PARIS (AFP) — Out with the macho locker-room jokes: as France gears up to host the 2007 rugby World Cup, the country's half dozen gay rugby clubs are closing ranks to tackle prejudice on the pitch.
Set up in 2004, the Paris-based "Les Gaillards" (The Lads) trains once a week near the Bois de Vincennes, east of Paris, with 30 players and around 100 regular supporters.
"We wanted a French equivalent to clubs like London's King's Cross Steelers or New York's Gotham Knights," gay and bisexual rugby clubs founded in 1995 and 2001, said its founder Gilles, who asked to be identified by first name only.
"Most club members are gay men who were wary of joining a conventional team, but it's also open to straight men, usually rugby beginners."
Worldwide, the first gay rugby teams were the Sydney-based POOFTAs and South Africa's Jamieson Raiders, both founded in 1985, although the London Steelers claim to be the first fully-registered gay club.
The clubs form a growing global network, linked by tournaments including the biennal Bingham Cup, slated to take place next year in Dublin.
In 2005, the French Mediterranean city of Montpellier and local club Los Valents (The Valiant) hosted the first ever Union Cup -- a European gay rugby non-professional tournament -- which took place this year in Copenhagen.
What French clubs such as the Gaillards -- which play other gay teams as well as straight rivals -- have in common is a will to promote tolerance.
"It always surprises people when at the beginning of a match we introduce ourselves as a gay team, but once on the pitch, we earn the other side's respect," said Christophe Solignac, who trains the "Melee Alpine" (Alpine Scrum) team in Grenoble in the French Alps.
"Ultimately, we share the same passion regardless of our sexuality. Straight rugby men who play against against us know it's a very tough sport, and our sexuality doesn't stop us training in the snow in winter, when the temperature falls below freezing!"
"And the old fantasy about gay rugby men mucking around in the showers or the locker rooms really is a load of rubbish," he said.
But Serge Simon, a former international rugby player and author of a study of homophobia in France, says anti-gay prejudice is still the norm in rubgy circles.
"Rugby is an environment based on archaic values, on the permanent negation of any trace of femininity," he says. "Players constantly have to show who is the most virile, the most powerful."
Julien, 33, is the only straight member of Solignac's club.
"I joined a bit by accident, because I had a gay friend who played in the team, and as a beginner I didn't have the level to join a 'regular' rugby team," he explained.
"It helped me meet a load of very open people. To be honest, no one would guess it was a gay team if they weren't told, because people's sexuality is not out in the open."
But Julien also admits he has been teased about his choice of team.
"People ask a lot of stupid questions, full of innuendo," he said
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