by Roger Brigham
Reprinted from the 26 November issue of the Bay Area Reporter in San Francisco
by Roger Brigham
Chill was in the air, fog enveloped the city, fickle rains came and went, and constant breezes bit exposed faces and hands as rugby players and fans gathered Saturday on Treasure Island to see the San Francisco Fog tackle the Mendocino Steam Donkeys and San Jose Seahawks. But hearts were warmed with a surprise visit by Gareth Thomas, the Welsh lion who is currently the only openly gay man playing for any major league professional team sport in the world.
It was a welcome as warm as the weather was cold. There is an informal familiarity in rugby, a fundamental fellowship recognizable whether players are close teammates, longtime rivals, or newly met strangers. The locals teased Thomas about the lovely weather as they lent him a cap and jacket and fetched him a cup of coffee.
"Where I live in Wales is cold," he told them, "but we don't have this wind." They swapped stories and asked him about his plans and his travels. Those plans include a feature film about his life that is being discussed in Hollywood now.
The visit was one of celebration and symbolism. Thomas was here to watch rugby and express his support of the Fog's mission of inclusion in the sport. He was able to meet new Fog head coach Kathy Flores, who is also coach of the women's national team, and Alice Hoglan, mother of the Fog player Mark Bingham who was one of the passengers on Flight 93 who died fighting terrorists on the plane on 9/11. Past rugby player that I am, I got the chance to introduce Thomas to two local LGBT sports activists: Doug Litwin, marketing officer for the Gay Games; and Derek Liecty, honorary lifetime member of the Federation of Gay Games.
And as Thomas was preparing for his trip here to visit friends in northern California, back in Great Britain representatives of the Rugby Football League, the national governing body for rugby there, were being received by members of Parliament to kickoff a campaign to fight homophobia in the sport.
Players Corey Hanson and Mitch Stringer of the Sheffield Eagles showed MPs jerseys with the slogan "Homophobia Tackle It!" which their team will wear for a match during LGBT history month in February.
"We're hoping to make this an annual event with a different team each year wearing the shirts," Lou Englefield of Pride Sports told Pink News. Stringer said he hoped players would be able to go to local schools to talk about homophobia and build LGBT fan support.
A statement from Thomas was read in his absence. "All sports have a significant role to play in challenging homophobia," Thomas said, "and I am delighted to show my support to Rugby League and the RFL which has made such strong commitments to taking important issues like this seriously and is leading the way in terms of inclusivity."
Thomas, 36, is not just a good rugby player: he is a great player, one of the greatest ever to put on a kit for his country. He told me he thought it would probably have to be a player of that caliber to become the first openly gay man playing a major league team sport in the United States.
But as equally important as the individual who comes out is the readiness of the leagues for the occasion. And there our leagues could learn a great deal from what rugby in Great Britain is doing.
Go to the RFL Web site (www.therfl.co.uk) and you'll find an equality and diversity section and statements declaring no tolerance for homophobia. Also available is a 24-page "Guide for Rugby League Clubs – Challenging Homophobia." It tells its clubs, among other things, that "Homophobia is never acceptable or excusable," "Doing nothing is not an option," and "See it, hear it, report it!"
You won't find anything else like it on any other major sports organization Web site. It details examples of homophobic language, lists possible responses, and details sanctions and steps to take. It is a straightforward, proactive document. It pulls no punches.
It is like rugby itself: head-on, powerful, honest, tough, embracing, and relentless. That's what it takes to tackle homophobia. No more excuses and wringing of hands, no more whispering behind backs and deaf ears for shouted slurs on the practice field and in the stands. Time for American sports to man up.