Rugby’s Jozi Cats are tackling gay stereotypes

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Jozi Cats player Desmond Roux.
Image: Werner Prinsloo/Havas South Africa

I check my car is locked – twice – and breathe deeply. Shouts from bare-chested players flying over grass fills the sky. Are those the Jozi Cats? I decide no. I spot another bunch of guys down below chucking a rugby ball around. Among them, a pair of pink socks glimmers. That must be them. I gingerly step down the embankment, say hello. Coach Peter Gardner sends us on a warm-up jog. As we circle the field, I hover in the middle of the pack, sneaking glances at the motley crew surrounding me: fat, thin; fast, slow; tall, short.

Today is trials for the contact team. Stretches done, it’s time for drills: catching and passing and kicking. I haven’t touched a rugby ball in 12 years; I’m only here for research – but still I’m fucking terrified. I’m going to screw up; I’m going to look a fool. But I don’t. Most of the time. There’s clapping, a few chants of “Well done!” when I get it right. And when I don’t, no one’s sniggering. No one’s calling me a faggot. We end off with a touch game. When I score two tries, I feel like I’ve won the Lotto or the Nobel Prize. I stagger off the field on a high.

A few days later I sit down with one of the club’s founders, Teveshan Kuni. Addicted to watching rugby as a teen, he’d never played it until he joined a bunch of mostly gay mates who were “messing around on Saturdays” with an informal coach.

When they found out about the Bingham – the biannual gay rugby world cup in which more than 40 teams compete – they realised “there’s actually a thing that we can strive towards,” he says. But to ever stand a chance of playing in the Bingham, they needed to formalise the club. After months of “hijacking” fields in Randburg, Kuni received permission from Wanderers Rugby Club to use its facilities. They had a space to play; now they needed a cohort of serious, committed members. It was recruitment time.

On dating apps, Kuni created a profile featuring “a guy with a hot body and a gold rugby ball”. Every time someone messaged he’d ask: “Are you interested in rugby?’ I had this copy-and-pasted script. We recruited quite a lot of guys that way.”

They needed more players, though. Erik Deneson, a member of the Sydney Convicts Rugby Union, an Australian gay club, and the author of a major study on homophobia in sport (see sidebar) put Kuni in touch with Chris Verrijdt, head of PR at Havas South Africa, who agreed to take on the club as a pro bono client.

Verrijdt had long wanted to execute a campaign that challenged gay stereotypes – and here was the perfect opportunity. He asked a colleague to research gay slurs. “He came back with 150. The worst one was ‘sperm-burper’,” he says. “I zeroed into the ones we knew the best. I wanted to make it authentic and use gay guys that were part of the team but take the stereotypes and turn them on their heads.”

The campaign’s cheeky pay-off – “Rugby that’s so gay!” – “was taking the piss out of that slur”, but also highlighting how hurtful a comment like that can be to gay people. The juxtaposition of insults – like “queen” and “pillow-biter” – with butch players, was a way of denuding these insults of their power in a world many people believe it’s still perfectly acceptable to use them.

The campaign went live on social media on the 4 May and a press release was distributed to local and international media. Verrijdt was hoping it would be featured in the Rosebank Killarney Gazette and radio stations like Radio 702 and Power FM. “At the end of the day it was just a recruitment drive.” But within a month, 315 million people around the world had seen it – on the likes of the Washington Post, The Guardian, ESPN, and even CNN.

“It still gives me goosebumps when I think about it,” he says.

But why a gay rugby club? Because in conventional ones, homophobia is rampant. And although Kuni’s never personally experienced it, he knows plenty of players who have.

“The fact that no professional SA rugby player has come out as gay tells you that there’s a problem, because if it was OK to be openly gay and a professional rugby player, guys would’ve done it already. So they know sponsorships and team selections are on the line… guys are having to sacrifice who they are, their authentic selves, to achieve the peak of their career.” He and the other founders wanted the Jozi Cats to be a “community space” – to “get people away from apps, sitting on their smartphones feeling lonely at home. It was a daytime activity, which is very different for the LGBTI scene because a lot of the social interactions are in bars and nightclubs.”

Joburg Pride

A certain undercover journalist hanging with the Jozi Cats at Joburg Pride.

“We’re a cross-section of the gay community,” he says. “There are some of us in the team who are just dudes – we like wearing cargo pants and t-shirts… and we’ve got other guys who dress pretty well… who like to be well-groomed. The pictures that people see online might seem heteronormative because you’re seeing men playing rugby, so you associate that with what you know. If you come to one of our practices and see the jokes that we tell, and seeing some of the guys mincing really hard with pink rugby socks, looking pretty fabulous, you’ll realise we’re not a very conventional rugby team. We are very different.”

Verrijdt, who replaced Kuni as chairman in October, says, “What’s really cool now is that – as much as I spent most of my 30s looking for other masculine gay dudes – because of Jozi Cats, now I honestly don’t care what kind of gay you are: I just want to you be a nice dude. And that’s what’s come out from the rugby. There are guys that I’ve become friends with that honestly six or eight months ago I wouldn’t even speak to out of fear that people would think I was like them. Now I don’t care. I’ve met the most unbelievable guys with all their own journeys, their own struggles, who are a looking for a place to be safe.” In the Jozi Cats, he says, “I can just be Chris… I just feel more normal now.”

Journalists have sometimes asked him “What do we get up to in the showers? My answer to that was, ‘What do straight boys get up to in the showers?’” For him, at least, there are “no sexual vibes” – instead, he’s part of a brotherhood: “It feels like I’ve got your back.”

Kuni agrees. “There’s nothing better than watching your teammates seeing you’re in trouble and getting their quickly and knocking the shit out of somebody to clear the ball off you,” he says. “The camaraderie in the change rooms, the parties afterwards – it’s an amazing environment.”

It’s also an environment in which straight guys are welcome. “We are, as far as I know, the only people who will teach players who have never played, from scratch,” Kuni says. “If you grow up in Soweto, Diepsloot, Lenasia or other parts of Johannesburg, rugby’s not available to you. If you’ve missed it in high school, you’ve missed rugby.” He estimates almost 80% of the club’s members have never played before.

Gavin Holgate, a straight player, says: “It’s an open environment for both sides. It’s not intimidating. I have absolutely no idea who else on the team is gay or straight and I don’t really care. I think that’s what we should be striving for. It’s rugby with mates.”

With its sights set on the dream hosting the 2020 Bingham Cup in Cape Town, the club is developing three streams: competitive contact and touch rugby teams, as well as a social group for those who just want to practice. Now that the touch league has finished for the year, a touch clinic is underway. And on 9 December, it embarks on a tour that will see it playing games against other nascent gay clubs in Bloemfontein, Port Elizabeth, Cape Town and elsewhere. “The best way to galvanise a club is to go on tour,” Verrijdt says. Aimed at “promoting diversity and inclusivity in sport”, it’s also “showing the rest of the world, which has been playing gay rugby for 20 years, ‘We’re coming for you!’”.

HOMOPHOBIA IN SPORT

When Out on the Fields, the largest ever study on homophobia in team sports – and the first one conducted internationally – was released in May 2015, it revealed shockingly high rates of homophobia across the English-speaking world. Drawing on feedback from nearly 10,000 gay, straight, bisexual and lesbian sportspeople, the academically-reviewed report revealed that:

  • Rugby Union was the most popular sport amongst adult gay male participants.
  • 80% of all participants and 82% of LGB participants said they have witnessed or experienced homophobia in sport.
  • Most gay men felt unwelcome in sport with 54% saying they are ‘not at all accepted’ or only ‘accepted a little’ versus 36% of lesbians who felt this way.
  • More than half of gay (54%) and bisexual men (60%) and nearly half of all lesbians (48%) and 29% of bisexual women said they had personally experienced homophobia.
  • Homophobic language, in particular slurs such as ‘faggot’ or ‘dyke,’ was the most common form witnessed or personally experienced by all participants, regardless of sexuality.
  • 78% said an openly gay, lesbian or bisexual (LGB) person would not be very safe as a spectator at a sporting event.
  • 30% of gay male participants who said they did not come out because they feared discrimination from coaches and officials.
  • 81% of gay men and 74% of lesbians who were under 22 at the time of the study reported being completely or partially in the closet to teammates while playing youth sport.
  • Reasons gay players remained in the closet included fear of bullying (49%), and rejection by their teammates (46%), while a third feared discrimination from coaches and officials.

“Sport is the last remaining pocket of western society where homophobia isn’t just common, it is accepted as normal,” Erik Denison, the report’s study manager, says. “Gay people should feel safe to play rugby, or any other sport, on any team without fear of rejection. We have a long way to go before that becomes a reality. One day I hope we don’t need gay rugby teams. Until gay people feel safe to play sport, on any team, we need gay teams to create those safe and welcoming environments. Every time an openly gay rugby player plays they are challenging stereotypes that gay people can’t or don’t play tough, competitive sports like rugby. The Jozi Cats will do this at every game they play.”

While the advent of gay and inclusive clubs are one way of helping tackle homophobia in rugby, he believes more must be done. “We need to focus now on developing and implementing policies and programmes to end homophobia in sport,” he says. “The first step should be a zero tolerance of any homophobic language combined with training of players and officials around why this language is so damaging to gay people. It’s not just banter, or a bit of fun, it is literally killing your teammates who are suffering in silence. These people kill themselves rather than face rejection if they come out as gay.”

This was echoed by the ex-Welsh Rugby team captain, Gareth Thomas, who wrote in the forward of Out in the Fields, “We all like to have a good laugh when playing or watching sport. However, when this comes at the expense of gay people, it pushes athletes trying to hide their sexuality, deeper in the closet or they simply stop playing team sports. I am one of those who hid his sexuality for years because this kind of language created an environment where it seemed impossible to be accepted as a gay man.”

An edited version of this article first appeared in the 27 November 2016 edition of the Sunday Times

POSTSCRIPT (December 2016): The Jozi Cats are going on tour! Find out how you can help them tackle homophobia by watching the campaign video:

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