On a recent Saturday afternoon in the London suburb of Streatham-Croydon, a collection of young and not-so-young, fit and not-so-fit men lingered at the train station—just another of Britain's 4,000 or so amateur rugby teams, searching for the pitch upon which they were to do battle that afternoon. "It's this way, lads," said Richard Lee-Heung, the intense team captain. "Let's hop to it! We must warm up." The players slung their bags over their shoulders with good-natured eye-rolling and began the half-mile walk.
"Oh, Richard," said assistant coach Ken Lee, putting one hand on his hip. "Stop being so macho."
Lee's arch comment is about as far down the Harvey Fierstein road that the 20 or so members of the world's first openly gay rugby team travel. "I thought they'd show up with handlebar mustaches or something along that line," said an older gentleman, watching the visitors warm up at the Streatham-Croydon pitch. No, nothing along that line. Both in uniform and in mufti, the Kings Cross Steelers—named for the mucho macho Pittsburgh Steelers of the '70s—look like any other amateur rugby team.
In action, the Steelers look like any other, well, subpar amateur rugby team. Since beginning to play in the fall of '96 in the Surrey Rugby Football Union, the Steelers have won only three of their 28 games, or "fixtures," in British rugby vernacular. All of the victories came late in their second campaign, which lasted from last September to April 25, and two were against fourths, i.e., the fourth and lowest squad fielded by a club. But the wins did end a season and a half of frustration. "I must say it was proving to be a bit of a trudge," says Rob Hayward, a former Conservative Party member of Parliament who is the club's president.
In a way, though, the Steelers' record is spotless. They have now played two seasons without a single on-the-field incident related to their sexual preference, without a single official protest and, perhaps most significantly, without a single lawsuit being filed. It's hard to believe that gay or bisexual rugby players spilling blood in the U.S. would not have run into a litigious club official or a parent concerned about transmission of the AIDS virus during competition, as low as the probability of that is. (There are gay athletic teams and clubs of almost every stripe in America—the San Francisco Gay Windsurfing Club is but one example—but still no gay rugby team.)
Team sources say they know of only one HIV-positive Steeler. "But it's not like we test everybody or even ask everybody," says Lee-Heung. "We feel that the laws of rugby make it safe for everyone." A few years ago the Rugby Union, the game's governing body, passed a rule (in rugby they're known as "laws") similar to the so-called Magic Johnson rule in the U.S.: Any player with blood on his person or his jersey must immediately leave the game and not return until the wound has been treated and/or he has changed jerseys. That seems to have allayed any fears that opponents of the Steelers might have had. Even the fact that the rule, as the Steelers admit, is observed more in the breach than in the practice doesn't seem to matter.
"And who's to say there's not a bloke on some straight team with the virus?" said Streatham-Croydon's Steve Tillin after the home lads had dispatched the Steelers 32-12. "I think it's pretty much crossed over."
Of course, there are teams that have dodged the Steelers out of either fear or a philosophical disinclination to play a gay team. In trying to line up fixtures for their first season, the Steelers sent 130 prospective opponents a letter that bore the inscription BRITAIN'S FIRST GAY RUGBY CLUB. They got only 20 responses, from which they formed their first-year schedule of 14 fixtures. Their opponent base has not expanded much this season. "I know for a fact that some teams won't play them," says Lai Fun Lok, the Steelers' unofficial cheerleader. Lok, a computer specialist, is a 22-year-old bisexual who used to date the Steelers' player-coach, Ian (Iggy) Samuel-Smith, who is also bisexual. " London is an enlightened city," she continues, "but it's not always easy having an alternative lifestyle. And it's hardest of all for a male homosexual to be accepted."
Nobody has to impress that point upon the Steelers. Some, like Chris Galley, who works for Shell Oil, are out of the closet at work. Others are not. Hayward, who remains in the national political spotlight as a Conservative commentator, did not want the trade association for which he serves as director to be named in this story. Lee-Heung, a civil servant, has the same concerns. "Being identified as gay would diminish my effectiveness," he says.
The fact that they still feel the weight of prejudice underscores how odd it is that they have sensed no antagonism on the pitch. The slights and insults directed at them—the ones they hear, anyway—are small, nothing they can't laugh off or drown in a few postgame bitters. When Lordswood loaned the Steelers two players for a game last year, Hayward overheard one of them say to a friend after the game, "Hey, we played for the queers' team." Hayward laughed and slapped the player on the back. In another match last year, an exasperated opponent, reacting to a rare Steelers rally, shouted at his teammates, "Come on, mates, it's not handbags at dawn!" Galley just looked up from the scrum and smiled.