Jozi Cats: Africa's first gay rugby team tackles homophobia

Story highlights

  • Gay rugby team launched in South Africa
  • First of its kind on the continent
  • Aims to recruit members, change attitudes
  • Hopes to compete in international events

(CNN)Queen. Fairy. Pansy. Pillow Biter.

In the macho world of sports, it's not easy to be openly gay -- and insults like these make it difficult to come out in the locker room.
    But one fledgling rugby team is using such stereotypes to not only create awareness of homophobia, but to promote itself as a safe haven for those who don't feel comfortable with the game's culture.
    Formed this year, Johannesburg-based Jozi Cats is Africa's first gay rugby team -- and its provocative marketing campaign has had a greater impact than its members ever dreamed possible.
    "The feedback has been phenomenal. I can't believe how quickly it's gone global. Our behind-the-scenes video has been seen in 126 countries, the support has been incredible," Chris Verrijdt, who devised the campaign, tells CNN.
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    Homosexuality is outlawed in many African countries, but that is not the case in South Africa. However, an Amnesty International report pointed to at least seven murders in what appeared to be homophobic attacks between June and November 2012. Five of the victims were lesbians.
    "We said let's do something that takes gay stereotypes and turns them on their heads, and ask the question, like 'Are you or aren't you?' We don't actually mind if you are or you're not, we just need players," Verrijdt adds.
    "We had to use words -- traditional gay slurs -- which didn't need translation to the broader straight community, which people would get without too much explanation. So that's why we went to our six gay stereotypes."
    Behind the scenes at the team's photo shoot.
    The club's main goal was to recruit new players, its chairman Teveshan Kuni says, but the campaign ended up creating something much more powerful.
    "It's started a conversation about homophobia in sport, more specifically homophobia in rugby," says Kuni, who portrayed "Pillow Biter" in the photo shoot.
    "Quite a lot of the players at our club said they wouldn't feel 100% comfortable in the organized club structure setup. They couldn't be their authentic selves if they were there.
    "We've also got a few players who aren't out yet, so we make a safe space for them to play. There's also quite a big gay rugby scene globally that we want to put teams together for, because South Africa is not represented there at all."
    Verrijdt, who works for a PR agency, says the inspiration for the campaign came from one of his work colleagues as they brainstormed ways to promote the team on a limited budget.
    "He said what do my players look like? So we looked at them, and he said 'But they don't even look gay.' I said that's the whole point."
    Kuni says South African rugby "shares all the traits of football in the U.S. -- it is the ultimate macho game."
    Both sports have had more top-level "out" athletes than soccer, golf or tennis, but the numbers are still low.
    "It's great to have started the conversation -- and that conversation is, 'Why do we even need to have a gay rugby team?'" Verrijdt says.
    "Why are we still having conversations, 22 years since the start of our democracy, about inclusion in sport? This for me is a no-brainer, it should've already happened."
    Verrijdt is wary of condemning rugby as a homophobic sport, and says education can create wider awareness.
    "A lot of homophobic slurs have a certain jocular humor to it, so I often think it's unconscious and it's not even meant in the way it comes out," he says.
    "But it can be hurtful, absolutely, and that's why we use the payoff line, 'Rugby, that's so gay,' because I've been out with straight friends -- as friendly and inclusive as they are -- and even with them it slips out, and you have to catch yourself.
    "What we're doing is to make people aware of what you say, and how it can affect. Yes, it may be water off a duck's back for me, but there are other guys out there that they just shut down and then they'll walk away. That's not what we want."
    Verrijdt says the club's campaign was a delicate balance of being out and proud, and protecting the players.
    "One of the guys, Chris, he hadn't even come out to his friends and family, so this was like his coming-out parade, in a way," he says.
    "We were very conscious of the sensitivities surrounding everything. Once you get your face on a poster, you put a title above it, and get on the internet, it's going to be on there forever. "
    Kuni hopes the club -- which mainly plays touch rugby for now -- will one day take part in international events such as the Gay Games, Out Games and Bingham Cup.
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    "We're one of 70 of our type throughout the world and the only one in Africa," he says.
    "Everyone who speaks to us says, 'Why is there not an African team, and specifically why not a South African team, in these formats of rugby?'"
    The response has been largely positive so far. Verrijdt says club membership has grown from single figures to over 40, with another 30 expressing interest in joining.
    "The only time we've seen any kind of slurring, or anything like that, has been in mainstream sports publications in South Africa, but again it's that jocular humor," he says.
    "They're saying stuff to be funny but to those who are perhaps a little bit less secure, it's very offensive. That for me was a big surprise, but hopefully this is what this campaign is about -- people will just check themselves."
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