A Mark Bingham history tour

Mark Bingham was a rugby champion; PR firm owner; friend to hundreds; fervent University of California, Berkeley, booster; and gay man. His death—and, when his story hit the wires, his life—gave America an authentic gay hero.

BY Barbara Wilcox

September 10 2006 11:00 PM ET

Bingham played flag football at this Mission District park before joining the San Francisco Fog gay rugby team. Fellow Fog rugger Pete Arden remembers: "The spot that the football guys hung out at was close to 18th, in the flat area just south of the tennis courts."

Not far away, at Collingwood and 18th streets, is the Eureka Valley Recreation Center, where Bingham played hoops. City officials dedicated the Mark Bingham Gym there to his memory. There had been talk of renaming the whole rec center, which reopened after a $3.7 million renovation in January, but Holm says Bingham "would have totally been beside himself" with pleasure at the tribute he did receive.

Mark Bingham history tour, Dolores Park | Advocate.comDolores Park, San Francisco

In August, Holm represented Bingham's family at Gay Games VII in Chicago as it named him among the "100 Champions" of gay sports.

"The whole thing of bringing gay men and women into the athletic mainstream was very important to him," Holm said. "All the teams that have sprung up in the past few years are a testament to that goal," he said, as important a monument as any other.

Other than socializing with friends, "his favorite place was on the rugby pitch," says David Santos, another fellow player. Friends highlight two pitches: Herz Playground, near the Cow Palace, where he played his first game with the Fog, and the Polo Field in scenic Golden Gate Park, where he played his last.

An international gay tournament the Fog played in Washington, D.C., in May 2001 was the precursor to rugby's biennial Bingham Cup. The Fog's Chris Zerlout says he took Bingham to the hospital after he dislocated his shoulder there.

"When he woke up from the morphine, he was saying, 'Gotta get back to the pitch. Let's go!' " Zerlaut says, laughing. "He was incredibly intense on the pitch and a sweetheart off. We were lucky in that we got to see both sides."

Mark Bingham history tour, the Pilsner | Advocate.com

Bingham (right) with friend Bryce Eberhart at the Pilsner Inn, San Francisco Photo: Ken Weizenhofer

The "Pils," sponsor of many community sports teams, was and is the after-practice hangout of the San Francisco Fog, which Bingham joined soon after its founding in fall 2000.

"If you are going to bars Mark liked, you have to toast him with a shot of Jager; he'd like that," says Bryce Eberhart, pictured with Bingham at the Pilsner Inn (225 Church St. just south of Market; 415/621-7058).

"I know that if we weren't at practice, we'd be in a group at a bar," says Arden. The Fog and friends plan a remembrance at the Pils on September 11, 2006.

If there were a Bingham memorial pub walk, though, they say, it would have to include the Lone Star Saloon (1354 Harrison St., between Ninth and 10th; 415/863-9999)—"He liked his bears, and this is Bear Central in San Francisco," says Eberhardt—and an after-dinner drink at the Valley Tavern, formerly the Coyote Club, formerly Rat 'n Raven in Noe Valley (4054 24th St.; 415/285-0674).

Zerlout says people still talk about the stirring e-mail Bingham sent when he learned the fledgling team had been provisionally accepted into the straight Northern California Rugby Football Union, only a few weeks before his death:

"When I started playing rugby at the age of 16," Bingham wrote, "I always thought that my interest in other guys would be an anathema—completely repulsive to the guys on my team and to the people I was knocking the shit out of on the other team. I loved the game, but knew I would need to keep my sexuality a secret forever. I feared total rejection.

"As we worked and sweated and ran and talked together this year, I finally felt accepted as a gay man and a rugby player. My two irreconcilable worlds came together.

"Now we've been accepted into the union and the road is going to get harder. We need to work harder. We need to get better. We have the chance to be role models for other gay folks who wanted to play sports but never felt good enough or strong enough. More importantly, we have the chance to show the other teams in the league that we are as good as they are. Good rugby players. Good partiers. Good sports. Good men.

"Gay men weren't always wallflowers waiting on the sideline. We have the opportunity to let these other athletes know that gay men were around all along—on their little league teams, in their classes, being their friends.

"This is a great opportunity to change a lot of people's minds and to reach a group that might never have had to know or hear about gay people."

"People cried even then," Zerlaut says. "It wasn't just through the events of 9/11 that Mark had an effect.

"He had said—I think through sports learned the freedom to say—what a lot of us had been thinking."

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