Bold ad campaign for South African rugby club grabs attention, tackles gay stereotypes

This month, on a pristine lawn in Johannesburg, there was one of the more intriguing rugby matches of the year: gay vs. straight.

The gay team, the Jozi Cats, was half-expecting to hear homophobic slurs. The words would usually be slung in the scrums. But the straight team, from across town, said nothing.

The game was played fairly, without incident, and although no one remembers the final score, the players do remember the postgame drink: tequila. It turns out that the straight team had brought several bottles as an offer of support and inclusion. There they sat on benches, 25 men, doing shots and talking about dropkicks. Homophobia seemed to have taken a holiday.

All because of an ad campaign.

There are a lot of ways to start a conversation, but, in this case, Havas PR South Africa decided to take the megaphone approach. The public relations firm's job was to promote the first gay and inclusive competitive rugby team on the continent of Africa, and although Havas was known to be irreverent, it had no idea it was about to shock the world.

All the firm knew is that it had a story to tell, courtesy of Teveshan Kuni, a gay financial worker who had first sensed homophobia back in his high school locker room. Kuni had always admired rugby, which in terms of popularity in South Africa is the rough equivalent of the NFL. But he says he hesitated to play because "rugby was just that macho culture that I would've struggled in."

Kuni found that there were many others like him -- gay men who were uncomfortable with the homophobic slurs that would commonly emanate from the rugby pitch. One of the more infamous moments, in March 2015, was when South Africa native Jacques Potgieter spewed the word "f----t" at several opponents during a Super Rugby match in Australia. He later apologized and blamed it on his "white line fever" -- meaning he'd lose his mind when playing between the white lines. But the angst it caused Kuni and others was palpable.

Kuni had long been looking for a less threatening rugby environment and didn't know where to turn. He had heard of social gay rugby clubs in South Africa, where, he says, "they weren't playing games or practicing contact rugby -- just running up and down the field playing a ball." That wasn't enough for him. He wanted the real thing. Which is when New York City saved him.

He was temporarily living in Manhattan on a work contract when he stumbled upon the Gotham Knights, the international gay champions at the 2010 Bingham Cup. They were a full-fledged, rock 'em-sock 'em rugby unit with the ability to compete at a high level. Kuni's stay in NYC was ending -- so he did not try out -- but he brought the idea home with him and, by August, became chairman of the Johannesburg-based Jozi Cats.

"We just thought in South Africa there are lot of guys who play rugby but didn't feel like they could be themselves in conventional rugby clubs," Kuni says. "That was the genesis. We thought, 'Let's start a club where you don't have to worry about who you are and your life circumstances.' You can just come and love rugby. Even if you've never played before."

The first part of their name, Jozi, is short for Johannesburg, and they chose "Cats" to pay homage to a beloved local Super Rugby team by the same name. The problem was, Kuni needed teammates. As the months wore on, at times there would be as few as six players at the Cats' twice-a-week practices. It was all word of mouth. Either the gay rugby players in town didn't know about the team, or perhaps they were untrusting of the environment. Kuni wasn't sure. If he was going to emulate the Gotham Knights, he had no choice but to go very public.

Kuni contacted Johannesburg's Havas PR firm, which happens to be led by a gay man, Chris Verrijdt. Kuni told Verrijdt that his goal was to recruit enough players to form a full-contact rugby team.

Verrijdt's response was, "Why do you even need to have an all-gay team? Can't you just play with a regular rugby team? It's 2016, why is there even the need for that?"

"We just thought in South Africa there are lot of guys who play rugby but didn't feel like they could be themselves in conventional rugby clubs. That was the genesis. We thought, 'Let's start a club where you don't have to worry about who you are and your life circumstances.' You can just come and love rugby." Teveshan Kuni, Jozi Cats rugby club chairman and player

Kuni's answer: "This isn't a case of a straight club necessarily being homophobic; it's about gay players not being comfortable in that environment. ... But the whole thing is it's not just gay. If you're bi, if you're transgender, if you're straight -- you can be whatever you want to be and still play rugby."

Verrijdt began brainstorming with his PR co-workers. There was skepticism in the room. One of the co-workers asked to see the Jozi Cats' Facebook page, perused the team photos and said, "They don't even look gay."

A light went on in Verrijdt's head. He whipped out a whiteboard and began madly drawing up mock posters. "OK, here's what we should do," he said. "We should take photos of players from the team and ask the question: 'Are they gay or not gay?' But use gay slurs."

It was perhaps over the top, and the immediate concern was whether posters all over town with gay slurs on them would further homophobia, cause more hate. But the upside was that people would see that you can't judge a book, or a social media post in this case, by its cover. These few Jozi Cats players on the roster looked gruff and athletic -- and wouldn't fit the archaic stereotype of gay men as effeminate. The idea was it could be a game-changer.

Kuni agreed with Verrijdt's concept, and they arranged a photo shoot. A team picture was produced carrying the headline of "Rugby That's So Gay." There were shots of one bearded player under the word "Fairy." Another under the word "Flamer" and still others under the words "Pansy" and "Queen."

Kuni's caption was "Pillow Biter," a derogatory homophobic phrase that he had heard growing up. "I mean, when I initially had my label attached to me, I laughed because it's such a tongue-in-cheek slur for gay men," Kuni says. "I just chuckled over it. Then, I looked at the photographer and I was like, 'How are we going to do pillow-biter pictures?' And he gave me a pillow and was like, 'Start biting.' "

Verrijdt was sensitive to players' feelings and kept checking in with them to make sure they were willing to go through with it. Chris Herbst, whose label was "Flamer," agreed even though he had not publicly spoken about his sexuality to many of his family members or colleagues. He wasn't certain what the reaction would be -- especially if the posters went viral.

The photos hit the Internet on May 4, and the reaction was all over the place.

Herbst was pleasantly surprised that his friends and co-workers besieged him with texts and emails, congratulating him on his candidness but also badgering him for not telling them sooner. They were in utter support of him.

The other players, too, heard mostly positive remarks. But, on the Facebook page, there was a burgeoning rancor. Africa has a few of the only countries in the world -- such as Nigeria and the Sudan -- where people can be executed for homosexuality. South Africa is more progressive and was one of the first nations to legalize gay marriage. But when the Jozi Cats' campaign launched, the hate was evident.

On the club's Facebook page, some of the comments were:

"I'm so ashamed that these sodomites are from my country. They deserve to b hanged death for gay ppl."

"They should play in a women league."

"I can tell by their faces that they are gay. The guys are worse than pigs trying to change perceptions."

Verrijdt was a bit unsettled. "I was kind of expecting some kind of backlash," he says. "But I obviously wasn't expecting the campaign to go viral, either. But people have just been mean. They've been saying things that, if it had been racially motivated, would be on the fine line of hate speech.

"I believe it shows how much more we need to have this conversation, whether it's race, sexuality or how you identify. For me, that's pretty sad. Usually, you move to the next level. That doesn't seem to be the case."

Kuni also was puzzled by the negativity but said that, overall, the good vibes outweighed the caustic ones. He said the reaction on Facebook was 70-30 positive and pointed to responses such as:

"So much homophobia on display here. Comments like these are exactly why this kind of thing is important. I hope one day your petty little narrow minds are opened when the world leaves your insecure beliefs behind. Big ups to the Jozi Cats."

"Quite a few highly irritatingly homophobic remarks here, not to mention childish. Usually the work of people insecure about their own sexuality, closet queens. Grow up."

"When is the first match and who will it be against? Good luck."

The most palpable reaction was their first practice after the ads launched. About 25 players showed up, and 40 more had called and were tempted to join.

Many of the players were beginners or novices -- and thus were only ready for touch or tag rugby. But Kuni has hired top coaches, and the hope, by next spring, is to have a complete squad of full-contact rugby players able to compete in the Bingham Cup. Able to take on the likes of the Gotham Knights.

"I think the reason [the campaign] has succeeded," Verrijdt says, "is because it resonates with the underdog, fighting for something you want. Although it's very in-your-face, there's no malice -- so it's disruptive without being offensive.

"It's resonated throughout the world with constant messages from people -- gay and not, rugby players and not -- who have praised us for being brave."

So the straight teams are calling them to play, teams like the one that brought along the tequila last week. That game was a Jozi Cats loss. But good or vulgar, the conversation carries on.