‘Finding this community is huge’: story of world’s first gay rugby team captured on film

Mark Smith
·6-min read
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The world’s first gay

rugby club was formed in 1995 by a group of friends drinking in a pub near the station

(Evening Standard)" />

Eammon Ashton-Atkinson was looking for an enjoyable way to counteract the proverbial Heathrow Injection, the rapid weight gain that can befall new arrivals in London, when he heard about the Kings Cross Steelers.

The world’s first gay rugby club was formed in 1995 by a group of friends drinking in a pub near the station, and has since become a trail-blazing force in LGBTQ rugby, central to a worldwide network of more than 70 inclusive clubs. Russell Tovey’s boyfriend Steve Brockman is on the team (he wears rainbow socks for games). Now it is the subject of a new documentary, Steelers.

Ashton-Atkinson, an Australian TV producer who moved here at the end of his twenties, had an innate enthusiasm for rugby, but he hadn’t had much to do with the game since his schooldays, when he was the target of vicious homophobic bullying that peaked in sports classes.

“I got called every name under the sun to the point where I would just go down to the music room and practise the piano instead,” he remembers.

Fast forward a decade or so, and Ashton-Atkinson reached out to the Steelers, only to learn the squad was oversubscribed. “I found out where they were training and rocked up anyway,” he recalls. “I’m very persistent, and when I moved to London I had this sense of, it’s now or never”.

He was hooked immediately. “For those of us who were excluded from sport at school, who were told we didn’t belong or made to feel uncomfortable, finding this special community where you go to war with your mates is huge,” he says.

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Handout

Having previously struggled with his mental health, Ashton-Atkinson says he benefited enormously from rediscovering rugby without fearing the intolerance that had marred his childhood experiences. In 2018, the team was preparing to travel to Amsterdam to participate in the Bingham Cup — a biannual international tournament named after Mark Bingham, a gay rugby player who saved lives by helping to stop United Flight 93 from reaching its target during the 9/11 attacks — when Ashton-Atkinson suffered an injury that would keep him from playing.

Not content with spectating, he rented some cinema-standard equipment and set about filming the excursion for what would become his new documentary, Steelers.

For the film, Ashton-Atkinson turned his camera on teammates including Andrew McDowell, an African-Colombian American inside centre whose besequinned off-pitch drag persona Drewalicious raises eyebrows among the club’s old guard, and Welshwoman Nic Evans, the Steelers’ then-director of rugby who talks movingly about her own experiences as a woman navigating the male-dominated world of rugby, and her tireless devotion to her charges. “I think their confidence is a thin veil over a lack of self-belief,” she worries during the film.

Game faces: Steelers player Steve Brockman, above left, with his boyfriend, Russell ToveyGetty Images
Game faces: Steelers player Steve Brockman, above left, with his boyfriend, Russell ToveyGetty Images

But Ashton-Atkinson says the individual who has struck the most resonant chord with audiences is a man who initially didn’t want to participate at all. Unlike Ashton-Atkinson, 38-year-old Simon Jones was a rugby insider whose formative years were spent steeped in the culture of the game.

“My parents lived 30 seconds from Moseley Rugby Club in Birmingham, and I remember campaigning for them to take me over the road from a very young age,” he tells me over Zoom.

A popular young man who “was into everything that was outdoors and sporty”, Jones says he knew that he was gay from the age of 10 but feared that his sexuality would upend his “happy” existence. He resolved to live a solitary emotional life, with the family’s pet dog Rolo his template for uncomplicated devotion to others. “I always say I based my life decisions around a black Labrador,” he jokes in one of the film’s most poignant moments.

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Handout

Jones spent his twenties ascending the career ladder in London while playing competitively for clubs here and in Birmingham, devoting every moment of leisure time to his rugby pals. He was, he jokes, “the most dependable wingman at Infernos ever”, referring to the Clapham High Street nightclub, an infamous den of exuberant twentysomething heterosexuality.

“I really thought that I’d be able to cope,” Jones tells me. “And then when reality hit, I just lost control of the situation.”

Protracted periods of immobilising depression preceded an injury that made him re-evaluate his future in rugby. His subsequent rehabilitation gave him the confidence to reach out to Steelers in his early thirties, and his family have been supportive since he made the decision to come out. “Steelers was a lifeline in terms of me being able to imagine what life could be like on the other side of my isolation,” he says.

A handsome, sociable, successful lawyer who talks animatedly about his desire to help future generations of gay players via his association with Steelers, Jones is the first to acknowledge how incongruous it seems that someone like him living in 21st century London should have had to remain closeted for so long. It would have helped enormously, he says, had there been prominent examples of openly gay players at the very top of the game he loved.

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Handout

Of pioneers such as Gareth Thomas, the former Wales international who made history by coming out towards the end of his career in 2009, Jones says: “They are amazingly courageous but it hasn’t been easy for them — they’ve suffered massive emotional turmoil and sacrifice.

“For all the progress, we’re clearly still not in a place where people can just breeze through being themselves, and I’m really looking forward to that day.”

Ashton-Atkinson’s film only started to take shape a year after the Steelers returned from Amsterdam, when Wallabies star Israel Folau — one of the biggest names in Australian rugby and a man with a history of homophobic tweeting — took to Instagram with a post declaring that “Hell Awaits” homosexuals. It led to the termination of his $4 million contract with Rugby Australia.

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Handout

Comments like Folau’s “are just stupid and unnecessary, and they cause real harm”, says Ashton-Atkinson. LGBT people are more likely to face mental health difficulties, homelessness and domestic abuse when compared with the general population.

But the Folau episode did at least provide the impetus for Ashton-Atkinson, who married a Steelers teammate and now lives in Washington DC, to dig out his footage from the Bingham Cup and start making Steelers the movie.

It seems ironic that Folau — who is currently attempting a return to the Australian game with advertising support from the country’s Christian Lobby — should have inadvertently given life to a film that’s such a persuasive testimony to the power of inclusive sport. And this week it begins streaming to the international audience it deserves. Nice try, mate.

Steelers is on Amazon Prime now

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