Coach Bahr inspects a scrum formation.
Find Acceptance on the Fields of Randall's Island
two men kept silent as they crossed the Triborough Bridge, en
route to Randall's Island. Both Martin Smith and Brian Catanio are
men in their 20s who play for the Gotham
Knights Rugby Football Club.
Catanio rocked in his seat; Smith flipped a rugby ball in his hand.
New to the game, both appeared nervous.
is one of several New York rugby clubs that are beginning to take
advantage of Randall's grassy fields and recreational areas. Permits
are easier to secure there than at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx,
where older, more elite teams play. It's perfect for the Gotham
Knights, which is a young emerging team.
also appropriate for the team in another way. The island, like all
islands, is surrounded by water and disconnected from the mainland.
Randall's floats alone, far from the bustle of Manhattan. In this
sense, it's a perfect metaphor for the gay male athlete - which
all of the Knights are.
Knights are New York City's first gay men's rugby team. Gay
rugby clubs existed in San Francisco and Washington, as well
as in England, before Gotham's formation. Mark Bingham, a star rugby
player at the University of California at Berkeley and a founding
member of the San Francisco club, met with other New York City rugby
enthusiasts to form a team in fall 2001. Then Bingham died on Flight
93 on Sept. 11, 2001, in rural Pennsylvania. His death inspired
his fellow rugby players to forge ahead with their idea.
group's goals include increasing diversity and debunking negative
stereotypes, especially regarding gay men and their roles as athletes.
Generally, male athletes exude the socially accepted characteristics
expected of men: toughness, courage and masculinity. For many in
the dominant heterosexual culture, the gay male athlete is a paradox.
A gay man competing in a hard-hitting, combative sport like rugby
is unimaginable to many.
people have a stereotype of gay men that we all prance around in
make-up and high heels," Catanio said.
Houk, the Knights' captain, said, "I actually enjoy changing
people's view of what a gay man is supposed to be like." Houk,
36 and a former collegiate football player, enjoys challenging attitudes
often repressed or ignored among gay males. When asked to specify
the traits he seeks to unlock in his teammates, Houk, who began
playing rugby last year, said, "Somewhere between animal and
and players celebrate despite a 44-3 loss.
the Knights compete in the men's club Division 3 of the Metropolitan
New York Rugby Football Union, the governing body for more than
50 men's and women's club and college teams in New York, Connecticut
and New Jersey. Because of their lack of experience, the Knights
have yet to win a match. But is there added pressure to perform
well because the team is gay?
at least want to be taken seriously," said assistant coach
Harold Bahr, who played for the Knights last year. "We have
to hang in there and take our lumps." He emphasized that experience
is crucial to improvement and added that the team has made great
progress since their initial venture last spring.
joining the Knights, Bahr played for Old
Blue, a famous New York rugby club that competes in the highly
competitive Super League, which features teams from across the United
States. While a member of Old Blue, Bahr was never openly gay around
his teammates. Though he said he enjoyed his time with Old Blue,
Bahr was already looking for a gay team in the area. His search
seemed futile until he saw an ad for the Knights during the Gay
Pride Parade last June. He joined immediately.
was liberating to play last fall and be myself," Bahr said.
He decided he could serve the team better as a coach and earned
his certification from USA Rugby in the off-season. "It's a
dream to be able to coach," Bahr said of the Knights. "They
probably have the best attitude of any team I've been with."
particular day, the Knights were playing against the Bull
Moose, a team from Long Island. During the game, both teams
doled out hard hits, leaving victims limping and sometimes bloody
or dazed. But the Bull Moose led 20-3 after 40 minutes. The Knights
turned the ball over frequently, which happens often with inexperienced
teams, much to the dismay of head coach Steve Cain. Cain, 58, an
Englishman and rugby traditionalist, chastised his players for their
who lives in Connecticut, first encountered the upstart New York
City team last year during a match against Danbury's local team.
He noted how the Knights played hard until the end, refusing to
be discouraged by the lopsided outcome. "I was impressed with
their never-say-die attitude and offered my help as a coach."
Smith soothes various aches and bruises.
the macho, hetero-dominant rugby culture of England, where the sport
originated, a gay team was "wholly unacceptable and illegal,"
according to Cain. But he doesn't view sexuality as an obstacle
to achieving recognition.
a guy has got the balls to put in his mouth guard and strap on his
boots," Cain said, "he has my total respect."
and Mio Nitta, another assistant coach, are the only non-gay members
of the Knights. For Nitta, the only woman on the team, the masculinity
of the team was never in doubt. Still, Nitta, who played rugby at
Tufts University near Boston, noted that people are actually more
accepting of women playing rugby than of gay men.
I tell people I played rugby, I hear, 'Wow, women play rugby? Do
they have the same rules? Wow. That is so cool!'" she said.
"Whereas when I tell people I am an assistant coach for a gay
rugby team, I hear, 'Gay men and rugby?' and they just laugh in
the second half of the game, the Knights fell further behind, eventually
losing 44-6. The players limped to the sidelines; battered, but
beaming with pride. Martin Smith, who played the back position for
the Knights, endured his bruises and a near concussion with enthusiasm.
"It's worth it," he said. "I feel so much more relaxed.
Rugby completely takes all the stress from your week and puts it
into someones pelvis." <Click
here to watch video of the match and post-game celebration>
the game, the teams headed back to Manhattan to celebrate with pizza
and beer at a bar in Chelsea. Players on both sides mingled, rehashed
the game and sang bawdy rugby songs. All the violent collisions
and icy stares were forgotten.
for the Bull Moose, which is new to the league, this was its first
match against an all-gay club. The sexual orientation of the opponents
may have crept into the trash talk, said Victor Drover, the Bull
Moose's captain. "Immediately prior to the game, the trash
talk goes away, and we get serious about the task at hand,"
Drover said. "Sexual orientation has nothing to do with it
and is in fact the farthest thing from our minds."
asked how his team might react if a gay player joined, Drover, who
has played rugby for more than a decade, said, "I don't know
how likely this would be, but I think we could have a gay guy on
the team, as long as he gave it his best effort on the pitch."
weekly matches are cathartic, allowing the men to rid their minds
and bodies of a stressful workweek. One could assume the Knights
also alleviate the stress of being gay in a straight world.
aren't taking aggression out on the 'straight' man because of his
stereotypes and name-calling," Catanio said. "We love
the sport and love the camaraderie that comes with it. We are like
a family or brotherhood. We take care of each other, on and off