IF YOU WALK into the Pilsner Inn, a gay bar in the Castro, on Thursday nights around 10:30, you’ll be sure to find a group in the back patio with a pitcher or two of beer, possibly playing a drinking game. They’re mostly men, mostly gay or queer, and mostly in their 20s or 30s — but anyone’s welcome if you show up.
Then you might notice some things: a bandage and a mouthguard here, or a sweaty shirt and a bruised thigh there. Soon you’re uncovering the common thread that brought them together, tonight as always, seen in the blue logo emblazoned on their clothes. This is the San Francisco Fog Rugby Football Club, and they’ve just come from practice.
At said practices, players run through drill after drill from fundamentals to scrimmages. By the time the closing team huddle comes around after two hours, players’ sweaty shirts will have mixed with their body heat and the cold San Francisco night to create halos of steamy water vapor illuminated by the field’s piercing flood lights.
The team’s head coach, Dany Samreth, 44, has been with the Fog, a gay and inclusive team, for a long time, first as a player — casually from its inception in 2000, and then more seriously around 2005. He then became captain in 2009 and finally head coach in 2014.
He’d grown up playing rugby from the age of 12 in Southern California, when gay rugby definitely didn’t exist. Though he had been fortunate to never have run into trouble on his teams from being gay, he saw the revolutionary nature of the Fog and wanted to be a part of it. That’s what keeps him involved to this day.
“The greatest joy for me is someone who’s never felt that they belong in the sporting world or on the field have that light bulb moment that, ‘I belong here,’” Samreth said. “Every year, I always see a couple of players who have that, and those are the players who stick, and they get something out of it.”
The Fog was officially founded in 2000, then one of six gay rugby clubs worldwide. To build the roster, they messaged people — strangers — online whose profiles suggested they might even possibly be interested. One of those people was Alvin Mangosing, then a college student at UC Davis whose AOL profile said he was a gay rugby player.
Mangosing, now 44, was then the youngest player on the team. (They snuck him into bars.) For him as a young queer man, the Fog was a grounding force. To honor that, he’s since gotten a shin tattoo of the Fog’s coat of arms with an anchor on it.
“I think about the gay folks that I was hanging out with at the time, a lot of them were doing drugs and having risky sex,” Mangosing said. “If it wasn’t for the guys on the team being like, ‘Hey there’s an alternative for you, and there’s a team you can play on,’ I probably would be dealing with addiction issues or a lifelong disease.”
“The greatest joy for me is someone who’s never felt that they belong in the sporting world or on the field have that light bulb moment that, ‘I belong here.’”Dany Samreth, San Francisco Fog coach
Then there was Mark Bingham, a rugby-lover and one of the early members of the club. He was also on United Airlines Flight 93 on September 11, 2001, and helped make the plan to retake the hijacked plane. The plane eventually crashed into a field in Pennsylvania, saving countless would-be victims in Washington, D.C. Bingham was 31.
Stigmas and stereotypes lost in the Fog
The Fog has come a long way since, but the Pilsner, a favorite of Bingham’s, has remained constant, deemed the team’s “home bar.” A plaque commemorating Bingham hangs on the wall above the jukebox.
Also in that time, the broader rugby community has embraced gay rugby more openly. Back at the start, along with copious usage of the f-slur, there were times opponents would recoil from fear (of HIV) if a Fog player started bleeding.
It’s certainly still not perfect — Samreth recounted incidents of opponents using the f-slur as recently as 2019 — but things are changing for queer people in sports, probably thanks in part to the Fog’s existence itself. As of today, the United States Gay Sports Network’s online directory of queer and inclusive sports teams, clubs, and leagues lists 20 such entities in San Francisco alone.
After a February game, the Fog, as always, hosted their opponents at the Pilsner for a “drink-up” social. Animosities from the pitch were forgotten (a fight had nearly broken out during the game), instead traded for beer, pizza, and camaraderie in a shared love for rugby. That’s not to say the competition disappeared, as the teams faced off in beer chugging games which the Fog won, but they also joined together in singing rugby songs — adapted with gay lyrics.
Earlier, the Fog had lost 0-69, the lopsided score thanks in part to the fact that the Fog are in the league’s Division Four, while their opponents were from Division Three. Many team members acknowledged the high overall level of rugby in the region, citing an established culture among local schools and colleges paired with the presence of Pacific Islander diasporas.
Despite the high level of play, this year the team has had a breakout performance in the regular season, logging a 5-1 record. On Saturday, May 20, they’ll be playing a semifinal match in their first league playoffs appearance in 10 years.
Winning off the field, too
Though the Fog might not be perennial winners in their home league, for players the community is enough to continue showing up for. Winning is just a bonus.
There’s 23-year-old Allan Zhao, who credits his time on the Fog with helping to start to thaw the topic of his gayness with his parents, with whom he has yet to broach the topic again since he came out to them, turbulently, in 2018.
There’s Garrett Mack, who grew up in Alabama, where sports were inextricably intertwined with hetero-masculinity. With the Fog, Mack, 27, had a chance to be able to experience sport on his own terms, and come to the decision by himself that the physicality wasn’t for him.
“It was an opportunity to give myself a life experience that I’d always wondered what it would have been had I gone down that path, and it also taught me to not really feel like there was anything to playing a sport — to playing a particularly butch one — that I didn’t have,” Mack said.
Still, Mack stuck with the team, only now on the sidelines as the vice president of marketing.
There’s even Dylan Palmer, 33, one of a handful of straight, married men intentionally playing on the gay and inclusive team. “A lot of our people, they’ve either been ostracized or not allowed to participate in team sports, or just haven’t haven’t felt confident enough to,” Palmer said. “I just find so much satisfaction from introducing people like that to something that’s so fulfilling.”
And for Pablo Chong Herrera, 25, who learned rugby at boarding school in Canada, brotherhood brought him to the Fog. When he got to college at UC Berkeley, he took a break from rugby but joined a fraternity — Chi Psi, the very one Bingham had been a member of all those years earlier. So when Chong Herrera was looking to get back into rugby after graduating, he already knew of the Fog, thanks to his now two-time brother.
To commemorate Bingham and his commitment to gay rugby, every two years teams from across the world converge at the Bingham Cup, which is perhaps the most important event in all of gay rugby. In Ottawa in 2022, where the 83 participating clubs was far beyond the six extant gay clubs in 2000, the Fog came in seventh.
And every year on September 11, you’ll find the Fog family, past and present, gathered at the Pilsner to remember their brother, just as you’ll find them together there after practices and matches, singing rugby songs and playing drinking games, carrying forward their legacy.
About the author
Evan Peng is a master’s student in journalism at Stanford University. He completed his bachelor’s degree at Stanford in 2022 with a major in linguistics and minors in computer science and creative writing.