A loving ode to a pioneering, life-changing team, Steelers: The World’s First Gay Rugby Club is a courageous, invigorating account of struggles on, but mostly off the field of play. Formed in King’s Cross in the mid 1990s, the organisation spearheaded a movement which now comprises more than sixty gay rugby teams all over the world.
Eammon Ashton-Atkinson, who moved to London from Queensland in pursuit of an international career in journalism after graduating from university, is one of four key voices in a documentary that upends the stale, bigoted stereotypes of toxic masculinity in sport – and society at large. Sidelined by a concussion which prevented him attending the bi-annual Bingham Cup, the TV presenter-turned-filmmaker trains his camera on club coach, Nic Evans, and teammates Simon and Drew in the lead-up to the competition.
Named in memory of Mark Bingham, one of the passengers who battled the hijackers of flight United 93 on 9/11, the cup takes place every other year to celebrate gay and inclusive rugby. But make no mistake, these boys aren’t here for fun. This is a lot more than just a game. Pumped up and throwing their weight about, some with a little more in that respect than others, they’re here to win. In life as in competition, it’s important to leave it all out there, and one of the most impressive elements of Ashton-Atkinson’s film is his own testimony.
Recalling the relentless bullying of his school days with striking openness, one particularly inhuman act of humiliation and the fear he had of his family finding out about his sexuality, it is a brave move by the first-time director. Just as we take away the impression that there’s an element of confessional catharsis in Ashton-Atkinson getting things off his chest, Simon – who only came out a few years previously – speaks with real candour and honesty of his struggle since with depression.
The cruel words of a childhood friend, for whom he harboured feelings that were not reciprocated, sent Simon spiralling before he found the club. As for Ashton-Atkinson, the Steelers were his salvation. The same applies for Drew; a bruising, heavyweight force on the pitch, his incredible drag act – Divalicious – sees him strutting his stuff on stage, replacing boots with high heels and frequent costume changes. Flamboyant, expressive, Drew’s infectious confidence is proof to all around him that a person – whatever their gender or orientation – can be exactly who they want to be.
And it is inclusion, acceptance and a sense of belonging that really shines from every member of the team and the film itself. The same can be said for team boss, and ‘fierce lady’, Nic Evans. Coming to the end of her three-year term as the Steelers’ Director of Rugby, she has always faced the additional challenges of judgmental, ingrained sexism in the sport. With her own battles to fight, just how much her boys and the club mean to her – in light of a Welsh upbringing where rugby and breathing went hand in hand – are further moments that may bring the odd tear to the eye. And like Nic, you’ll be cheering from the sidelines from first to last for what is a wonderful, life-affirming film.
The 2021 Glasgow Film Festival takes place between the 24 February to 7 March. You can follow CineVue’s coverage here.
Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63