The gentlemen’s game

From a motley crew of newbies, the gay team Berlin Bruisers is evolving into a legitimate rugby force – tackling stereotypes along the way. The Bruisers show off more than just their athletic chops at the Violet Varieté at Monster Ronson's Jun 19.

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Photo by Jason Harrell

From a motley crew of newbies, the gay team Berlin Bruisers is evolving into a legitimate rugby force – tackling stereotypes along the way. The Bruisers show off more than just their athletic chops at the Violet Varieté at Monster Ronson’s on June 19 at 8pm.

It’s a sunny Saturday out in Brandenburg, and in the middle of a field at the edge of a medical campus, the Berlin Bruisers are getting ready for their match. The boys kneel in formation for cleat check opposite their rivals, Stahl Brandenburg. Even without the coloured jerseys (the Bruisers’ are deep purple), it’s easy to tell who’s on which team. While the Branden- burg squad tends toward the uniformly German, blond and beefy, the Bruisers comprise a wide range of nationalities, ages and body types. That, and they’re gay.

The first gay rugby team in Germany was founded in April 2012, when Irish expat Dave Egan (who has since left the team) floated the idea on the dating network GayRomeo. Among the first to respond was Adam Wide, an Englishman in the process of moving from London to Berlin. “From age eight to 17, I played rugby at school in Northamptonshire. Then there was a big gap, between 18 and I guess, 59, where I didn’t play at all.” When he got Egan’s message, Wide says, “I wasn’t even living here at the time, but I said ‘Wow, that sounds marvelous, count me in!’”

He turned out to be one of the only founding players who’d even touched a rugby ball. “At first, we’d put down cones in Tiergarten, say ‘We’re training here!’ and all run around,” Wide remembers. Since those ragtag early days, the Bruisers have become a serious team of 54 active players. They joined third-tier league Regionalliga Ost last year, and have broken through next- level German bureaucracy to achieve Sportverein status, meaning they’re due monetary help from the Senat toward renting a pitch of their own. “We’ve moved from being a group of nancy boys who took themselves seriously, to a rugby team determined to win. We aren’t just a bunch of limp-wristed queens going around saying ‘Oh lord, that ball’s too frightening!’” says Wide.

Watching the team play, nobody would call the Bruisers “nancy boys.” The ref blows his whistle and a horde of 30 men race up and down the pitch, closing into a tight cluster when one of them is tackled, fanning back out again when the ball passes out of the ruck. There’s no faking it in this padding-free game, and it’s hard to tell which side’s player is being knocked to the ground, and who has brought him down, at any given tackle.

Yelling encouragement from the sidelines is Italian Giovanni Grusso, sitting out because of a smashed collarbone from the last match. He belongs to the quarter of players on the team who are straight. “We’re a ‘gay team who’s straight-friendly,’” Wide laughs. Says one German player who is also heterosexual: “A few guys make jokes, but I tell them, just come along then and look. You can’t really be pansy and play rugby.”

Gay or straight, recruits are attracted by the Bruisers’ inclusive attitude and sense of camaraderie. As a young team, with a corps of players who are new not just to rugby but often to “sport in general,” explains Colin Comfort, the team’s Scottish captain, the Bruisers might not win much, but they take it in stride. After narrowly losing the Brandenburg match, in the van back to Berlin, they playfully chastise coach Michael Felts, a straight American, as he tries to hand around bakery snacks: “Michael, you know not to give gays carbs after six!”

“A lot of the guys never felt comfortable playing team sports growing up,” says Comfort. “They couldn’t just relax and be themselves. So they hear about the Bruisers and think maybe it would be nice to try a team sport, instead of just jogging or swimming, and that’s what keeps them in, the sense of community.” The team’s purple jerseys can be spotted at events from the Christopher Street Day parade, to “rattling sabers outside the Russian Embassy,” per Wide, to gay rugby’s biennial Union Cup (though there is only one other like-minded team in Germany, the Cologne Crushers, countries like the UK have had gay teams for a while).

Last year the Bruisers won the sponsorship of anti-HIV drug maker Abbvie, which was seeking outlets to talk about stigma in sports. They used Abbvie’s support to hold their first biennial Bash-About, a weekend-long gay rugby clinic, hosting individual players from some of England’s gay teams, along with players from Brussels, Stockholm, Amsterdam, Rome and Madrid. Gareth Thomas, the only out international rugby player, showed up to help coach. On the clinic’s final day, the players held a tournament at Berlin’s RK 03 pitches, where a separate women’s rugby tournament and a men’s one were coincidentally also underway. “The straight teams couldn’t quite believe what the fuck was going on,” says Wide. “They just came to play this mini tournament and suddenly they’re in this gay fest. They were absolutely entranced, and they were shouting and cheering for all of us. It was just the most glorious affirmation that rugby is the most remarkable sport for bringing people together from all walks of life,” he enthuses. “It was a lovely microcosm of what the Bruisers are all about.”