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    An LGBTQ Athlete’s Story: Mark McCabe Part 2 – Gay Rugby Changed My Life

    By John Chen–

    (Editor’s Note: Part 1 of Mark McCabe’s story is in the June 7 issue of the San Francisco Bay Times. McCabe was on the fast track to becoming a professional soccer player in Europe before he came out to a teammate. The negative response and other homophobia that he experienced emotionally scarred McCabe, who soon thereafter quit soccer with no explanation to his teammates and family.)

    During the years that followed the abrupt ending of an emotionally tumultuous, budding professional soccer career, Mark McCabe lived deeply inside his closet and existed in a vacuum. He had little experience and knowledge of the LGBT community then. Fortunately, not too long after abandoning his dream to become a soccer star, McCabe found some refuge in a loving, but covert, relationship that began while McCabe was working in London.

    A colleague at the time, noting McCabe’s impressive physical stature, asked him if he would like to play rugby. Having been out of competitive sports since sixteen, McCabe hesitated but eventually said yes. In only two weeks, he fell in love with the sport. Being on the field brought back to him all of the good influences and habits—the discipline and the structure—that were once associated with high level competition. For the first time in a long time, he felt that he belonged.

    Then something unexpected happened. After a game and while in the clubhouse, McCabe had a social chat with an unfamiliar individual who was there to support his partner. Puzzled, he recounted his naivety at seeing men at a distance being affectionate with other players. He said, “I didn’t know that there was a women’s rugby team down here.”

    “Wow, you really are new to this clubhouse!” was the reply. “See all of those guys over there? They’re on the gay rugby team.”

    “No way!” McCabe said. “There’s such a thing as gay rugby?!?”

    “Oh, you haven’t been educated,” she said. “Your coach for your straight team identifies as bisexual and he started the gay rugby team. We are all based in the same clubhouse.”

    With his mind blown, McCabe giddily and sheepishly grinned as he told me: “It was fate. I randomly joined a rugby club that just happened to share the same clubhouse as the gay team.”

    In rugby, McCabe learned that camaraderie is part of the clubhouse ritual. There was no gay or straight; there was only brotherhood—or sisterhood—where ruggers are adversaries solely on the field. His clubhouse was a place of celebration that brought everyone together for the spirit of the game. Being gay and merry were the hallmarks of rugby tradition.

    McCabe fondly recalled that straight players would regularly get naked with the gay players and would flirt shamelessly, but harmlessly, with little inhibition and feeling of consequence. Not to be outdone, their wives and girlfriends would also join in by daring, urging and cheering their men on.

    Discovering rugby and its more socially open culture helped McCabe to discover himself. In the accepting environment, being gay was not a bad thing and did not connote a stereotype. Gradually, his remembered voices on the soccer terraces started to be less damaging and painful. They took less of a toll and less control of his own self-identity.

    Nearly ten years after he quit soccer, McCabe was then ready to confront his demons and to let his parents in on his secret. Where once there was no explanation, no reason and no justification, there now was an answer. McCabe’s coming out gave his mother a sense of closure and peace, but his father could not, and would not, acknowledge the truth. He held silence and avoidance as his last line of defense.

    Five years after McCabe came out, his family convinced his father to watch him play rugby in an international tournament, coincidentally against a team from San Francisco. After a hard-fought victory where players left everything both emotionally and physically on the field, McCabe saw a familiar face walking towards him. There were no words or pleasantries. Instead there was just a tight, emotional embrace worth a thousand words from his father.

    One of the main reasons why rugby is viewed as a more LGBT-welcoming sport, according to McCabe, is because there are respected role models at the top of the game. Arguably the best rugger and the best official in the world are openly gay. Not only are they ambassadors to the sport, but they are also leaders in promoting a positive gay image for players and fans alike.

    McCabe laments that the early path he took in life may not have been the best, or the correct, one. Without any guidance, support and role models—especially during the most impressionable years of his youth—McCabe made due with what he learned and heard on the terrace. His confusion and fear clouded his development as a player and as a person, such that his former soccer dreams became his nightmare.

    Now a resident of San Francisco, an older and wiser McCabe is at peace with himself. He is enjoying everything that California has to offer. On occasion, he still plays a mean game of rugby, but he leaves his soccer gear back at home in the United Kingdom.

    Armed with a lifetime of wisdom, McCabe told me that he wished he’d had the courage and strength to withstand the homophobia of his youth, even though it was a lot to ask of someone who had not yet come of age. As he wistfully said, “I could’ve been that openly gay professional soccer player, that role model for kids like me, and that positive voice drowning out the noises on the terrace.”

    John Chen, a UCLA alumnus and an avid sports fan, has competed as well as coached tennis, volleyball, softball and football teams.