As a child, Eamonn Ashton-Atkinson used to wish his being gay would go away.
Now a successful television reporter, Ashton-Atkinson, who’s Australian born, has just had the world premiere of his debut feature-length documentary, Steelers: The World’s First Gay Rugby Club.
The film, which premiered to a sell-out crowd at Capitol Cinema in Auckland on July 24, centres on the self-titled club, which Ashton-Atkinson himself is a part of.
“I made the film to my younger self, that unsure kid who wished the gay away and hated who he was. He was so ashamed … the film showed him that things do get better,” he said from New York City.
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In 1995, a group of gay men formed the club while sitting in a pub in London. More than 60 similar ones have been created across the world since then, coming together to play for the biannual Bingham Cup.
Back then, the London team found it hard to be taken seriously – others ridiculed it, or thought it was an April Fool’s Day joke. “They smashed stereotypes.”
Ashton-Atkinson was based in London when he first heard about its existence. He joined, and says it changed his life – he even met his husband through it.
“I was bullied a lot as a kid; [there was] relentless bullying for being gay, [which left] scars as an adult. I had depression, it was a real struggle … I needed a clean slate.”
In London, after finding the group, Ashton-Atkinson said he finally felt like he belonged somewhere.
But about three weeks before he was due to go with the team to the 2018 Bingham Cup in Amsterdam, Ashton-Atkinson suffered a bad concussion, and a ruling was made that he couldn’t play.
A journalist by trade, he took his camera along and sat on the sidelines. As he began filming, “this incredible story unfolded … about finding a place to belong … finding a community,” he said.
“It’s not so much about a gay rugby club. It’s about searching for happiness, finding a place.”
Three characters with “very different stories” are followed for the duration of the narrated documentary. Each put a lot of trust in Ashton-Atkinson as director, he said.
“An external production company doing it wouldn’t get the same film.”
Feedback so far has been the film has a big heart, which Ashton-Atkinson says is the best compliment.
“It’s just me with a camera looking through and filming people I know and care about … I tell my story as well, which gives the film a unique intimacy.”
Ashton-Atkinson said it had been heartening seeing support from teams like the All Blacks, which tweeted about the film. Particularly in the wake of Israel Folau’s homophobic remarks, it was important queer rugby players knew they were entitled to their place on a pitch.
“It’s all about visibility. People say … ‘why do we need a gay rugby club?’ We’re not exclusive, but it’s to give people who are denied a chance … a space where they’re celebrated.”
Steelers: The World’s First Gay Rugby Club is screening in select cinemas.
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