Wednesday, January 16, 2008

You Can Be "Straight" But You Can't Be "Old"


My buddy Jack came over the other day and told me he was thinking of joining the Gotham Knights.

"The what?" I said. It rang a small bell but I didn't know what it was.

"It's a gay rugby team," Jack told me. "Well, predominantly gay."

"'Predominantly'?" I asked. "What does that mean?"

"They supposedly have some straight players."

I chuckled, then said. "Why do you want to join a gay rugby team -- or any other rugby team?"

"Something different."

"Oh, really?" I said. I went to my computer, turned it on, typed "Gotham Knights" in the search box, and sure enough up came their web site. I read on the site that you could join the group whether you were attracted to "men, women, both, or neither."

Very pc, I thought -- they not only include bisexual men and straight men, but asexual men as well -- and told Jack, who came over to look. Although I wondered why there wasn't one single woman on the team. I figured it had to do with "male bonding" but actually there are men's and women's divisions in rugby as there are in most sports.

Now, I may be a bear, but the only kind of sports I really enjoy are bedroom sports. My father used to take me to Mets games and I would read a Justice League of America comic book just to have something to do. My father and mother also went to the theater, the opera, concerts -- both were also voracious readers, which may be why I became a writer -- and I grew up with a love of art and culture over athletics. That doesn't mean I don't have my own brand of mindless pleasure: comics, monster movies, James Bond. In truth I probably have more low-brow tastes than high-brow, so I'm not putting anybody down, but watching a bunch of guys knock a ball around pretty much is guaranteed to put me to sleep, unless the guys are really hunky and maybe even then.

As Jack and I looked over the individual profiles of the members of Gotham Knights, I had to admit many were pretty hunky. Unfortunately, most also appeared to be in their thirties or younger. Now I've dated men in their twenties (no, not just when I was in my twenties but recently) but generally the guys who like me are around my own age, and vice versa. Jack is older than me -- don't kill me, Jack, baby -- in his mid-fifties (but I hasten to add that he looks a lot younger than that).

Looking at the photos I said, "so this is why you want to join Gotham Knights."

Jack laughed. "No, no -- I mean, that's a bonus, but I thought it might be something different ..." His voice trailed off.

"Come on," I said. Jack is also a masculine bear but he's watched only one football game in his life, and that was only because his boyfriend at the time was a football fan and Jack was in bed with him while they watched. They had a lot of fun at half time.

He continued to peruse the profiles. I don't know how many straight members they have --maybe they're mostly coaches or staff members -- but you really couldn't tell who was gay or straight. Clicking on name after name, I kept waiting for someone to declare himself Out and Proud, but it was a long time before I saw the "gay" word. Finally someone identified as "queer" and another man wrote about his "husband." Under "most embarrassing moment," one guy wrote that during a game he "screamed like a big queen."

"I sure hope a straight guy didn't write that,"I said, about to bristle with indignation.

"I think it was a gay guy," Jack replied.

"Is he putting down queens?" I may be a bear and I may roll my eyes at Carson Kressley and the like but I really don't like it when my femme brothers are put down (not that we can't kid each other). Or any gay man.

"No, I think he's just being self-effacing."

I concurred. "You're probably right. Gay and self-effacing." And not bad. We both laughed.

I didn't go over every profile. One man said he was an operatic baritone. Neat. I recall seeing some Asian-Americans and Latinos, but I can't recall seeing any African-Americans, but to be fair I didn't click on all the names and there were a lot of them. There is at least one black man in the photo of the team above. Good; I hope the team is ethnically diverse.

The Gotham Knights seems like a very interesting sports team. And not because of its predominantly gay designation. Apparently you can join (I think you have to get through a one day "boot camp" first) even if you're out of shape, nonathletic, and haven't been to a ball game since your father dragged you when you were ten. On their profiles the team members are very enthusiastic and talk about how they've met a "great bunch of guys," "the butchest gay men in New York" and the great camaraderie that the group fosters and encourages in its members (although many of them seemed to concentrate on the drinking and partying that goes on after the games more than on the games themselves -- but what the hell -- everyone likes to carouse). In any case, it's very persuasive. If you go to their web site you can learn the origins of the team, and its relationship to Mark Bingham, the young gay man and rugby star who bravely and tragically died on United Flight 93 on 9/11.

"By the way," I said. "Rugby is described here as 'tactile, interactive violence.' I mean, it's basically football with some differences. You're not in bad shape but you could still bust a nose or an arm. Are you enough of a masochist? Is your health insurance paid up?"

Preoccupied, Jack didn't answer but instead asked: "Why do you think a straight guy would want to join a gay rugby team?"

"Maybe because there are no straight rugby teams in New York City?" I wondered. "Maybe because the straight guy thinks he stinks at sports but he's bound to look good if the other players are all 'fags.' Y'know, gay men can't catch a football crap. A kind of gay-friendly homophobia or condescension. Or maybe the straight guys aren't so straight. Or they're completely straight and completely cool and just love playing sports with whoever. Who knows? Maybe they think if they play with gay guys and they fuck up on the field at least no one will call them a "fairy'."

Jack and I both recalled how we got called homophobic slurs like that a lot as children because we weren't that interested in sports and therefore weren't very good at them. "What do gay athletes call a guy who fucks up on the field?" Jack wondered. " A 'breeder?'"

"Hopefully they're too advanced to call anybody anything. This group sounds serious, but it also sounds like they want everybody to have fun. Shouting at somebody that they 'stink' and calling them names is counter-productive."

Jack wondered if opponents snidely -- if privately --made reference to the straight team members if the Knights won a game against a straight rugby team, as in "Oh yes, they won, but it was their straight team members who saved the day." Let's hope not. Or maybe they just play other mostly-gay teams. I wondered if some dumb people (gay and straight alike) would simply assume -- wrongly -- that they let heteros play because the straight guys could actually play the game while the gay guys just minced about -- stereotyping of the worst sort. There are plenty of strong, skillful gay athletes, although an exclusively gay team would, of course, immediately put paid to this theory, as well as the idea that "it's the straight guys who are carrying the load."

Many gay men -- and I've no doubt many straight men as well -- grow up with a hatred of sports because of the way sports are deified -- almost to the exclusion of all else -- in our society. It's understandable why quite a few gay men don't even want to acknowledge that there are many gay athletes and sports fans. [Even at Gym, the gay sports bar, I've had to tell some customers that, yes, there are gay sports fans!] In some cases, it's not hatred, it's simple disinterest. I've met men, both gay and straight, who played and watched sports in their youth and simply lost interest as they grew older, "growing out of it," as one referred to it. There are just other things that interest them more. (I occasionally go to Gym bar because I like the atmosphere, and even if I don't like sports I can like the guys who like them.)

"So you want to join?" I asked Jack.

He shrugged. "How about you?" he asked.

"Well, I can only think of seven reasons why anyone would want to join this group.

"First, you're a serious sports fan, a former professional athlete or Sunday amateur, you love competitive sports, and want to play with guys who won't put you down for being gay.

"Second, you want to meet some hot, mostly butch guys. Or at least make some new friends."

"Three, you're into 'male bonding.'"

"Four, you're out of shape and this will definitely take a few pounds off."

"Five, you want to prove something to yourself or somebody else -- and I've no doubt this applies to some straight guys as well as gay ones -- that you can take the rough stuff, survive a mini-boot camp, take the punishment, play competitive sports without getting killed, whatever..."

"Six -- you want a new challenge. Or a new experience.

"Seven -- lots of drinking and carousing."

"So? Jack said. "What do you think?"

"Jack," I said, "why do you keep asking me -- you were the one who wanted to join!"

"Yes, but what do you think. Does this appeal to you?"

I sighed and said, "Well, like I said, guys knockin' a ball around -- or knockin' each other around -- don't really stimulate me (I'd rather make love than war); I'm not an athlete or sports fan, so reason number one is out. (I love getting all hot and sweaty with guys but not on a rugby field.) I don't have to join the Gotham Knights to meet hot guys -- most of whom look like they're out of my league in any case (and with my luck I'd probably develop a crush on one of the "straight" or "bi" ones, and that is a pain I never fuckin' want to go through again) --or make new friends, so there goes reason number two. I'm not especially into male bonding, unless it's in the bedroom -- in fact, I think of "male bonding" as something done by straight guys who are trying to get in touch with their feelings or their sensitive side -- so there goes reason number three.

"I don't need to lose a few pounds, thank you very much -- I've never been in better shape --"

"I thought you wanted to build up your upper chest and arms a bit more," Jack reminded me.

"A bit more and I don't have to play rugby to do that, so there goes reason number four. I don't have to prove anything to myself or anyone else. I'm a man, I know I'm a man, and I always will be a man, whether I play rugby or not -- so much for reason number five."

"I don't think the Gotham Knights would argue with that," said Jack with a sly grin.

I laughed. "The butcher ones might. Then there's the partying and drunken carrying-on, which I do once or twice a week anyway, so there goes reason number -- where was I?"

"That was number seven I think. You skipped six."

"Ah, yes, six -- a new experience, a new challenge. Hmmm. This will be a little tougher..." I said.

Jack's eyes brightened. I don't think he wanted to take on this particular challenge alone.

Finally I said: "I love new challenges and experiences, but they have to be things that really interest me, and if that's the case, I can give it as much time as I need -- within reason. It sounds like once you commit to this, you're in for the long haul, it will take a lot of hours, and it won't just be about parties."

"No?" said Jack. Did I detect a quiver in his voice?

"But rugby?" I said. "I mean, that's not even on the list of Things I Want to Do Before I Die. I mean, rugby?" For once I was at a loss for words. "Jack, what do you think?"

Jack didn't actually say anything just then but he looked a little relieved. I think he was mentally reviewing my seven item check list and coming to the same conclusion I had.

"Look,"I said. "If you want to do it, do it. If you're honestly interested, think it would be fun -- and I've no doubt to a large extent it is fun -- then go do it. But it is going to be time-consuming, and we all have a right to spend our precious time on the things that interest us the most. I mean, I'm not going to tell a sports fan -- rugby or anything else -- that he has to attend the opera, read An American Tragedy, or collect every classic issue of Justice League of America he can find on ebay or he won't be a well-rounded individual." [I do like some physical outdoor activities such as swimming, walking and bun-perusing, and I work out on a regular basis.)

Jack said, "or watch Attack of the 50 Foot Woman or Beast from 20,000 Fathoms thirty times."

"Yes! I mean, I genuinely think it's terrific that there's a gay -- pardon me -- gay, straight, bi and asexual rugby team, it just isn't my cup of java. It's not that I can't take it, I just don't want to."

But to tell you the truth I'm glad there's a (mostly) gay rugby team called Gotham Knights, even if I thrill more to the voice of tenor Mario del Monaco or the sight of Ray Harryhausen's prehistoric rhedosaur rising from the Hudson than I do to guys in Jerseys bouncing around on a football field. They probably are a great bunch of guys and I wish them all the best. Allow me a little Gay Pride (and no offense to their hetero members), but I hope the Gotham Knights -- my gay brothers -- kick straight ass every time!

HOWEVER, Jack wondered if there was any age limit to playing with the Knights. I looked at the contact page on their web site and sent an email asking about age requirements. Three days later I still hadn't got an answer so I emailed somebody else, then just used the info link and hoped for at least an anonymous reply. Still no answer the next day. I emailed yet another person and finally heard back from a board member named Alex Fallis. Fallis' response was butch and terse: "You have to be at least 19 years old," he said.

I laughed. What -- were they afraid of age discrimination lawsuits? I emailed him back: "No, come on, LOL, I meant is there an age after which you are no longer allowed to play? Since this is not a 'traditional' team I assume age restrictions are lifted somewhat? Let me know."

Fallis came back with a more informative reply: "There aren't any limits imposed by USA Rugby. The coaches will play people if they feel it is safe for them to play. We do have men start playing in their early 40's, but they are usually people who were athletes previously. Men older than that typically have a difficult time trying to learn due to the high impact nature of the game. It's different for experienced players, and it's different for 40+ rugby, but we play adult men's rugby."

The handwriting was on the wall. It was unlikely they'd let Jack-in-his-mid-fifties play. I gave Jack the bad news. He honestly seemed quite disappointed. I think he had been completely taken in by the "gosh, everyone can play, even if you've never played sports and previously preferred singing show tunes (not that Jack does)" and was honestly thinking about signing up.

"You can always join the armory," I told him.

"What's that -- the cheer-leading squad, the camp followers?"

"Fans of rugby who serve in other capacities but don't play the game.That's one way to sort of be part of it all. "

"That sucks. From their web site you get the idea that anyone can play. I mean, that's what they deliberately make it sound like. I'm probably in better shape than some paunchy guys in their thirties who join their team to lose weight." (He is.)

"But they must know what's what," I reminded him. There might be some exceptions, but they probably were guys who'd been playing rugby for years. Still -- just as some men do have this attitude that all gays are big sissies, even gay men can think older guys are weak and decrepit. Stereotypes die hard. "In any case," I told Jack, "this Fallis guy wasn't exactly mean but he didn't sound especially welcoming, either. Let's face it -- no matter what they say on their web site, they really don't want the paunchy, the old, the opera queens, the effeminate -- they want the typical sports types and it's foolish to expect anything else. I'm sure to them it's just common sense."

I pondered the thought that guys in "macho" groupings, be they athletes or astronauts, always think they have the "right stuff" that no other guys possess. To most straight guys, having the "right stuff" basically means they aren't "fags." To gay guys with the right stuff -- who knows? They aren't "fags" while other gay guys are. Who knows?

"So how old is this guy you heard from?" Jack said as he looked up the man's photo on the website. Checking it out he frowned and said: "I'll tell you, he ain't a youngster."

"Hey, Jack. He was only reporting the situation. He doesn't even know you. And he's probably been playing sports all his life."

Although he later accepted the bad news with his usual life-goes-on heartiness -- sort of -- Jack was too disappointed then to be anything but bitter. "After all that build-up. Anyone can play rugby with us. Sure."

"I reminded him that competitive teams -- gay or straight -- want to win, no matter how much they go on about "it's all about the game and having fun." I told him that if some of the straight team members were better players, they would undoubtedly get more action -- on the field at least -- than some of the gay guys, which is probably why the Knights made such a big deal about letting in all guys no matter what sex they slept with. Cynically, Jack wondered if they had probably always intended to go after straight guys because they might have been afraid they wouldn't -- for whatever reasons -- attract enough decent gay players; the thought was disturbing. I shrugged and said, "It's always about winning," I told him. "Or why bother?"

Jack hasn't said one word about the Gotham Knights since.

I guess if you want to play rugby with the Knights you can be gay, straight, bisexual or neuter.

You just can't be "old."

UPDATE: I heard from John Dent of Gotham Knights who said: "There is no age limit for Gotham Knights RFC, either for playing or membership in the club or the Armory. Though physical fitness does play a role in securing a playing spot on Gotham. Regards, John Dent, Gotham Knights RFC." Sounds reasonable to me. Thanks for the info, John. Talk it over with Alex.


Jackhammer said...

Who the hell are the Gotham Knights?

I'm still fuming!


Anonymous said...

It seems to me that by letting straight men on their team, the Gotham Knights are setting themselves up for comments that they need straight athletes to bolster their team, which sort of defeats the purpose of having a gay team -- and showing people that gays can be great athletes --in the first place.

Bill Samuels said...

Good point -- I guess it depends on how many straight guys are on the team and how often and how much they play.

Thanks for your comment!