When Kevin Rohde moved to Portland from the Midwest five years ago, he wanted to find a group of like-minded people to befriend, a "family" to be part of and a sport to participate in.
He saw a Facebook post about the Portland Lumberjacks, a fledgling men's inclusive rugby club, and thought it would be a perfect fit. Thinking, "Hey, why not give it a try?," he joined, despite never having played rugby, and coming from perhaps the opposite end of the sports spectrum, figure skating.
"Now they're my chosen family," Rohde says. "Being gay in sports, especially very historically masculine, tough sports ... it's hard to find common ground with certain people or with some people.
"We're a team of all kinds of people; although considerably a gay team, we're really an inclusive team. We take everybody regardless of experience level. People come from all walks of life to our team and push themselves to play rugby."
Teammate Albert Gapasin, who moved to Portland from Chicago 15 years ago, says "I can engage other gay men for a friendship through sport" because "this is where we foster family and community."
Indeed, the Lumberjacks formed in 2014 to provide an opportunity for members of our community who may or may not feel comfortable playing sports with people who may or may not be like-minded. It's inclusive for men, meaning sexual orientation does not matter. Portland also had a previous men's inclusive team, the Portland Avalanche.
The Lumberjacks will take to the field Friday and Saturday, May 31-June 1, in the International Gay Rugby Western Conference Tournament at Delta Park. It's called the Stumptown Scrumdown and is a qualifier for the IGR's Bingham Cup in Ottawa, Canada.
It's the first time the Lumberjacks have hosted an IGR event. There'll be six other teams involved, including from Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
he Lumberjacks have played in two previous Bingham Cup tournaments, and won three matches in 2018 in Amsterdam. The team also participates in the Pacific Northwest Rugby Football Union against "straight" teams, and whereas the Lumberjacks might not fare as well in those matches, it's never just about results for team members, says Brian Gardes, team president.
"Other teams are opening up and being more inclusive, but so many people never had that experience in high school or college to play a team sport, to be in a locker room and not have jokes or comments made about them," Gardes says. "You can come to the Lumberjacks and there's none of that. That's why I'm so proud to be with this team. I'm so proud of them.
"I'm straight and I'm one of the co-founders, and I'm honored to be chosen as first president of the team. It's great that I get to be an ally like that. The team is primarily gay — probably 80 percent — and we have some straight players and bisexual players, some transgender. Anybody willing to put on shorts and boots and go out there and take a hit, they can come out and play."
TRohde, Gapasin and Gardes all say they have heard rude comments made by opposing players, but Gardes says such behavior is not condoned and quickly addressed and acceptance is more prevalent.
"We've never faced a team, as a whole, that has been jerks," says Gardes, 44. "Most teams police themselves. If somebody is saying or doing something that is negative toward us, most times other teams step in and tells the player to knock it off."
He says times have changed, and attitudes have changed, even since he played for the Avalanche, a team in existence from 2004-2014.
"It's a wonderful world now. That said, people still are facing harassment day in and day out," he adds. "The Lumberjacks are a place where they can come and not pretend to be somebody else, and be excited. 'I have a family without any kind of fear.'"
Says Gapasin: "At the captain level they squish (comments/behavior) down, it's against the spirit of the game. They get a red card and a talking to; I've heard some extremes of players not being welcomed back. There are consequences."
Gapasin, 43, recruited Gardes to the Avalanche, while each attended Portland Pride. Gardes tells him, "I'm a straight president and player on a gay rugby team," and Gapasin responds, "You have enough gay players to balance that out."
Rugby is the first sport for Gapasin, who says he's "smaller in stature."
"Guys like me are not athletically inclined," he says. "The best part of rugby is working collaboratively as a team. You meet a wide variety of people; you realize at the end of the day we're all similar. It removes barriers between gay men. Now, it's just a great way to socialize for guys."
The Lumberjacks, who have about 35 members and scores of supporters, include men of all shapes and sizes, and Gapasin, who's Filipino, proudly says it's also a racially inclusive club with Mexican, Samoan and African American teammates.
Rohde is 5-10, 165 pounds. Being a longtime figure skater, he's given rugby a try and he likes it.
"It's a very physical sport, it's also a very mental sport," he says.
It was a big deal for the Lumberjacks to win the rights to host the IGR Western Conference Tournament.
"Portland is a fantastic city to start with, and we really have a strong rugby culture. In the Portland-Vancouver metro area, there are easily 10 teams," he says. "And, Delta Park is a fantastic facility with five full-size grass pitches. The IGR said this is a great place."
The IGR's roots go back to 1995, when a group of gay men met at the Central Station pub near King's Cross, North London, to discuss forming the world's first officially recognized gay rugby club. The IGR has expanded greatly to many countries, while firmly established in the United Kingdom.
The Lumberjacks are a developing club. They win some IGR matches, but struggle against other teams, such as the Portland Pigs and ORSU Jesters.
"Every match we get better," Gardes says. "In a couple years, we're going to be a force to be reckoned with, we're that close.
"The Lumberjacks are about competing on an even pitch with everybody else. We don't just play gay rugby, we play rugby — get down and dirty with all the teams. On the pitch you build reputation through playing hard. Off the pitch, you build reputation by being a great host team and hanging out with the other team, showing everybody — gay, straight, bi, whatever — we're people too. ... I've literally traveled around the world and had nothing but love when I say I'm playing on a gay team."
Says Rohde, 32: "We're about creating a safe environment in our team and playing the game, being good sportsmen and playing a fair game."
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