I'm not sure how much I said before they started asking questions, or how many questions were asked, but I talked about being bigger than, about the stress relief, about how Wednesday hitting practices left you even more exhausted and blissful than the games themselves.

Everybody seemed quite pleased and every word flowed intuitively and I barely remember what I said. This is the same as any good stiff arm did on the pitch, or any performance does now when I act – when it's good I'm only half aware of what's going on, half observer to my own actions and just running on autopilot. That's great, and my feeling that they'd find the idea of me as a rugger both humorous and charming was dead on. This was immediately after I confirmed I was auditioning for one of the gay roles. So what is it about queer men in contact sports that seems incongruous with what these athletes should be like?

This is a thought that has been on my mind a lot lately. I have recently re-enrolled at TCNJ, the school where I began my undergraduate degree and played rugby for four years, serving as the team treasurer for three. Running late to class one day, I was texting my friend Inessa, who also played rugby and is currently finishing graduate school there. She sent two of the girls from the current team to pick me up from the train station so I could get to class on time. Both were gay and one I knew from an Alumni Day game a few years back. They were describing how the women's team, mostly straight by the time I graduated, was once again a hotbed of lesbian curiosity and coming-outs. How about the guys team, I asked? To the best of our combined knowledge, there has never been an out queer men's rugby player before or after me.

This fall, it will have been eight years since I started my degree at TCNJ. The team was around at least two years before I got there, maybe even three or four. How is it that a rugby team, which has often been able to address full A and B sides with subs, so that'd be at least forty four men on the roster at any given time – how have I been the only one in a decade or more?

I wasn't out from the start of my freshman year; I wouldn't have even described my sexuality then as I do now, per se, though I was certainly under no illusions of being straight. It simply never occurred to me that it would be a problem that I wasn't. There were things that kept me quiet about my sexuality though. The largest was that, right out of high school I was socially awkward and a good sixty pounds heavier than I am now. For whatever reason my eyes didn't cooperate with contacts at the time, so I played blind. I wanted to wait and get better, lest I prove that stereotype about queer men being effeminate and unathletic.

Sadly, by the time I got in great shape, I also got mono right before school started and was benched for the competitive season of my senior year. Incidentally, we had, since we were a club sport and not NCAA regulated, won the D II champions the year before (having moved into D II either before or right around the time I started; TCNJ is a D III school), moved into D I that fall and were playing schools like U Del and Princeton. There has never, to this day, been a greater disappointment in my life than being benched that season.

The team was not entirely without homophobia, but by the time I was a junior I was putting the kibosh on homophobic language on the pitch (what little there was) and as a team leader, I was mostly respected. Additionally, other players whom I respected deeply began policing rookies for homophobic remarks and were extremely supportive of me, both when I was obviously queer but not talking about it (and I never dated so I never had anything to either talk about or hide, really) and then when it was official, in the form of being on my Facebook page.

This brings me to a number of questions. How to we get all teams to be as cool as mine? Certainly being a liberal education school in New Jersey helped. Once the token queer player graduates, how do you maintain that lack of homophobia, so new players will find a queer positive space? I remember tabling for rugby and trying to get anybody who gave us more than a cursory glance to at least come out to a practice. We told them about the body diversity on the team and the diversity of different sports that ruggers had played in high school, and those, like me, who were simply couch potatoes. There was one kid who read as very effeminate and gay and a team mate joined me in encouraging him to come out to a practice.

Would this have happened without me? Does this happen now? It cracked everybody up that I, the somewhat moderately butch but just as often joyfully feminine man could play rugby, but I didn't hit any less hard or take any less pride in my war wounds than anybody else. Why do we see people as static, or believe that masculinity in every moment is needed to perform feats of physical strength and brutality for eighty minutes on a Saturday?

And the big question is, today, now, this moment, as an athlete and an activist – what can I do to help make college athletics, especially contact sports like rugby that put a premium on masculinity, be inviting spaces for queer participants? Not every queer would-be rugger is as lucky as I.


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