Academic Book, Bisexuality, Christopher Stahl, Essay, Homos, Homosexuality, hooker, I Ruck, Therefore I Am, Jonathan Kemp, Leo Bersani, Lymericks, Mark Bingham, masculinity, Queer, Queer Desire, Queer Male Body, Queer Theory, rugby, scrum, Sexual identity, Sexual politics, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, sports, The "Fairy", The Penetrated Male
My Dad was a hooker when I was I born and remained one for at least a year afterwards. He eventually had to stop hooking because he needed a real job to support my mother and I and he became an exterminator. The ongoing joke he would tell, whenever anyone asked what he did for a living was say, “I’m a hired killer.” A Hitman and a hooker in all in one lifetime is something to marvel at, though I should end this joke before you realize this is a joke and stop reading.
I should note though that when I read him the first line of this essay he suggested I should also call him a “scrumbag.”
A Hooker is a position in rugby that I honest never fully understood because whenever Dad would tell stories about playing he would usually describe, in full fun graphic detail, the gruesome injuries that would befall him or his teammates a motley crew with names like Little John, Whalebait, Pisser, Hands, Hollywood, and Andy Cap (for the record that last one was him). The Hooker though, when I went back to research it, is the player usually in the middle front row of a scrum whose responsible for “hooking” the ball with his feet back to his team. From there his job is usually to keep the ball in his team-mates’ hands and often has the responsibility of setting up the Play-the-ball after a tackle.
The actual jargon of the sport never interested me much though, because I preferred hearing stories about what would happen to the men on the team. Unlike football which seemed a boring endless series of stop-start-commercial sort of sport, rugby was a game for men. Dad would describe one instance in which he took an elbow jab to his stomach and literally began to piss blood on the field. Another story entailed one of his team-mates literally ripping a man’s moustache off an opponent’s face. Other fun tales included Nigel(pronounced Noi-gel), the Englishman who played for three weeks, bought a Jeep on Credit, then left the country after having it shipped out, and then of course there was the endless series of running and vomiting and general pain and bloodshed. Listening to those stories rugby became a mythological sport played by gods, by men, real men and in many ways the tragedy was I knew I would never become one of those creatures.
Growing up in East Texas the trees reproduce via spores and alongside mold and pet dander, there was nothing so career damning as the start of spring when life would blossom and fornicate endlessly and I was melted away into a 90 pound shlub who could only cough, snort, and bleed mucus onto his Super Nintendo controller. As such, sports was out of the equation and because of this I forever have felt that I failed a particular test of manhood. In my defense it was relatively clear early on in life that sports was never going to be my bag anyway and if I had ever pursued a life in sports I would have been one of the guys in the box writing about Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordon, never playing against them. Despite this Rugby continues to remain a fixture of my ideal of what masculinity should be because there are few sports that really impress me. Soccer is for drama queens, football is for pusseys, golf is for rich white men who can’t get erections, and baseball is boring as fucking fuck. I can watched basketball no problem, but only the NBA, that March Madness is a bunch of crap.
With the exception of hockey I know of no sport that so embodies the ideal of masculinity that I knew I lacked but aspired to nonetheless. What was also implied was that the men playing the sport were straight.
I Ruck, Therefore I Am is an essay I originally found in an How-to-Teach-Writing textbook. I want to say that the essay was in the section dealing with teaching writing about gender and sexuality, but I honestly can’t remember. What I do know is that once I read the two paragraphs offered in the example page, I ran to Google eventually finding it on The Village Voice website and after reading it I was, and god I hope this isn’t a cliché, forever changed.
It was only a year ago when I came out as bisexual to one of my friends, and it’s difficult to describe how I am still trying to process this. I find myself wanting to say in arguments in sexuality “As a straight man-“ but I have to stop recognizing that I have lost that, privilege is the wrong word, but particular ethos. The loss of the identity as “straight” and “heterosexual” is not so profound as the understanding of how my body has now become part of a fascinating discourse. The Queer male body is a figure that can inspire erotic potential—obviously not mine, you’ve never seen me in shorts—however it is also a body that can be seen as a threat.
Christopher Stahl, the writer of I Ruck, notes this as he describes his own discovery of the complication of this body:
Gay men have a strained relationship with their bodies. We are taught so often that our desires are wrong, that we never will be butch enough, and that we never were. Team sports raise the threat of exposure and incompetence before other boys. We train ourselves to look too critically at ourselves lest we fail to perform the correct rituals of manliness. You can’t be self-conscious in rugby. To hesitate is to lose the ball or to miss the tackle. You have to act even if the action is wrong.
When I was growing up in suburban Ohio, football was second only to Protestantism as an organized religion. In high school, football players were treated as divine beings, but I never wanted to be like them. Rugby is a blank slate for me: Similar to football in its outlines, it lacks the cultural baggage that comes with being the American sport. I can be tough without feeling like I’m part of a predetermined narrative about American manhood.
It should be noted before I move forward that because I’m bisexual and not gay, I cannot speak equally to the perception of the body, but for the time being I’ll settle on the fact that both Stahl and myself have at least in common the capacity for similar physical desires. We both like wang for lack of a better phrase, but to keep things simple I will simply refer to our desires as Queer. I recognize going forward that that is a simplistic and potentially dangerous decision but entire books have been written on same-sex desire and we’re getting off point.
Stahl’s mention of the struggle of the gay man’s perception of his body is often rooted in the idea of penetration. Gay men are often haunted by the image of the “fairy,” the prissy, effeminate creature who’s voice can crack glass and who retreats at the first sign of a spider. This figure is so often associated with weakness, and far more sexist, with women that if men identify as gay they may fear that they lack any real masculinity. This of course then leads to the trouble of penetration.
Johnathan Kemp’s book The Penetrated Male, offers up one of the best explanations and examinations of this terror,
Whilst the horror of shit is clearly central to the phobia surrounding sexual use of the anus, this book maintains that an equally nonsensical (though equally powerful) gender discrimination is at work, rendering the male anus a particularly problematical site of such anxiety. For example, the reference in some gay pornography to the male anus as a boy-pussy or man-cunt bears witness to a clear gender ambiguity attending the penetration of that orifice. (4).
He later goes on to clench this examination when says,
The anus is thus excluded altogether from the male libidinal economy, such that its erotic use immediately carries with it the threat of castration. Erotic investment in the male anus is hegemonically disavowed by branding its owners as symbolic women; a kind of castration is performed. (5).
Kemp’s book by it’s very title gets at how complicated this issue is, for as long as the anus is seen as a pseudo-vagina the typical patriarchal bullshit concern sex will continue to dominate men’s minds. Leo Bersani in his book Homos also adds to this understanding the implications of this sexual model
This meant, specifically, not only that phallic penetration of another person’s body expressed sexual activity and virility, while being penetrated was a sign of passivity and femininity, but even more, that ‘the relation between the ‘’active’’ and the ‘‘passive’’ sexual partner is thought of as the same kind of relation as that obtaining between social superior and social inferior. (105)
In short it goes back to that damned stupid fucking question: “So which one is the girl?”
Stahl’s essay addresses these complications of desire, perception, and the conflicts of penetration, however unlike Kemp’s academic analysis Stahl is far more interested in understanding why a generation of gay men have flocked to a sport so dominated by heterosexual consciousness.
Among gay men, rugby has seen a surge in popularity. The number of teams worldwide has more than tripled in the past two years, mostly in the United States. After , an openly gay businessman and collegiate rugby champion from San Francisco, helped overpower the terrorists who hijacked Flight 93 on 9-11, more than a dozen new gay teams formed, many in Texas and on the West Coast.
Part of this popularity is a tribute to Bingham and a chance for gay men to emulate someone whose heroism was acknowledged on a national stage that’s usually hostile to rough queer bodies. With 590 athletes from nine countries, the 2004 Bingham Cup, which took place in London in May, was the largest amateur rugby tournament in the world. This diversity suggests that more than hero worship is in play.
The rugger is an unlikely sex symbol—a hybrid of jock, bear, and the guy who might have beaten you up in high school. Porn sites like ScrumDown and ruggerbugger trade on the eroticism of the sport by posting naked shots from professional games and straight amateur clubs. Members of London’s Kings Cross Steelers, the first gay rugby team (founded in 1995), recently posed shirtless in a gay rag, and this month several members of my team appeared in Out as part of a fall fashion spread. Turning the rugby player into a lust object enshrines the sexy violence in the sport—members of my team are always showing each other their bruises—but I think gay men find ruggers desirable for other reasons.
Reading this passage I was reminded of the visions of men my father, and even my mom who was an unofficial member of the team, had described and I was struck by how clearly I recognized them. The men stained with dirt and blood and grass wearing cleats on their feet and just those shorts and loose jersies came back to me. They were changed however, for now these men could be figures of desire outside of the image of masculinity I recognized was lacking in myself. The Rugby player was now a fellow man who could be desired sexually as well as fraternally.
I’ll admit part of the early fascination with the sport was not only the ruggedness, but rather the vulgarity and fraternal environment it promised. Stahl tracks the history of rugby’s popularity in America while also observing the raw physicality of the sport that brings such satisfaction:
Rugby first exploded on American college campuses in the 1960s, and one reason why, argues Timothy Chandler of Kent State University, is that its free-form rugged playing style offered an alternative to football. The intense bonding among players, the public nudity on the pitch, and the bawdy, blasphemous, sometimes sexist drinking songs made rugby disliked by college administrators but popular among young men attracted to its anti-authoritarian vibe. Even today, football doesn’t seem to offer gay men the same opportunities for unconventional fellowship and mayhem. For gay bodies, rugby rituals seem both ironic and real. It’s small wonder that Oscar Wilde called it “a good game for rough girls, but not for delicate boys.”
Football is too traditional, relying on individual players assigned specialized tasks. Rugby is communal. Tackled, I go down and a ruck—a sudden mass of shoving bodies—forms over me. Several of my teammates try to push several of their teammates back and win possession of the ball. Cleated boots strike the ground around me like hard leather rain. It’s a thrilling place to be.
Stahl’s description of the field, and the environment of the sport borders on the erotic, but reading his essay I’m still struck by the way he unabashedly tackles the sense of “brotherhood” that was so often described to me as a young man. When I arrived at the first semester of UT Tyler I was disappointed that there was no rugby team, for part of the reason I had gone back to school, apart from doing everything I could to avoid getting “a real job” was to make some of the memories Dad had told me growing up. Once again the chance to explore that field of masculinity was denied to me.
Looking back though I wonder if part of me wasn’t wanting something more.
The chance to explore my body as a physical being was part of the appeal, I wanted to prove to myself I was a man, a real man and not just the academic pussy that I really am, I mean let’s be fair here. In hindsight though I believe rugby was also something else. Beneath the desire to prove my masculinity there was a desire to prove my heterosexuality not realizing that desire for fraternal bond was in fact personal desire to explore a queer identity, and discover what a queer body was. I suppose here as Queer theorist I’m supposed to begin the long jargon thick thesis that I was pursing the phallus as embodied in the figure of the rugby player wearing those tight little shorts, the taut muscles being the absence of masculine power rejecting heteronormative…but that’s getting far more complicated than I honestly buy.
I believe part of the appeal of playing rugby would be that it might edge me closer to recognizing my queer identity and offer one or two chances to figure out what a queer body is in relation to another one. I wanted to have at least one experience with another man and feel that sameness.
Despite my moaning about, there was an honest desire for physicality for, after sex, being a man is about being physical in some form or fashion. The conflict that can occur is that sports as an institution is dominated by heteronormative standards, and since straight men are terrified of becoming the object of the leering queer gaze because they’re afraid of being penetrated and thus “becoming the girl” there was at first some concern that Stahl’s essay would become a sob story about how hard gay players (poor choice of words) had it. In fact this does not occur and the beauty of Rugby as a unifying sport is revealed.
Since most gay teams are geographically scattered, we join straight leagues (or unions) where we are met initially with curiosity or hostility. On the eve of our first match last fall, someone on the opposing team sent a warning to his club’s message board that we would hit on them during the game. One of his teammates tersely replied that perhaps he ought to just worry about being hit, period.
Such toughness causes straight ruggers to reassess what they consider manly. Initial perceptions of the Knights as weak shifted after the first few league games. “Other captains would tell us their teams would lose it when they were down a few tries. To see us come back and lay it on the line with the crazy scores we had was inspiring,” notes our club’s president, Adam Josephs. “We got their respect as ruggers and men.” We learn how to get hit and to fall. We learn to hit back, to live in those moments of intense play, and we all go out drinking and singing afterward.
I always remember the end of Dad’s rugby stories because they always ended in the bar. After men would bite, scratch, punch, punch, tear, punch again, and beat the teams would always end up at the bar singing songs in the vein of:
There was a young man from Nantucket
Took a pig in a thicket to fuck it
Said the pig, “Oh I’m queer,
Get away from my rear…
Come around to the front and I’ll suck it.
(128) (See Below)
The Lymerick is the chosen song of the rugby player and whenever I listen to football songs I’m either completely bored or wondering why no one ever has the balls to sing about balls whenever the Aggies play. The Lymerick, being defined first and foremost by its vulgarity, strips the ego down and leaves only biological impulse and absurdity. Stahl’s essay shines in this small portion to me because he is able to demonstrate how a group of men are able to alter expectations without sacrificing their integrity. Often homosexual men have had to conform to stereotypes in order to pacify or satisfy their heterosexual employers, friends, family, and communities because the character of the “fairy” is non-threatening to those groups. In effect by hiding their desire for displays of more traditional masculinity many gay men have had to undergo a kind of cultural erasure. I Ruck allows a vision that contrasts this. Stahl, and the men on his team, are recreating their own vision of masculinity that is true to their own nature, but which is also allowing them to be recognized by others outside of the Queer community.
My queer identity developed late, and while I’m still figuring out the nitty-gritty details of what queer masculinity, queer sexuality, queer desire, and queer identity actually is, essays like Stahl become not only vital but essential readings because they offer up avenues that are not limiting but rather promising because they ensure agency. The young queer man who stumbles upon this essay in their Into-to-Writing textbook, or perhaps on The Village Voice website or, hopefully, this blog, will be offered up an expression of queer masculinity that is not just the “prissy fairy” character in a Mel Brooks film. They can aspire to be hard man (again, poor word choice) who finds satisfaction and identity is an active physical queer existence.
Stahl ends his article with a final declaration of being.
In our last game of the fall season, I witness rugby-playing gay men create a world where these rough practices are transformed into something wonderful and unexpected. Sidelined by my injury, I feel out of place watching my teammates hurl themselves again and again at their opponents, a straight team from Long Island. Suddenly, a Knight sees an opening, and charges through. He’s tackled, but another is there to take the ball from him. Then we are all in the pack of men rucking near the goal line. The referee’s flag goes up. A whistle splits the air. After a stunned silence, we erupt in shouts. One teammate has tears streaming down his face. We have scored our first goal (or try) against a straight team, and now the world is different.
“Who did it? Who did it?” we whisper to one another. But it doesn’t matter, because in that moment we all have done it. We are divine. It is who I want to be.
The pitch is the field in which rugby players actually play, and much like the pit at a heavy metal concert it can be a brutal place, but Stahl’s essay goes a long way in demonstrating that it can also be a spot for personal growth, sexual awakening, and a chance to feel like a god, if only for a moment.
The song picked for this essay was entirely selected at random from the book Lymericks Lymericks Lymericks Lymericks: The Famous Paris Edition that used to be in my Dad’s library alongside his six part biography of Winston Churchill and hardback collection of Ernest Hemingway novels.
For the record the writer’s father is not aware of his sexuality but will most likely make a joke in the vein of the pig limerick when he finds out. The Writer’s wife is currently waiting for the writer to fall asleep so she can burn the book along with his small collection of Playboys.
I’ve included a link to the original essay I Ruck, Therefore I Am by Christopher Stahl below
***Writer’s Third and FINAL Note***
I have used the term Queer in this article fluidly to indicate both gay, bisexual, and pansexual recognizing what a controversy this actually is. Sexual erasure is a concept not lost on me, and in no way can I condone grouping people into one group because desire is too complex a creature to do so. The only reason I have used Queer so fluidly is because I am working only with male-male same-sex desire and since the article is principally about homosexual men I felt that Queer could be employed here to make is stand out clearly against the heterosexual standard that typically defines sports. It is used here not as a classifying term; it’s ONLY used to indicate NOT-STRAIGHT. If I have offended I apologize dearly.