Rugby's Jozi Cats are tackling gay stereotypes

27 November 2016 - 02:00 By Alexander Matthews


Forget the Springboks. Alexander Matthews trains with the Jozi Cats, Africa's first competitive gay rugby team I check my car is locked - twice - and breathe deeply. Shouts from bare-chested players flying over grass fill 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.story_article_left1Today 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 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 a Nobel. 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 Cup - an international gay rugby tournament held every two years in which more than 40 teams compete - they realised "there's actually a thing that we can strive towards", he says.To stand a chance of playing in the Bingham Cup, 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? "We recruited quite a lot of guys that way."block_quotes_start The fact that no professional South African rugby player has come out as gay tells you that there's a problem block_quotes_endThey 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, put Kuni in touch with Chris Verrijdt at the South African branch of the advertising and public relations company Havas, 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 such as "queen" and "pillow-biter" with butch players was a way of denuding these insults of their power in a world where many believe it's still perfectly acceptable to use them.The campaign went live on social media on May 4 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 such as 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 - in the Washington Post and the Guardian, on ESPN and CNN and elsewhere."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 South African 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."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 see 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."block_quotes_start I honestly don't care what kind of gay you are: I just want you to be a nice dude. And that's what's come out from the rugby block_quotes_endVerrijdt, 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 you to 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 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 there 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."full_story_image_hright1It'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 of hosting the 2020 Bingham Cup in Cape Town, the club is developing competitive contact and touch rugby teams, as well as a social group for those who just want to practise.Tomorrow is the start of a crowd-funding campaign that, if successful, will send the Jozi Cats on a tour aimed at promoting diversity and inclusiveness in sport. They will play 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. "It's showing the rest of the world, 'We're coming for you!'"• Visit Jozicats.co.za

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