This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
We're living through a great time for LGBT sportspeople. As more and more professional athletes come out—most recently Keegan Hirst, captain of West Yorkshire rugby team Batley Bulldogs—the revelations are increasingly greeted with rounds of applause rather than jeers. Or, indeed, with indifference—making it known that it's no big deal. However, that's not to say it's easy, of course, and in a sport as deeply rooted in heterosexual masculinity as rugby is, it can be terrifying.
The Kings Cross Steelers were formed in 1995 by a group of gay men in a pub in—spoiler alert—King's Cross. Their aim was to create the first gay-inclusive rugby union team in the world. Twenty years later they have a membership of over 120 and are four-time winners of the European Championships for gay rugby teams.
The story of the world's first gay rugby team starts, surprisingly, with Tory MP and soon to be Lord, Robert Hayward. He wasn't at the founding meeting but joined a few weeks later and was made chairman. "We never set out as some kind of gay crusade. We were just a group of guys who wanted to play rugby," he says. In the early days the Steelers were treated with curiosity by the opposition: "Lots of people, particularly the older people, would ask how we knew we were gay and where we found our players," Hayward tells me. "We were useful in that way because people could ask us questions that they'd never get the opportunity to ask normally."
I'm sitting in the bar that the team shares with East London RUFC. Outside, training has already begun. It's surprising just how many people there are—I count at least 50 guys, which is impressive for a Tuesday night—but I'm told this is actually quite a low turnout. The standard is high, albeit it with a few dropped balls—not a great shock, given that most of the players have spent the summer months with a pint instead of a rugby ball in hand. And then there's the fact that a lot of the players are totally new to the game, or returning from hiatuses caused by not feeling able or welcome to play after they'd come out earlier in life.
The club's current chairman, Alex Smith, is a perfect example. "I had played for straight teams before joining the Steelers, but, to be honest with you, I had self-excluded myself," he says. "I wasn't openly gay at that point and I didn't feel comfortable talking about it. Guys would ask me what I was doing that night and I wouldn't want to say that I had a date. That wasn't something I felt I could say at that point."
Throughout the club there are stories of players who were keen rugby players at school, who were then shunned as soon as they came out as gay. Alex, the PR man who was showing me around the club, was one such case: he'd been part of his private school rugby team until he came out. His next experience of rugby wasn't until late last year, when he joined the Steelers.
The club's secretary, Ollie, looks like a rugby player and is skillful with the ball, but is relatively new to the game. He's played rugby for three years, firstly with the Cardiff Lions, a gay-inclusive team, before moving to London two years ago. I ask him whether being an openly gay man had been a barrier to joining clubs previously.
"Yeah, it had always played on my mind," he tells me. "Especially thinking, 'I'm going to join a club and I'm openly out.' But the people I would be playing with probably wouldn't know that I was openly out. I had only come out five years ago and I had no inbuilt mechanisms for coming out in the workplace or in a club without making it obvious. At university I had been part of the mountaineering club, and coming out to them was a terrifying experience. I had the feeling that if a certain amount of time had elapsed and you hadn't told them, then you thought that you had tricked them."
Joining a rugby club is an intimidating experience as it is: you're walking into a place where a group of people already have very strong bonds. So coming out to a "straight" club as a gay man must only make that joining process even more terrifying—a feeling Ollie alludes to: "When I asked to join the Cardiff Lions I thought that I was a reasonably confident person at that point in my life, and I could join a straight team," he says. "But it just seemed more straightforward and easier to join a team where you didn't have to come out. I also didn't have a group of gay friends, so I thought this would be a great opportunity to meet likeminded people."
Homophobic incidents are incredibly rare for the team. Chairman Alex has played in gay-inclusive teams for eight years, three at the Steelers and five for a Manchester team, and has only experienced two instances of homophobic behavior. Sadly, this isn't the case for all of the players. Chris had been sports president at university in Bristol and had lived with rugby players during college, but he'd also had a stilted start to his rugby career.
"I had knowledge of the game; I used to watch it. I fancied it, but I never felt comfortable doing it. My mates played for a straight team in Bristol that had three gay players, but I still couldn't bring myself to do it," he says.
For Chris, the Steelers had been more than just a rugby club: he'd moved to London on a Sunday, gone for a social that night, and begun playing on the Tuesday. Since then, squad members have helped him find a job and a flat. At university he'd participated in gymnastics, hockey, and cheerleading, often being the only openly gay man, and hadn't had any issues. Unfortunately, the uni football team had been less accommodating: "I didn't have many issues at university because I was so involved in the organization and volunteering, but I did have problems with my football team," he tells me. "They hated me and they behaved very poorly; they used to come up to me at the sports nights and say, 'You're such a fucking bender.'"
The Steelers also boast international experience in coach Nicola Evans, who has been capped for Wales's women. She hadn't previously been involved in gay-inclusive rugby but her first impressions have been very positive.
"It's a lot like being at a school, really, because you have the beginners, who have wanted to play rugby but have never had the opportunity, and you have the players who have played all the way through from youth level," she says.
Her experiences in women's rugby are similar to those that gay players face; stereotypes abound, but they can be shattered by simply watching a game. "In women's rugby you get lots of stereotypes, but in reality the women are from lots of different backgrounds and there isn't a type," she says. "It's the same with Kings—the men here are shattering those stereotypes."
Before I visited the Steelers I was expecting to see a team worn down by weekly bouts of homophobia from other teams. The truth is the polar opposite: rugby is about respect, and nothing earns a team respect more than being incredibly good. The Steelers are proof of that.
The next step for them will be taken in Nashville, Tennessee next year at the Gay World Cup. If they win, they can add "world champions" to their list of accomplishments; not bad for a rugby team dreamt up in a pub 20 years ago.