The Baltimore Flamingos Rugby Football Club nominated two players with perfect attendance to be featured in this week’s All-Star spotlight series in the Washington Blade.
What they also gave us was two athletes who don’t necessarily fit the preconceived notion of a male rugby player. The sport has long been perceived as a hypermasculine environment filled with big burly players. In a beautiful nod to what can happen in an inclusive LGBT space, we meet two players who have found acceptance through sports.
The Flamingos launched in the summer of 2016 and played two seasons outside of a league with matches being held against other gay teams throughout the region. Last season they joined USA Rugby’s Mid-Atlantic Senior Men’s Division IV conference, a mix of gay and straight teams.
Val Pizzo spent his childhood in Frederick, Md.. avoiding sports and hating gym class. After years of encouragement from his athletic mother, he finally gave in and joined a women’s rugby team at age 15. He was on the cusp of transitioning and the sport filled a void that he needed to embrace his identity.
“I wanted to prove myself as tough,” Pizzo says. “Not long after that I had my identity transition.”
He began hormone replacement therapy just two weeks before showing up to play rugby as a freshman on the men’s club team at Rochester Institute of Technology.
“When I went to that first practice, I was told to go to the women’s team,” Pizzo says. “I kept showing up and no one questioned me again. They just thought I was gay and my past was not discussed.”
After five years of playing at college, he returned to Maryland and knew he was going to join a gay rugby team. He was especially interested in being on a developing team and he signed up for the Baltimore Flamingos in August, 2016. He plays as a scrum-half.
“This experience has been way more than I ever thought it would be,” Pizzo says. “The Flamingos have feminine, masculine, straight, gay and trans players and I relate so well to everyone. I had been in gay spaces before, but not gay sports.”
After being benched throughout his college rugby career, Pizzo came into the Flamingos with experience and he is serving as a captain and as the social chair. He has also received his coaching certification and next year he will be attending his first Bingham Cup in Amsterdam. The tournament draws roughly 1,000 players.
“I am so excited for Bingham Cup. It will be the most rugby players I have ever been around,” Pizzo says. “Playing with the Flamingos has been affirming and it’s great to be able to share my past. I am happy to be in a place where I can break down barriers and combat transphobia and homophobia.”
Earlier this year, Seamus Wons was honored with the Flamingos’ Gay & Inclusive Award. As a self-described effeminate gay man, Wons says that means he is the gayest man on the team.
Born in Bedford, N.H., he swam competitively through high school and for two-and-a-half years at Goucher College. After ending his swimming career, Wons turned to running as his main form of fitness and completed the Baltimore half marathon.
Looking for something new, he joined the Flamingos in January and began going to their conditioning classes and touch games.
“I immediately had a blast. It is such a positive experience because everyone is so great,” Wons says. “I was quiet at first because I have never really known how to perform as a broey dude. Once I warmed up, I had the comfort to be myself.”
That comfort level has led to him wanting to become a part of the decision-making process and he will be running for a board position in the coming year. As a rugby wing, he has set goals for himself both off and on the pitch.
“I have yet to score my first try. I was so close in our last game against the Charm City Knights,” Wons says. “When you go up against a 250-pound rugby center, you are still going to go after him no matter how fabulous you are off the pitch.”
Wons says he takes a lot of pride in being gay and that he expresses a lot of freedom as an effeminate gay man. He has a message for others who may not feel as confident.
“I feel like I have been able to be fully immersed in one of the toughest, most masculine sports. It is empowering, and I want that empowerment to be felt by everyone,” he says. “I am giving the finger to whatever is considered masculine or feminine.”