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Get Your Kit On: Gender, Sexuality, and Gay Rugby in Ireland

From: Éire-Ireland
Volume 48, Issue 1&2, Spring / Summer 2013
pp. 246-281 | 10.1353/eir.2013.0005

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The first posters went up around Dublin in the fall of 2003, and the first ad appeared at the back of the October 2003 issue of the Dublin-based Gay Community News or GCN, Ireland’s national lesbian and gay monthly. The posters (figure 1) proclaimed “Get Your Kit On,” while the ad (figure 2) more playfully called for “Rugger Buggers.”1 Both announced the formation of the Emerald Warriors, “Ireland’s first gay rugby team.” Founded in 2003 by Richie Whyte, the Emerald Warriors is the first competitive gay team-sport organization

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Figure 1. 

Emerald Warriors recruitment poster, image courtesy of Richie Whyte.

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Figure 2. 

Warriors ad in Gay Community News (Oct. 2003), courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

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Figure 3. 

Recruitment poster, image courtesy of Richie Whyte.

in Ireland.2 Soon after their formation the Warriors were accepted into the Irish Rugby Football Union, and since 2007 they have played in the Leinster Metro Junior League. They garnered mainstream media attention in Ireland when they hosted the 2008 Bingham Cup, an international competition for gay rugby, in Dublin.3 In this essay I examine representations of the Emerald Warriors—early publicity materials, beefcake calendars, mainstream media coverage, documentary film—to suggest the necessary negotiation of multiple audiences and the ongoing interrogation of gender and sexual stereotypes in the visual culture, media representations, and self-representations of gay male athletes.

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Figure 4. 

Gay Community News, May 2004, courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

Both the recruitment poster produced by the club and the ad produced by GCN featured the image of two muddy, muscled legs—in red high heels. A subsequent recruitment poster (figure 3) featured a buzz-cut rugger in a jersey and a pink boa, again under the header, “Get Your Kit On.” These images from the early media produced by the Warriors evidence both a playfulness and a self-awareness, even self-consciousness, about gender and sport—about the cultural associations of homosexuality with femininity and of sport with masculinity, and about the performativity of gender. Gender is emphatically a performance in these images: the “kit” to be donned could include feather boas and high heels (staples of drag performance) as easily as jerseys and rugby balls. Furthermore, “rugger buggers,” a slang term for rugby players or fans (the colloquial use of bugger usually detached from its etymological origins in buggery), is here queerly reinscribed and playfully reinvested with (homo)sexual meaning, as was made more obvious in a May 2004 GCN story on the club, with the teaser on the cover, “Bugger Me” (figure 4).

It is important to remember, however, that these images were for the most part internal—that is, these were representations produced by gay men (either members of the club or members of the gay press) for dissemination within the gay community. Whereas the early subcultural images emphasize camp and playful modes of gender representation, increasingly as the Warriors achieved acceptance and coverage outside gay venues, publicity efforts tended to normalize gender representation in order to stabilize or obviate the queer potential of the gay team athlete. Analyzing mainstream media coverage of the Emerald Warriors and of the Ulster Titans in the North, Cormac O’Brien argues that mainstream-media treatment of gay rugby in Ireland affirms normative imagery of masculinity by polarizing gay male representation into images of camp versus straight-acting, the “bitch or butch” (8), but he admits that “queer-made and queer-friendly representations” of the men offer a wider spectrum of gender imagery (2). If, as O’Brien demonstrates, mainstream media depends on a masculine/feminine binary as a way to address the potentially disruptive presence of homosexual athletes—that is, using a gender binary to render gay athletes “masculine,” to straighten or “butch” them up in comparison to their nonathletic, camp, effeminate compatriots—then how do these “queer-made and queer-friendly representations” negotiate gender norms? How do they inflect or contest those norms?

Sports culture marks male bodies with norms, naturalizes gender on and through athletic bodies—both through media imagery of male bodies on...

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