‘STEELERS’ The trailblazing gay rugby team movie debuts on Amazon Prime this month.
Gay rugby is now massive with its biennial international tournament the Bingham Cup held in locations such as Sydney, Nashville, Madrid, Dublin and San Francisco. In 2020 before Covid postponement it was due to be held in Ottawa and 148 Gay and inclusive teams had entered from 20 Countries but that is a far cry from whence it started with just 6 guys sat in a North London pub with an idea to begin a gay sports team a quarter of a Century before. The Steelers were born and they now form the subject of a hit Amazon prime documentary which has been storming film festivals around the World since 2019.
The film focuses on the team, their preparation and their games at the 2018 Bingham Rugby World Cup that was held that year in Amsterdam. The Bingham cup is named after Mark Bingham who died on board United Airlines Flight 93 when it crashed during the 9/11 attacks of 2021…..it was the flight that had been hijacked that failed to hit its target of the Capital Building in DC as the passengers including Bingham fought back which became the subject of the Oscar nominated ‘United 93’ where Bingham was played by movie star Cheyenne Jackson. Steelers is a wonderful documentary; both inspirational, involving, heart-breaking and uplifting in equal measure. Clearly, a passionate, personal journey for its director Eammon Ashton-Atkinson who is an Australian TV producer and a former Steelers player himself, who also wrote the film, produced it and shot it after seeing the worst case of homophobia the professional sport had ever seen. It is one of those docs that will stay with you for many days afterwards.
Taking the usual fly on the wall approach to the trip to the Netherlands and the teams progress both with its ups and downs through the rounds of the tournament it is also grounded by focusing on the history of the club and the eternal problematic issue of the relationship between being queer and sports in general that is a story as old as time itself. There is also focus on coming out stories and childhood and teenage LBGTQ+ dilemmas and results of bullying at school. Arguably the film’s most powerful moment shows the filmmaker sat motionless in front of his computer editing the film, a blank screen in front of him with just his own voice recalling a sports incident from his own childhood on the soundtrack. The film heavily features Three Individuals, Simon Jones a player that suffered extreme depression, a drag queen Andrew McDowell and Nic Evans, the Steelers’ then-director of rugby and main coach who talks movingly about her own experiences and abuse as a woman navigating the male-dominated world of rugby. Jones a very handsome successful Lawyer played straight sports until his mid -thirties and was so far in the closet that he was sat holding Lindsey Graham’s coat, when he hit a wall over his sexuality after he got an injury from playing in a straight team and as he reached the bottom he came across the Steelers. Heart-wrenching scenes show Jones recalling how playing rugby helped him cope with depression, and how his reintroduction to the sport via the Steelers had given him a regained sense of belonging; something many of us in the fetish community can all relate to in some way. More touching moments come with Evans talking about her own family in early life, and her passion for the game along with the hurdles she has experienced due to her gender. She tears up more than once – as will you – her hard exterior as a leader of men possibly not reflecting what’s hidden inside.
Ashton-Atkinson is so revealing throughout “I got called every name under the sun at school to the point where I would just go down to the music room and practise the piano instead even though i loved team sports,” he remembers. “Once later on i discovered a gay team I 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. “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 and have fun with your mates doing something you love is huge,” he says.
Simon Jones said “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,” 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. “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 has a 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.
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. Undeterred by the backlash, he simply doubled down on his beliefs by claiming the devil is to blame for trans kids; and bushfires are “God’s judgment” for same-sex marriage. He was kicked out of the sport and is now attempting a comeback supported and financed….guess what?…by Right Wing Christian groups as those religious homophobes are just so fascinated by the LBGT World and kicking us at every opportunity is the reason they get up from their frigid sexless beds every morning. As we previously reported the Rugby bigot seems to have a very loose grasp of his bible as he seems to have missed many of the other chapters which he has personally transgressed over the years; (Remember the word ‘Homosexual’ did not appear anywhere in the bible until 1946 where it was inserted by its 223rd author….so hardly the word of God just a disgrunted Christian at the end of WW2). On Reading the Folau comments and his stance against gay marriage Ashton-Atkinson went back to his filming of the Amsterdam Bingham Cup tournament and decided to make this feature length movie which he eventually sold to Amazon Prime. The Steelers as previously reported in AT is generally seen as The Worls First Gay Sports Team (If you know different, please let us know and we will be happy to follow up). It started in 1995 in the height of the AIDS pandemic when 6 men met in a gay bar ‘Central Station’ right next to King’s Cross railway station where Harry Potter was busy catching trains for 7 of his school day years. They named the club after the Pittsburgh Steeler’s as several of them were fans. To start with straight teams did not want to play against them and many thought the inquiry for a match was a practical joke. Yet they persevered and soon were taken seriously by every British rugby team. Scroll forward 26 years and through their initial actions we now have countless gay rugby teams (and similar in other team sports), whole competitive leagues and the aforementioned world Cup every Two Years. Several of the players have married each other since civil partnerships were legalised and the team has won endless trophies. It now runs Four full 15-man teams, has sponsorships from as far afield as Australia and New Zealand and are hugely oversubscribed with new members wishing to play. The over subscription list to the after match changing rooms, we imagine is even longer….everyone in the AT Office has put their name down for that one under the auspices of doing journalistic features 7 one on one interviews. It is an incredible success story and although this documentary is a great start is surely deserving of the full Hollywood treatment hopefully starring Channing Tatum, Liam Hemsworth and John Cena in sweaty rugby gear and hopefully used jockstraps for Two full hours.
Ashton-Atkinson said in closing “I think the fact that that there aren’t many openly gay players in any league of professional sport for men just shows that we still do have a long way to go. And I hope that my film is one step towards where we need to be as a society.”
The film has been available to stream on Amazon Prime Video from 16 April. For the record if considering new channel purchases – Netflix is great if you like Stanger Things, The Crown and Bridgerton; Disney Plus is wonderful if you are after the likes of The Mandolian Star Wars spin off or Marvels The Falcon & The Winter Soldier but Amazon Prime does have 5 times the amount of gay content than any other platform from the Stonewall movie to countless LBGTQ+ documentaries that are equally entertaining and educational.