When I was growing up there was that misconception of gay men as limp-wristed and effeminate that are not into sports. The truth is that there are all sorts of gay men; some are indeed more in touch with their feminine side but there are others who are macho and who love sports. Come to think of it, I know some limp-wristed straight men that hate sports too.
The National Gay Flag Football League grew out of pick-up games that gay men put together to play football. Many found playing football in any sort of competitive manner to be uncomfortable for them while others wanted to use it as a means of meeting new people with similar interests. Then something unexpected happened in that the teams of predominantly gay players began to bond. This started in New York City and the idea of gay leagues began to catch on in cities around the country. Eventually, the National Gay Flag Football League came into being.
The idea of competitive tournament of gay teams around the country culminating in a championship game was the idea of sportswriter Cyd Ziegler who is himself an ultra-competitive football player. His team, the New York Warriors, became the dominant team winning three Gay Bowl championships in a row. However, in Gay Bowl IX however, they were beat by the Los Angeles Motion (led by Cyd Ziegler who had moved out to Los Angeles.
The Warriors, led by team captain Wade Davis (a former NFL player) were eager to regain the title that they’d lost. The Motion had two of the best quarterbacks in the league with MVP Drew Boulton and Christophe Faubert and they were just as motivated to repeat. The dark horse of Gay Bowl X was the host team, the Phoenix Hellraisers, led by quarterback Joey Jacinto with this very strong arm and Jared Garduno, the heart and soul of the team.
“F(l)ag Football”, the documentary follows the three teams as they prepare for the weekend event. We hear from the players, many of whom found the acceptance here that they couldn’t find in the gay bar and club scene. Some of the players talk openly about their coming out and some of those stories are heartbreaking. Davis tells us that his extremely religious mother, whom he had been especially close to as a child, washed her hands of him. Los Angeles captain Brenton Metzler talks humorously of how his sister, a lesbian wishing to deflect her parents’ attention away from herself, outed him against his wishes.
We are all aware of the clichés about football and how it builds character and forges bonds not unlike those forged by soldiers. We begin to realize that the men we meet here these just gay men; they’re men period. The only difference between them and straight men is that they prefer men as romantic and sexual partners.
The most exciting part of “F(l)ag Football” arrives at the end, when two bitter rivals face each other. But the most insightful scene comes in the middle of this documentary, when the gay New York Warriors take on a straight team from Long Island.
The Long Island players aren’t told that most of the Warriors are gay, and excerpts shown from the game show intense competition. When one Long Islander learns of the opposing players’ sexuality, he reacts with a shrug and with praise for their skills. That’s how it should be— we should judge people on their abilities and without preconceptions. Not everyone is there yet. Director Seth Greenleaf gives us some optimistic moments as we follow the teams as they train for the yearly Gay Bowl flag football tournament. (The game, a variation on touch football, places a premium on speed; players are downed not by tackles, but when an opponent pulls a marker from the ball carrier’s belt.)
Along the way, we explore the conflict between traditional views of masculinity, especially in sports (and in the N.F.L. in particular), and stereotypes of homosexuality. It’s an interesting mix. The film gains momentum, however, as the athletes experience hope, disappointment, pain and joy during the final contest. We see that on the field and off, we are all so much alike.
Throughout the film the players make it clear that there is nothing sexual for them about playing the game; it’s all about the competition and the game itself. These men are as tough as nails regardless of their sexuality but since the point of this film is to try to change perceptions of gay men then to a certain extent their sexuality has to be part of the equation. What we really see are talented, hard working and masculine football players who happen to be gay. Their sexuality is part of who they are but it isn’t the only thing that defines them.
The film asks all the right questions that we hear in the football vs. homosexuality debate, while revealing a lesser-seen part of the gay community. The players are capable of divorcing sex with contact sports. They may even be able to understand better than their straight counterparts that the reason why they play sports is secondary to winning and primarily to find brotherhood with their teammates.
These guys are all jocks. We hear the “F” word many times and they speak in sentences filled with clichéd “macho-isms”. Many of these athletes were raised with the casual homophobia and systemic heterosexism that even they write off. Player Wade Davis says, “We’ve created this nationwide narrative that gay men aren’t as tough,” but when confronted by a straight man, \ “We can go outside right now and I’ll run through you like a Mack truck, and you tell me if gay guys aren’t as tough as straight guys.”
Opposite this, these men have found that looking for the bonds they seek in the traditional gay scene can be problematic, sometimes promoting unhealthy lifestyle choices that are often image-obsessed and ruthlessly judgmental.
As a sociological study, the film is fascinating. We see that there are gay men out there creating alternatives such as the National Gay Football League. We see that “Advocacy and activism come in many ways other than just marches.”