This Is What The World’s Biggest Gay Rugby Tournament Looks Like

The Melbourne Chargers battle the Sydney Convicts in the final match of the Bingham Cup. The Chargers defeated the Convicts 20–7.

Joe Buglewicz for BuzzFeed News

Early on a Friday morning in May, in the middle of a rugby match in Nashville, Tennessee, something strange was happening: stillness. You don’t expect much stillness from rugby, a game that’s easiest to explain to non-ruggers as a sort of cross between soccer and American football with nonstop play (and no pads). Things like scoring and rule-breaking will bring a game to a quick halt, but otherwise play surges on fiercely, unforgivingly — unless somebody’s bleeding.

And right now, Kazu Hishida was bleeding.

The Nashville Grizzlies and the Montreal Armada were bunched on a makeshift pitch at Ted Rhodes Park, standing together in small groups or taking a knee, calmly and quietly waiting while 41-year-old Kazu — Kaz, for short — was escorted to the sidelines, blood streaming freely from his eye socket. His coach, 47-year-old John Purdom, tended to him. Kaz looked annoyed at having been pulled from the game. Dark-haired and handsome, he stood a little taller than Purdom, who wore a Grizzlies jersey over a kilt and scratched his white beard with concern.

“Are you ready?” John asked him, after the worst of the bleeding had stopped.

“Fuck it,” Kaz said, flecks of red mixed with dried mud still staining his cheek. He ran back in.

This is rugby, a sport that is now played in more places around the world than ever before: According to World Rugby’s 2015 report, there are 7.73 million players in 120 countries. Men’s and women’s seven-player rugby are debuting at the Rio Olympics this summer, in a testament to the sport’s booming international popularity. But something was different today than what the world will soon see in Rio. In the bleachers at Ted Rhodes, a guy in his twenties wore a pink crop top jersey with his boyfriend’s name and number on the back amid a backdrop of rainbow umbrellas, tutus, and tank tops. Among the standard screams of “Hit him! Hit him!” and “Look where we are, boys!” were the additional cheers of “Move those cha cha heels!” and “Yaaass, honey!”

The Nashville Grizzlies celebrated their club’s 10-year anniversary this year by hosting the Bingham Cup, the world championship for international gay rugby, and the second largest rugby tournament for 15-player teams in the world. The Cup brings together amateur teams whose players rely on flexible work schedules, forgiving bosses, supportive partners, and high pain tolerances to make rugby a large part of their lives. For Bingham 2016, players on 42 teams from 21 countries poured into Nashville to duke it out for the championship — as well as to reconnect with old friends, get to know a new city, and pound the requisite gallons of beer. Since 2002, gay-inclusive teams have gathered every other year at a different spot on the globe to compete, celebrate gay inclusion in sports, and honor the memory of Mark Bingham, for whom the Cup is named; he was a founding member of two of the first gay rugby clubs in the United States before he died on United Airlines Flight 93 during the attacks on September 11.

When, in 2015, Grizzlies veteran Jon Glassmeyer spearheaded the proposal to bring Bingham to the American South for the first time, he wasn’t expecting that a rash of anti-LGBT bills were poised to spread across the country, particularly below the Mason-Dixon line. In April, the month before Bingham was held, Tennessee’s governor signed a bill allowing counselors to refuse service based on their beliefs; critics believe the measure targets LGBT therapy-seekers. And in the neighboring state of North Carolina, House Bill 2, signed in March, has inspired widespread ire, celebrity condemnations, and mass boycotts — most recently, the NBA announced it would no longer host its 2017 All-Star game in Charlotte in protest of the law.

Amid a tangible swell of anti-LGBT sentiment, hundreds of unapologetically gay ruggers, along with their friends and families, poured into Nashville to play in an unapologetically gay rugby tournament — regardless of the political turmoil unfurling around them.

Jeff Wilson, the 2012–2016 chairman of International Gay Rugby, told me over the phone that when he spoke to the European Parliament about bringing Bingham to Nashville, the biggest thing its members were concerned about was social impact, and the protection of the players in the American South. It was the kind of concern that carried all the more weight after the tournament had ended — just two weeks later, a shooter opened fire at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing 49 people and injuring dozens of others. “Someone could have shot up our opening ceremony,” Wilson reflected.

Pulse reminded a country of LGBT people — especially those of relative privilege who have fallen into a kind of complacency around queer struggle — that the war has not yet been won.

“Having events in places that aren’t traditionally accepting and safe is still important,” said Wilson. “You can’t look away from the social justice piece of gay-inclusive sports — from Nashville to Columbus, Ohio, to Nairobi, Kenya.”

“We’re still fighting for rights,” he added. “Sometimes the best way to do it is to invite people to play a rugby game.”

The Charlotte Royals at the Bingham Cup opening ceremony.

Joe Buglewicz for BuzzFeed News

An old saying goes that rugby is a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen. After tearing each other apart on the field, ruggers tend to their wounds and transition almost seemingly into their “third half” — drinking and singing and shooting the shit together, as brothers.

I joined women’s rugby my sophomore year of college partly to get exercise, but mostly to meet girls. I didn’t do this consciously — I was still half-closeted at the time — but women’s rugby is stereotypically packed with lesbians. Maybe it’s because the power and strength rugby demands of its players connotes butchness. Maybe it’s because all the touching and hitting and lifting can “look gay” to spectators who don’t know any better. Maybe it’s because (in the US, at least) rugby isn’t widely played, understood, or appreciated — it’s an underdog sport that attracts people who are used to living outside of the norm.

Most of the men I spoke with at Bingham had found rugby the same way I did: They were looking for community, for connection, and maybe they’d find it in a sport where you knock the shit out of other people without wearing so much as some light protective padding. Many of the 62 Grizzlies players have only started playing within the last year or two. It’s a complicated and barbarous sport to leap headfirst into for men who, in some cases, haven’t played contact sports before — or any sports at all. When I asked one Grizzly if he’d ever participated in organized sports, he asked me if marching band counted.

Stan Schklar, a fit, stocky 55-year-old with a short white beard, clear blue eyes, and a soft Southern accent, was a founding member of the Grizzlies 10 years ago and now is the team’s oldest player. “It’s like a family reunion,” he told me on the sidelines of a pre-tournament Grizzlies practice, after the fifth time this had happened. “All my rugby friends I don’t get to see, and they’re all here in my hometown! Unbelievable, unbelievable.” He laughed and waved at another friend. “Good to see you too, sweetie!”

Stan didn’t play sports growing up, but when a friend asked him to help start up a rugby team, he knew nothing about it — “I didn’t know what a rugby ball looked like, for that matter,” he said. It was a way to get up and moving, for a small group of gay friends to do something new, something different. At first, Stan thought it would just be a casual hangout sort of thing. A lot of other guys, later on, would join for similar reasons: to meet new people and to get to know the gay community of Nashville. Many had no idea it would eventually become something that felt essential to their sense of self. “At first, I don’t think we realized how profound it would be,” Stan said. “A lot of people, a lot of the guys here, grew up thinking they couldn’t play sports, that they wouldn’t be good enough,” he added. “Now I’ve seen so many guys excel at this.”

“A lot of the guys here grew up thinking they couldn’t play sports, that they wouldn’t be good enough. Now I’ve seen so many guys excel at this.”

Mark Pilkington, a 27-year-old blonde, bearded scrum half and soon-to-be-elected Grizzlies president, joined the team nearly five years ago. He had friends on the Royals (based in Charlotte, North Carolina), who were playing a game against the Grizzlies soon after Mark moved to Nashville. He came to a practice, just to check it out, and got hooked. He had previously been a college cheerleader for four years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He told me that in terms of athleticism and stamina-building, he was well-prepared for the transition to rugby. “Cheering for a four-hour football game and hoisting young ladies above your head in the heat is a real thing out here,” he said. “But I don’t know how you can prepare yourself for getting run over by men twice your size.”

Both of the Grizzlies’ captains, however, are rugby veterans. Co-captain Michael “Scurvy” McKervey, a 33-year-old ball of spritely energy with wispy light brown hair and the features of a particularly fit elf, leads the forwards: the guys responsible for tackling, scrum downs (where eight guys from each team bind together and push the opposite team’s scrum over the ball, which kinda looks like a giant group hug but with a lot of grunting), and rucking (a bit like mini-scrums, a few guys pushing over the ball to clear it for play). He’s been playing rugby since he went to college in Michigan. As a straight guy, he hadn’t been actively seeking out a gay-friendly team but liked that the Grizzlies “had this great family feel,” he told me.

Though LGBT people are very visible in gay rugby leadership roles, many of the team captains at Bingham were straight — oftentimes since they’d been encouraged in sports their whole lives. According to Out on the Fields, an international study on homophobia in sports commissioned in part by the Bingham committee, a majority of lesbian and gay youths participate in organized sports, but 7 out of 10 of them believe sports don’t offer them a safe environment. An equal percentage are closeted while playing youth sports, fearing discrimination from other players and officials. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youths are also more likely than their straight peers to quit at earlier ages and move into more singular activities. Leaders on gay-inclusive teams may include more straight people than one may expect simply because straight players tend to have been playing team sports longer.

Nashville Grizzlies captains Josh Buchanan and Mike McKervey.

Joe Buglewicz for BuzzFeed News

Scurvy’s 35-year-old co-captain, Josh Buchanan, is also straight. Tall and reddish-brown-bearded, Josh wrangles the backs: These are the players responsible for running the ball, or, as Scurvy calls them, “the fast guys with good hair.” Josh and Scurvy complement each other well in terms of leadership styles. Scurvy is a self-described “naturally very loud person,” whereas Josh has a deep, soothing voice and and a slow, easy-does-it smile. In rugby, sometimes you need someone to scream bloody hell at you because you’ve gotta get in that ruck, goddamnit, and sometimes, when the ref fails to call an obscenely high tackle and your endorphins are encouraging you to retaliate, you need someone to calmly talk you off the ledge.

On Thursday evening, in front of the Parthenon — Nashville’s somewhat garish full-scale replica of the original, built in the late 19th century inside Centennial Park — the Grizzlies warmed up with a few basic passing drills under some ominous-looking clouds. One of the things rugby newcomers tend to struggle with is that you can only pass the ball backward, not forward.

Scurvy is unfazed at the prospect of teaching newbies. “It’s a challenge in every rugby team,” he told me from the sidelines at practice. “Everyone’s accepted, regardless of athletic ability,” Josh added.

All weekend, players kept telling me how accepting rugby is, even though it might look brutally unapproachable from the outside. Perhaps, at this point, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. According to the Out on the Fields study, gay men are more likely to play rugby in either amateur or professional leagues than any other sport. Last year, International Gay Rugby coordinated the signing of agreements with both World Rugby and USA Rugby with the aims of promoting inclusion and eliminating homophobia from the game across all levels and teams, setting an international standard for what gay-inclusive sports can look like.

Nashville Grizzlies captain Mike McKervey talks to his team during a Bingham Cup tournament match.

Joe Buglewicz for BuzzFeed News

The opening ceremonies were supposed to be held on Thursday evening outside on one of Vanderbilt’s beautiful lawns, but as the first cracks of thunder boomed out over Nashville, dozens of teams in carefully coordinated outfits (“Make America Gay Again” hats; lots of rainbow ties, kilts, and booty jorts) trooped inside a Vanderbilt auditorium.

The night’s host, scrum half and ex-cheerleader Mark Pilkington, took the stage in a glittery gold blazer to introduce the night’s speakers. One of them was Mayor Megan Barry, who wore an honorary Grizzlies jersey and spoke to a cheering crowd during the opening ceremonies about state pride — and sometimes, lack thereof. “When we say we’re from Nashville, we don’t always add Tennessee,” she said. Nashville is, much like Austin, Texas, a dot of blue in an ocean of red — Nashville, Knoxville, and Memphis are the only cities in the state to offer ordinances prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Scott Ridgway, the executive director of the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network, thought hosting Bingham here was sending a clear message that there are members of the Nashville community committed to breaking down barriers. “We are in the Bible Belt — it’s much more difficult for some folks to have acceptance for sexuality than in other areas,” he said via phone. He’d been involved with the Grizzlies since his partner, Jon Glassmeyer, joined about eight years ago. (The pair were integral to making Bingham happen in Nashville — Scott had chaired a host committee, raising tens of thousands of dollars through small individual donations alone.)

Other speakers that night included Tennessee Rep. John Ray Clemmons, IGR Chairman Jeff Wilson, and a video call from country stars Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, and Ty Herndon. While Mayor Barry was especially cheered for her warm Southern welcome, there was perhaps no one more eagerly anticipated by the growing-antsy crowd than Alice Hoagland.

“This is the culmination of a magnificent life of rugby, and I just wish Mark were here to see it in person.”

Alice is the mother of Mark Bingham, whom the tournament honors, and is nothing short of beloved in the Bingham community. She’s got shoulder-length white hair and one of the biggest smiles you’ve ever seen, enclosed with a few parentheses of laugh lines. Players shake her hand, hug her, take pictures with her, tell her how Mark inspired them to play rugby after years of thinking there was no place in sports for them, and chant “AL-ICE! AL-ICE!” whenever she takes a podium. She has seen the tournament grow from its humble beginnings 14 years ago to one of the largest rugby tournaments in the world.

She looked absolutely delighted to be up at the podium tonight. She thanked Nashville for being so welcoming, and she spoke about courage. Being gay, she said, doesn’t mean you can’t be tough and strong. Mark taught her that.

“This is the culmination of a magnificent life of rugby, and I just wish Mark were here to see it in person,” she said. “I look out here and see these faces, and I see my son’s face looking back at me.”

Mike Slaydyk and Sam Minter practice with the Nashville Grizzlies before their Bingham Cup tournament games at Centennial Park.

Joe Buglewicz for BuzzFeed News

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