LA Rebellion: Blurring sexuality lines one tackle at a time
Dusk is settling over Eagle Rock recreational center, baseball practice is all but over and the last antagonistic screams of an elementary school team's answer to Yogi Berra are finally melting away into the night.
Now it's time for a real sport, played by some real men.
The players of the Los Angeles Rebellion Rugby Club file onto the floodlit green. They're pensive, a little apprehensive even; they've got a major international rugby tournament coming up and the season so far hasn't gone quite as well as previous ones – the pressure's on and the strain is showing.
But one thing they shouldn't have to worry about is being on the receiving end of any flak for fielding a team over half of whom are openly gay – but if someone does start something, then god help that person.
"The other day, an opposing team player muttered something under his breath about a new rule being "the new gay rules,'" said Bil Yoelin, Rebellion's president and a gay rugger. "So Ananais [Chairaz, a Rebellion player] walked up to him, took his number and during the course of the match laid him out – but he did it as part of the game, so it was cool."
Not to say comments of that ilk are common. During his eight years with the gay-friendly club, Tabor says that he can remember only three instances of homophobia while with their league, the Southern California Rugby Football Union (SCRFU),
"All the other clubs have been really accepting of us," said Tabor, "it's a league that has primarily straight players, we just happen to have quite a few gay players…but once that whistles blows all prejudices are forgotten."
LA Rebellion is a relatively new club. Founded around the turn of the millennium by a former porn actor – no need for the jokes, they've already heard them – it has quickly found its footing. And part of this is due to the support shown by the local gay community, with bars such as The Eagle in Silverlake and Vermont in Los Feliz providing them with venues for fund-raisers.
Nevertheless, as a team still in its nascent stages of life, they have found it hard gathering momentum to push up through the ranks and are currently languishing in division three of the SCRFU, despite a couple of good years previously that saw them move up from division four.
On the back of a season marred by injures, and with the Bingham cup – the world's biggest non-pro gay rugby tournament – lurking just around the corner, they've called in reinforcements from the local Pasadena rugby club.
"I'm the interim head-coach," said Michael Bryant, a physician who, alongside Hornbeck, has been drafted in from Pasadena. "I'm just here to see them through the [Bingham] Cup."
With over 16 years of experience as a player before
becoming a coach, Bryant has seen the way in which the sport has evolved over the years in its attitude towards people who are gay. He sees Rebellion as the perfect example of how this evolution has been for the better.
"It's less unusual than you think," said Byrant, referring to the amount of gay rugby players who are active and participating, "There's a real desire nowadays to do away with any kind of prejudicial thinking…all you've got to do is look at the number of premier [rugby] players who are coming out of the closet."
"I'd say that about 50 percent of our players are gay, 40 percent are straight and about 10 percent are confused," said Tabor, singling out the better looking of the straight players for inclusion in the "confused" box. Not that there is any division amongst the team by orientation; the players are united in their love of the game.
"There's a real fraternity feel in the club," said Chairaz, a straight rugger in his third year with the club. "What's interesting is that it's the straight players who seem to get most of the comments from other clubs."
First and foremost, the LA Rebellion is a rugby club with hopes and dreams just like any other, and with every loss comes a strong sense of disappointment, cutting and deep.
However, what they have managed to build in such a short space of time is something that transcends the typical notion of a sporting team: they have created a paragon that holds a mirror, albeit mud crusted, up to prejudice and hate, but in a manner that is neither condescending or confrontational.
"I think what we've managed to achieve is extremely important," said Tabor, "gay guys are perceived primarily as ice-skaters and gymnasts and so on, but for us to be able to go toe-to-toe with straight guys in a sport as physically demanding as rugby, I think it goes one hell of a long way to dismissing the common prejudices against the gay community."