Gay SA team heading to heartlands

Berlin - South Africa's first gay rugby team is planning a tour into the sport's traditional heartlands to tackle discrimination head-on.

As chairperson of Johannesburg-based Jozi Cats, as well as one of the players, Teveshan Kuni has come up with the risky plan as he bids to eventually enter the team into a local league.

He plans a December tour of the Free State and possibly Western Cape - the nation's traditional rugby heartlands - to get the Cats playing their first matches, as well as holding coaching clinics in under-privileged areas.

The Cats are affiliated to the Wanderers Rugby Club in Johannesburg's affluent district Sandton.

But away from liberal Sandton, Kuni accepts a team of gay rugby players may not be welcomed with open arms.

"We've come up with a plan to tackle this head on," he told AFP during a visit to Berlin last week.

"We're going to put on a tour bus, drive to the heart of South African rugby and see if we can get some friendly games going."

Kuni was in Berlin to take part in a tournament - "The Bash About" - for some 125 mostly gay players, with 30 nationalities represented, from some of the 70 gay rugby clubs around the world.

South Africa has some of the most open laws on the African continent, where homosexuality is a crime in some 40 countries.

Gay marriage has been legal in South Africa since 2006.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex (LGBTI) rights are constitutionally protected and Johannesburg has a large gay community.

But rugby is a tough nut to crack.

The national team, the Springboks, were world champions in 1995 and 2007, but prejudice and bigotry makes it difficult to be openly gay in the country's rugby community.

Kuni, however, a 34-year-old chartered accountant of Indian origin, is determined to break through such barriers.

"There is some anxiety, but if you know your team-mates have your back, it's a very different situation," he said.

Generally, Kuni says the Cats have had "overwhelmingly positive" feedback from South Africa's rugby community, but social media has shown an uglier side.

"The keyboard warriors are the worst. Russia Today and This is Africa posted articles about us on their Facebook site. I was scrolling through the comments, but had to walk away a few times, because they were horrendous," said Kuni.

"Things like 'this is against God and I hope you all die of AIDS'."

But that's not the only reason they haven't entered a league. Kuni says they're simply not battle-hardened enough to compete.

"You can't have a 32-year-old with a desk job, who is just getting into rugby, up against a 19-year-old, who spends all his time in the gym and has played representative rugby," he explained.

Kuni says his players, many of whom are new to rugby, need more time to learn the game.

To stay fit and sharpen their skills, the Cats have played four seasons in Johannesburg's touch rugby (non-contact).

They've come a long way from the original idea of merely forming a club for gay, straight, bisexual and transgender male players.

"We were a group of 15 gay guys who practised every Saturday and decided to set up a rugby club, not realising how much work that involved," said Kuni, who plays as a centre.

To recruit players, the Cats launched an advertising campaign earlier this year using homophobic insults to challenge prejudices of what a gay rugby player looks like.

Kuni posed for one advert, scowling menacingly at the camera in full rugby gear, biting into a pillow he looks ready to destroy.

"Pillow Biter?" the caption asks.

Other homophobic slurs - "Fairy?", "Fudge Packer?", "Pansy?" - were also used.

"The feedback has been amazing. The ads went viral and we have been seen in 140 countries by around 350 million people.

"For the team, it's been phenomenal. We have attracted 60 new members, probably had another 40 come and go."

A surprise result of the advertising campaign was a spontaneous visit of ex-South African international prop Lawrence Sephaka, who won 24 caps for the Springboks.

"He came by a fortnight ago, he just rocked up and, having seen us on Carte Blanche, wanted a run out and to see what we were all about," said Kuni.

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