Playing The Field

Entry by: Mac

23rd September 2016
A fictionalised account of true events.
September 1991 – thereabouts!

Lying in bed one Sunday morning, listening to the sounds of children playing in the park across the street, I became aware of the peal of the church bells from close by. Instinctively, I began to count … 8 … 9 … 10 … 11. Then the idea came to me in a flash: an amateur football team – of gay men. My god, yes! We play every Sunday lunch time – a kick-about – in the park so why not form a team?

Actually, that isn’t exactly how it happened but it has the ring of destiny put this way. Curmudgeonly conversation leading to the idea being floated and some half-hearted agreement is closer to the truth. But does it have drama? It does not. And I wanted it to have drama because, in the end, it proved to be a highly significant event in the history of gay culture … and football, actually. You think not? Go and check out the FA website: the rainbow flag has made its mark. Even if it isn’t actually flying yet. But I digress.

“I brought quiche! And an assortment of biscuits!” Kevin beamed with joy and a hint of self-satisfaction as he opened plastic containers and placed them on the ground, close to the pile of bags and clothing. “I’ll just sit here today.” Kevin sat there every week – and always said the same thing, as though in the past he had played but was sitting this one out. His gaze scanned the group and alighted on Marky, his one true love. If Marky was an Adonis, Kevin was a cuddly teddy bear but they were in love and that’s what mattered. It certainly made my job easier. Kevin was actually the first person I broached with my idea – because beneath his sweet, quiche baking besotted sentimentality he was as sharp as they come and eminently sensible.

“A what?!” he squealed. I raised my eyebrows and waited for the second wave. “You’ve got to be joking! I mean, how –“
“Kevin … Kevin … stop! And while you’re about it, stop being a gay stereotype please.”
“And your closet case being so masculine it hurts isn’t one?! I beg your pardon! Your closet may be IKEA whilst mine is John Lewis but they’re both serving the same purpose. And creating a gay football team isn’t the best way to crack open the lock!”

Kevin was being uncharacteristically bitchy, possibly because he knew that his Marky would be the first player I had lined up and, more importantly, Marky was likely to say yes. Especially if the adoring Kevin suggested it. Which he did. But Kevin was first because I needed an excellent manager-administrator …. Kevin.

“It’s insane, Trevor. Please don’t do it.”
“Why not?!”
“Because … it’s unthinkable. I mean all this kicking around on Sundays is lovely – and I get to share my pastries. And watch Marky in shorts,” he smiled. I imagined him cajoling Marky into wearing them every Saturday night anyway. “But … an actual team?! And who would you play? There are no gay teams to play with.”
“Well … in time, there would be. Word would get around. I mean, enough of us go to games on Saturdays and meet other supporters. The GFSN has got quite a network now.”
“How many?” inquired Kevin, somewhat churlishly.
“Over fifty, certainly.” I was guessing.
“The Gay Football Supporters Network …. Sounds so …. So … straight!”
“Kevin, I need you.”
“Me?! I can’t play. I make quiche! And watch Marky …. Lovingly!” At that point, Kevin actually pouted.
“Kevin, you make quiche because … you want people to accept you as Marky’s boyfriend. And have everyone think you’re sweet and cuddly. The plain fact is, everybody does anyway … with or without the quiche. We adore you. But more than that, people admire the fact that underneath this gay teddy bear act you’re as smart as a whip. And nice. So …. Will you do it? Be the team manager-administrator? Keep it organized?”

Kevin pondered; he was clearly moved by the compliments and was also grasping the more serious implications. “Trevor is such a closeted name, isn’t it?! Your parents were so cruel. They should have let you choose to be Gavin or something the moment you picked up your first doll!” And he grinned. And nodded.

I slowly made my way around the other guys who were regulars at the kick-about. It took four weeks of wheedling and some cordon bleu baking from Kevin before we finally had a team. In the meantime, I had contacted footie enthusiasts in other cities and sounded them out about the idea. And got nowhere. Some interest in Leicester and raised eyebrows in Birmingham and Derby. Meanwhile, we had begun training two evenings a week in the park, in the cold, which became more noticeable as autumn crept in.

“Trevor, my closeted football person … darling! We need to talk.”
“Yes, Kevin.”
“Marky said that a number of players are getting restless about not actually playing in a match. They don’t see how all this training is any different from Sundays – except for you being bossy.”
“I can’t help it if I am getting nowhere fast with encouraging other teams. I’m doing what I can.”

He was right, of course. My brilliant idea had been slow to start and after six long weeks, during which there was a brief moment of enthusiasm and expectation, was now on the verge of fizzling out. Then Duncan called me. He’d been quietly enthusiastic from the start. He used to play at school until he came out to his best friend, who told his girlfriend who told everyone. That was the end of him playing in the school team. In fact, that was pretty much the end of his social life in his school. Thankfully, he went off to university a year later. He never played again until he began to join our little gang in the park on Sundays. He didn’t say much when I asked him about playing in a team but he rang two days later and … we had a talented centre forward.

“Trevor … the boys are losing interest,” said Duncan. “But you don’t need me to tell you that. We need to play a game.” I nodded and sighed; I didn’t need to say anything. “So, I was thinking … we could put ourselves forward for the county Sunday League. We’d get a game that way.”

This time I was totally silent. Duncan sighed this time … and laughed. “What do you think?” I paused and considered my response.
“I think we put it to the team in the pub on Thursday evening after the training session.” As I said it, I could feel my mouth getting drier. I had to mention it to Kevin which meant that Marky got to know - which meant that half the team not only knew but were all fired up when we met on Thursday.

“Trev! Playing in that league would mean we’d be playing against a straight team!” said Don.
“There aren’t any gay teams anyway!” – raucous laughter ensued.
“What’ll we wear?! Tutus?! We’d better pack an extra large first aid kit for after they decide to kill us.”
“We’d need an undertaker not first aid!” – Don again.

Marky spoke slowly and deliberately, “We don’t yet have a name. We could choose something nondescript … and … well … keep it quiet that we’re a gay team.” There was a numbing silence in the room as people thought through the implications of hiding our sexuality, returning to the closet in order to play football. Kevin spoke first, with tears in his eyes as he looked at Marky.
“Would you prefer me to stay at home … you don’t want obvious giveaways in your supporters’ group.”
Marky turned away and the others shuffled with discomfort. He looked back at Kevin but said nothing.
“Well,” said Kevin, “You’d only need to hide once … that’s all it takes to go back in the closet. From then on, you’re not a gay team. You’re a bunch of gays playing football and praying each week you don’t get found out.”

The following Sunday Kevin arrived at our kick-about session looking radiantly triumphant. As he served his quiche and biscuits after the session – and included a couple of surprise bottles of prosecco [though he shuddered at having to use plastic flutes] – he announced that he had found a sponsor to pay for our strip. The Madding Crowd – a gay pub away from the city centre – had offered and he’d brought several designs to show us. He’d been a busy little gay, I had to admit.

Kevin and I applied for admission to the league, got approval and turned up for the final practice before our first game with our wonderful new kit. Pink.
“Pink?!” yelled Duncan. Not just Duncan. Only Marky smiled half-heartedly, determined to show some solidarity with Kevin.
“It’s cerise … and cobalt blue,” said Kevin quietly.

Worse was to come. Three team members got cold feet. Our kick-about session drew a few players who came along for the fun but who had either declined to join the team or had declared that they were not good enough. Some of them turned up for practice sessions to spur us on. Duncan set about cajoling a couple of them who reluctantly agreed if they could play defence. That left us one short.

“I’ll play … if you’ll have me,” said Tania. She was transgender. It was one of those awful moments when people who had proudly proclaimed their commitment to equality were suddenly being asked to stand up and be counted. And take risks. Kevin broke the silence.
“Of course we will. Why wouldn’t we?”

On the day of our first game, drawn against the Wessex Spitfires, Duncan took me to one side.
“I want you to know I think this is … great. And … well, if anyone starts on Tania, I’m straight in there.” I was lost for words, facing the quiet man of our team who was suddenly Sir Galahad, the gay activist.

We’d uninspiringly taken our name from our sponsor and called ourselves nondescriptly The Crowd. It seemed that word had reached the other team that we were gay anyway. There are moments in most gay men’s lives when, whilst not considering returning to the closet, they opt for the shadows. Like now.

“Hey! Tommy! Watch their number seven … I think he’s eyeing your arse.” The Spitfires collapsed in fits of derisory laughter at their captain’s snide remark. Number seven, Don, edged nearer to the speaker and said, “It’s not his arse darling …. It’s yours!” and blew him a kiss. I closed my eyes and prayed.

The game was rough, bloody and aggressive. They won: 5 – 3. But we yelled and cheered at our three goals – two scored by Tania, an undiscovered talent – like champions. Kevin walked over to their manager and an official from the League, before Marky could stop him.
“You’ve listed our name wrongly … We’re The Rainbow Crowd.”

As for counting the chimes of the church bells and stopping at eleven. Well, yes. That’s true. But did I lie there one Sunday morning, counting and suddenly having an epiphany? No. The idea gradually emerged. I floated it with a couple of guys, after that first conversation with Kevin. After we played that first match though, I lay on the bed in the evening and counted the chimes of Evensong. And I felt very proud when I reached eleven. I didn’t bother counting any more. I lay back and thought about my brave and wonderful brothers - and sister. Then I turned on my side and cuddled Duncan.