Steelers: The World’s First Gay Rugby Club


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Steelers: The World’s First Gay Rugby Club
"A cheery little film with a subject which will be dear to the hearts of many viewers." | Photo: Courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

For LGBT people, participating in the sports that others engage with as a matter of course can be very difficult. Almost two thirds have encountered prejudice in relation to sport, with bullying often starting early in childhood, and many are deterred from participating as a result. Others pursue sporting careers but remain in the closet in order to stay safe, putting them under tremendous pressure and often triggering the development of mental illnesses like depression or anxiety. To people who haven't witnessed this sort of thing, the idea of an all-gay rugby club might sound a bit daft, but to victims of prejudice, it can be a lifesaver.

One of the participants in this film was on track to a professional rugby career when he decided to come out because he was in love and couldn't stay silent any more. The reaction he received was not what he had hoped for. Steelers changed everything for him, pulling him out of depression and helping him to recover his enthusiasm for sport. He's one of several people who speak here about the role rugby often plays in defining masculinity, and the need for gay men to reassert their masculinity in response to people questioning it.

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This isn't all about macho posturing, however, but the building of a shared understanding of masculinity which makes room for expressing emotion and acknowledging weakness - a much more practical approach in sport. One team member has felt liberated enough to go beyond gender conventions and have fun expressing himself as a drag queen. Scenes of him performing onstage add a bit of colour and sparkle to what is otherwise, especially in its early stages, quite a slow film.

Alongside the men, their lesbian coach gets to make her voice heard, talking about how she struggled to get taken seriously in the rugby world because of her gender and how she's found a home at the club, where she clearly has a strong bond with the players. This is her final season and she really wants to help them win a championship before it's over, giving the film a natural structure to follow and meaning that in the later stages we get to see a bit more of the sport itself and appreciate what these guys can do.

The Steelers' story is one of triumph. They haven't always been successful on the pitch but they've acquitted themselves well enough to silence the doubters. Where they once had difficulty scheduling matches, with some teams refusing to play than for truly absurd reasons, they now get to compete on a regular basis. What's more, they have inspired numerous other gay clubs to start up elsewhere (though the goal of getting clubs more generally to accept openly gay members is still falling short, and the upbeat narrative here doesn't find much room to address that).

The film's difficulty is that these easy beats discourage it from doing anything more challenging which might distinguish it from other documentaries in terms of structure or style. it's a cheery little film with a subject which will be dear to the hearts of many viewers, and doubtless inspiring for some who really need it, but beyond that, it's not much to write home about. Take it on its own terms, don't expect too much, and you might find it an enjoyable watch.

Reviewed on: 09 Mar 2021
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Steelers: The World’s First Gay Rugby Club packshot
In 1995, in a pub in King’s Cross, a group of friends discussed the idea of a gay rugby club. From that casual conversation, the first gay rugby team was born.

Director: Eammon Ashton-Atkinson

Year: 2020

Runtime: 80 minutes

Country: UK, Netherlands

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