The Washington Renegades want to be billed as America’s first rugby club to actively recruit gay members. Not, however, as a gay rugby club.
Given that an overwhelming percentage of the Renegades’ roster is gay, and that all of the squad’s marketing and most of its social functions have a hardy gay component, that distinction may seem subtle to outsiders. But it’s a distinction that Renegade Thad Messenger really wants to point out. He won’t even let me complete my question about what impact a player’s sexuality might have on—
“You mean ‘orientation,’ and orientation has nothing to do with what I’m doing here,” says Messenger. “I’m playing rugby. Orientation is such a nonissue.”
Apparently Messenger, who is openly gay, has gotten similarly enlightened questions before.
Nobody on the Renegades, a team now playing its first full season in the Potomac Rugby Union, takes rugby more seriously than Messenger, a brawny 33-year-old lawyer. He picked it up in college and never let it go. He’s something of a student of the game, too, and has recently taken vacations to Hong Kong and New Zealand just so he could attend major international tournaments. On this day, as the Renegades practice at Francis Field just east of Georgetown, he’s cleated and wearing a replica jersey of the All Blacks, the world-renowned New Zealand side. Whatever team he plays for sexually, Messenger sure looks like a rugby player.
The same can’t be said for most of his mates, however. Not just yet, anyway.
The inspiration for the Renegades, who were formed on paper in October 1998, came from the Kings Cross Steelers, a club founded three years earlier in rugby-crazed England by and for gay players. The Steelers now play in Surrey County League 4 in the prestigious Rugby Football Union, and they have become poster boys for the gay sports movement in the U.S. and around the globe. (The Steelers’ official Web site conveys a message much like the one Messenger hammered home to me: “What we are NOT is a bunch of gay men playing out a sexual fantasy. Don’t ever ask us about shags in the shower or locker-room fun….[I]t just doesn’t happen and NEVER will happen as far as we are concerned. We take our rugby very seriously.”)
Word about the Renegades’ formation spread quickly in D.C.’s gay community, and an astonishing 45 wannabe ruggers showed up for the first practice.
“I know rugby teams that would kill to get two new players to show up,” says Matt Leigh, who holds the title “recruitment chair” in the Renegades’ hierarchy. “It showed the support the team has in the community.”
But quantity ain’t always quality. The Renegades not only don’t discriminate based on sexual orientation, they won’t hold rugby inexperience against you, either: According to club President Mike Baks, at least 80 percent of the members have never played the game before. For many players, it’s the first sports team they’ve ever joined.
Messenger and team Captain James McCabe produced an instructional video for the newbies, who are very easy to pick out at a Renegades practice: They’re the ones dropping and falling over the oblong white ball during the passing drills—and wearing the biggest smiles.
Joe Barrios is among the neophytes. Though his athletic background was limited to “a little fencing” in college, Barrios came out to a Renegades practice on a dare last August. The first time he touched the ball in an allegedly nontackling scrimmage, three regulars made a club sandwich out of him. Barrios was on the ground wheezing for two minutes. By the time he’d caught his breath, he’d also caught the rugby bug.
“I’m a guy who grew up hating P.E.,” he says. “That first hit was exhilarating, and though it hurt, I wasn’t injured. It was a case of ‘That which does not kill me will make me stronger.’ It was my welcome to rugby.”
The team’s lack of seasoning shows up on game days, too. The Renegades get pasted every time they take the pitch. Last year, the squad arranged for a series of unofficial scrimmages against local club teams. They not only lost each match, but they failed to score a single try, the rugby version of a touchdown. Despite a full preseason practice slate and gym time donated by a Dupont Circle health club, the scoring drought continued into this season. After Saturday’s home game against UMBC, the Renegades were 0-3, all shutouts. Small wonder the club’s official colors are black and blue.
Messenger admits that he wishes the blowouts would stop. But he swears that he expected the skein.
“Our nonwinning status is due to our newness, not to our makeup,” he says. “I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t looking forward to our first try in a match. That’s going to be a very, very celebratory moment for us—as it would be for any team. And it’s going to come. People who come from minority communities definitely come with a great mental resilience, and that will benefit us. Give us a few years, and we’re going to be a force in the Potomac Rugby Union. I mean that.”
Twice, the Renegades have had opportunities to end their losing and shutout streaks taken away, when opponents canceled long-scheduled games a day before they were to be held. At best, the late cancellations were simply rude.
And last month, without any warning, the D.C. government locked the Renegades out of their original practice field, located right behind J.R.’s, the 17th Street watering hole known as a gay bar. Though the club had applied for and been granted permission to use the field, city officials said it should have been reserved for youth baseball.
Some Renegades admit to suspecting that something darker than mere rudeness or incompetence has been at work.
“You don’t want to even think that a team just found out about the Renegades and decided they didn’t want to play against gay players,” says Leigh. “And we’ve never had any sort of overt discrimination against us, like another player saying something on the field. But when you get a game canceled, in the back of your head, you wonder what’s going on.”
The Kings Cross Steelers, coincidentally or not, met with late-cancellation problems in their first few years, too. No matter how the rest of the Renegades’ season plays out, Barrios says there’s next to no chance they’ll cancel their trip to England this summer, where they’ll be the guests of the Steelers.
“Guys have stereotypes of what gay men are like. Playing rugby isn’t one of those,” says Barrios. “That’s why we look up to the Steelers—and why I’d want to meet them. They’ve kicked ass. We want to kick it.”—Dave McKenna