Sometimes the need to be accepted can be just as powerful as the need to be different. One local rugby club somehow offers both.
The Kansas City Carnivores are by definition a team that plays rugby. They also serve as a non-profit organization that seeks to bring the sport of rugby to traditionally underrepresented communities, with an emphasis on gay and bisexual players.
Yes, the Carnivores are a very open team—even inviting women to practices and scrimmages when they aren’t allowed to play in official games. Just don’t let that fool you into thinking this team takes it easy.
Walk in Loose Park around 7 p.m. and you'll hear the sounds of bodies slamming into each other. Twentysomethings sprint to the end of a field and then roll over their shoulders and down onto the cold, frosty ground. Then they complete the roll and pop back up to run the other way.
“Run, no more talking,” says head coach Bree Morales. “If you can talk, you’re not running hard enough.”
But the talking doesn’t stop. The team is too close.
Morales looks at each player as they perform their rolls.
“Remember, don’t throw yourselves onto the ground,” says Morales. “It should be a graceful move. Alex, don’t roll on the concrete.”
Relieving Pent-Up Frustration
She’s speaking to Alex Medina, the vice president of the Carnivores. Medina also plays the winger position.
“The duty of the winger is to catch the ball, run like hell, and try not to get hit,” Medina explains.
It’s a role that suits Medina well. He admits he was never much of a sports guy before joining the Carnivores, but he runs frequent marathons and has a mixture of speed and endurance.
Medina grew up in Junction City, KS, a small town of about 1,800 at the time. He says that growing up in such an enclosed environment while being gay was stressful. He was never bullied, but he saw others go through the process. He says that playing rugby with this team helps alleviate some of the frustration within.
“I think it is a safe place for people,” Medina says.
Everyone seems to say the same things: safe place, family, acceptance—and their actions reflect Medina’s words. Laughter is as common as hits are during a Carnivores practice. In one drill, Kevin Keyser, a UMKC freshman and team captain, makes contact with another teammate.
“I think my face made friends with your elbow,” Keyser says with a wide smile. A hearty laugh soon follows. Coach Morales says the team is like a family.
“We all check on each other,” Morales says. “If anyone is having a bad day, we all call around. We try to initiate family dinners and things like that. So when we are close off the field, we are close on the field too.”
Off the field, the Carnivores have game nights and potlucks. While everyone on the team is competitive, winning comes second to acceptance. Keyser remembers when he first came to the team. He was born in Japan before moving to Australia, where his love for rugby blossomed. He eventually found a home in Kansas City, but when he came to the Carnivores he was the slowest person on the team. Of course, that didn’t matter.
“The moment you show up, someone’s there to ask you what’s your name, what you like,” says Keyser. “We love winning, but more than anything, we love having a place to have fun and feel accepted without any pressure of any sort of label.”
Playing Beyond Labels
The label Keyser speaks of is the label of being gay. Carnivores do not ask new members what their sexual orientation is, unless it’s a topic they bring up themselves. While the majority of players are gay, there is no pressure either way in joining the team.
Keyser says the team is not the family he was born into but the family he chose. The Carnivores themselves belong to a bigger family, as part of the Heart of America Rugby Football Union, which spans out across Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas.
The Carnivores play a wide variety of teams from different areas, including several other Kansas City teams. But how do teams react when they learn they are playing against a team with mostly gay players?
“The majority of the teams we play against are incredibly amazing,” says Keyser. “They treat us just like any other team. There are a couple teams that we’ve played against, definitely not going to name any names, but we felt like the ‘f word’ was going to pop out. In those instances you just try to play your best game and to the spirit of the sport.”
IGRAB Helps Assuage Stereotypes
Rugby is one of the more physical sports in existence. The best players in Europe often resemble the physical appearance of a barroom brawler. And the Carnivores play most of their games without pads. Seth Gaines, president of the Carnivores, sees rugby as a chance for the players to alleviate some of the stereotypes associated with being a gay man.
“I will say that I am pretty athletic,” Gaines says. “I am an athlete and I’ll go out there and tackle and I’ll go after it. But off the pitch, I’ll ‘hey girl, hey’ with the best of them. That’s the beauty of rugby is that if you can get out here and you can deal with the pain, you can find yourself a home on this team.”
Gaines was once the victim of a hate crime. He was stabbed in the leg with a knife because he is gay. The scars on his leg remind him of that day and the reality that being gay is still not welcomed by everyone. But now, the only pain he feels is the sting from a rugby tackle.
The Carnivores are members of IGRAB, which stands for the International Gay Rugby Association and Board. IGRAB is an umbrella organization that encourages gays, lesbians and bisexuals to play rugby. They also host The Bingham Cup, considered the largest non-professional international rugby tournament in the world. The event is next held in Sydney, Australia in August of 2014, and the KC Carnivores plan on being one of the 40 teams in attendance. Alex Medina says IGRAB’s existence sheds light on how diverse the gay community is.
“There is no such thing as a gay person who just does one thing,” says Medina. “We all have our crazy little quirks of practicing rugby in 45 degree temperatures. A lot of gay people don’t want to play rugby, and that’s their thing. A lot of gay people do want to play rugby. The fact that IGRAB exists, sort of indicates that there isn’t just one mold.”
The players take pride in the fact that they are just as different as everybody else.