Mark Bingham: the rugby player and his legacy
August 20, 2014
Mark Bingham and mother, Alice Hoagland. "He was a big bugger," Alice says © Candy Hogland (Image Supplied)
We all know the story of Mark Bingham: the gay rugby player who had a major role preventing what was believed to have been Al-Qaeda's intended September 11 attack on the White House or the Capitol. It's a great story. But, of course, the inspirational story we all know of Mark Bingham and United 93 is only part of the narrative of a man; it's just a chapter of a beautiful life cut short, the life of a rugby player who left a lasting legacy on the world.
The Bingham Cup
The Bingham Cup © Getty Images
Bingham Cup Honour Roll
Mark Bingham's heroism on September 11, 2001, ensured his was the only name likely to feature on the trophy awarded to the winners of the gay rugby world cup, the tournament staged first in San Francisco in 2002. And his mother says: "He would be thrilled to have the Bingham Cup named after him. He was quite a show-off, and he'd be saying 'they're talking about me, they're talking about me'. He'd be enjoying it."
But the irony of his status now as a gay icon is not lost on his mother, Alice Hoagland, who told ESPN that he used to lament the absence of gay heroes. "I don't think at the time he thought he was going to become a gay hero," she says. It is also ironic in the eyes of Andrew 'Fuzz' Purchas, a team-mate briefly with San Francisco Fog, the inaugural winners of the Bingham Cup, who says "it is interesting in so far as he wasn't 'very out' in sport.
Purchas, the founder and former president of Sydney Convicts, three-time Bingham Cup champions, and the president of the 2014 tournament in Sydney, accepts that he didn't know Bingham as well as other people but still he recalls the American "not being in team photos, or asking to be airbrushed out of action shots to be used on the web and in public".
"I expect this was because he didn't think he could be out and play rugby," Purchas tells ESPN of his memories of Bingham. "The rugby club provided an important catalyst for him meeting people who had an interest in rugby and seeing a different side of being gay. He'd come out to a bunch of people but not to his straight rugby buddies. I think he was fearful about what they would think. He kept his rugby and gay worlds very separate. Once the Fog was admitted to the Northern Californian football competition, he was thrilled at the prospect of playing against regular teams and showing them that sexuality does not determine how you play rugby."
Bingham learned early to battle, to fight, through what Alice describes as a "hand-to-mouth existence in Laguna Seca campgrounds". Alice says in The Rugby Player, a documentary about Bingham, that she "took a lot of my anger and frustration out on my son, and I think it helped him to grow up". Bingham grew up to be "the type of person who would step in" whether on a rugby field or to defend somebody. "If someone needed help, he would be there". That said, one of Mark's best friends, Damon Billian, recalls in the same documentary that Mark "wasn't always confident" in high school and "didn't always stand up for himself", while his high school rugby coach, Dan Smith, says "the game teaches you the teamwork but also self-confidence and to overcome fear … he kept coming back … you get used to getting hit in the face and once you get used to it, it's not a big deal".
Best friends forever: Damon Billian, Mark Bingham and Todd Sarner © The Rugby Player (Image Supplied)
Mark Bingham was a star for the University of California Berkeley Bears © The Rugby Player (Image Supplied)
Mark Bingham became a big guy who stood up for himself and for friends © Candy Hogland (Image Supplied)
Alice does not believe she taught her son to fight, although family and friends credit her for his spirit. "I have to give credit to his uncles more for that - and seeking out situations where he can be a competitor on the field. He really learned how to fight, and to be a team member, and that served him so well on the rugby field and on Flight 93 on September 11."
That growing self-confidence, allied with his increasingly impressive size and physique, and his honed sense of right and justice, saw Bingham standing up for people in the face of physical danger long before September 2001; Paul Holm, a former partner, recalls in The Rugby Player that Bingham was "coated in blood after being hit multiple times" by an armed mugger to whom he had stood up. It wasn't the first time he stood firm. Nor the last.
"I just was told by one of Mark's former partners about another horrible incident I hadn't heard," Alice says. "Mark's been dead 13 years, and I'm still hearing about some of the dreadful anti-gay difficulties that he faced; and he was a big guy full of confidence. It just makes me think how difficult it must be for gay guys who are not quite so physically sturdy to stand up to it. That's the reason I've made a lifetime of advocacy for people who are in the LGBT community. We still need a lot of help, a lot of encouragement."
Bingham had to summon other aspects of that strength in coming out to his mother, with whom he had a wonderful and loving relationship. The fact that "he got to squirming in his seat" as he worked up the "courage" to come out to the person he loved above all others, tells you all you need to know about the difficulty of the decision even for a confident young man. It also tells you the importance of the Bingham Cup in promoting a supportive environment and an anti-homophobia message.
Mark Bingham © Candy Hogland (Image Supplied)
"I wasn't aware that Mark was gay until the moment that he told me in 1991," Alice tells ESPN. "I was so unaware when we had that long conversation; we spent the day together, and it was so wonderful, and I was about to drop him off, and he got to squirming in his seat there as I drove him west. And he said: 'Mom, there's something I want to tell you. I promised myself I'd tell you before the sun went down.' And the sun was shining straight in horizontal through the windshield. And I thought 'oh my gosh, what's going on here'. And he fumbled around, and he talked and talked and talked and then he blurted out two words: 'I'm gay'. And then he went on with a great big harangue of words, and I realised something remarkable had just happened.
"And I wasn't very receptive. I was crushed, actually. I'm embarrassed and ashamed of the way I responded. I responded with silence. And it took me several weeks to get my head around the fact that my only son was gay. But fortunately I got over myself and I realised that Mark hadn't changed, he wasn't any different, and it was I who had to change. I had to realise that being gay was wonderful, and Mark was an good example of that. He set me on an important journey, and I'm very grateful for that.
"That night I was despondent, but I've grown up since then and I've realised the LGBT community has been here all the time. I'm so grateful to him for being so honestly open and gay as he was. He really has made it easier for me, and for gay people who are struggling with their identity."
Homophobia in Australian Sports
Listening to aspects of Mark's life, of which you know there are many more, you might get to thinking of fate and kismet and Owen Meany (if you're familiar with the works of John Irving); of how the individual chapters and events steeled him to play his ultimate role on Flight 93; how his memory and legacy then would inspire his mother to become a high-profile advocate, and inspire generations of men and women to feel a little more comfortable coming out because they had a gay hero.
Alice Hoagland has dedicated her life since Mark's death, in her son's memory, to fighting for sexual equality and promoting gay rights. And she and Purchas both say that "things are changing".
Alice says simply "there's no better time in history to be gay than right now, when attitudes are changing", while Purchas says "sexual equality has reached a zeitgeist with the debate about gay marriage, and corporations focusing on equality; used to focus on the gay dollar but now focusing on indicating diversity principles".
"Hopefully sport has been a leader in this regards," Purchas says. "I'm hoping the Bingham Cup, our work with the Australian professional sporting codes in the development of homophobia and inclusion policy and the Out on The Fields study will lead to change; interest around the likes of Ian Roberts, Ian Thorpe coming out - that being on prime-time TV - I'm hopeful that sport will play a similar role to what it played for racism. Sport shone a spotlight on some of the racial problems we have in [Australia], and hopefully it will do the same with regard to sexual equality."
The Rugby Player, an insightful and stereotype-shattering exploration of the life of Mark Bingham, premiered on television on ABC2, August 20, 8.30pm (EST). The documentary remains available to watch on iview
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