This Is Mark Bingham
December 24 2001 12:00 AM ET
Mark traveled overseas with his high school rugby club—breaking several of his bones along the way—and was recruited to play for the University of California, Berkeley, where he helped the school win two national championships. But when 19-year-old Mark met 38-year-old Mark Wilhelm, his athletic accomplishments must have paled next to the seemingly insurmountable task of keeping his sexual orientation a secret.
Wilhelm had placed a personal ad in a San Jose, Calif., newspaper, and Mark was one of the men who responded. His letter reflected a tug-of-war between the gregarious, confident young man everybody knew—the guy who could roll over any foe on the field while winning the friendship of any face in the crowd—and a private life he was only beginning to accept himself. “I’ve got no idea what I want to do with my life, but I know I’ll be a success at something,” he wrote Wilhelm. “I’m naïve but smart, funny but shy. I’ve lots of friends, but I’m lonely for a buddy that can share my secret.”
Mark, who Wilhelm said was in the physical shape “few of us ever see past 19,” shared more about himself after the two of them met in person. He told Wilhelm that he had known he was gay since he was 12. He also said, while probably adding a dramatic bent to what was undoubtedly a very real fear, “If my family or friends ever found out, I’d have to kill myself.” Wilhelm adds, “Mark was very closeted, but it was almost as if he was leaning against the door.”
In fact, it was less than two years afterward that Mark came out to Sarner, who laughs now when he remembers his initial reaction: “When did that happen?” And only months after that, Mark came out to his mother when they were driving around California’s Sonoma County.
“I was just loving being with my son that day,” Hoglan says, pulling her long hair back with one hand. “Then he said, ‘Mom, I have something to tell you, and I’ve promised myself that I was going to tell you before the sun went down.’ And when he said that, the sun was streaming into our faces—it was setting.
“I was really astounded [when he told me]. I hadn’t any idea that my son was gay, and up until that time I had been vaguely antigay,” Hoagland says. “So with those words, I began a journey.”
Mark was on a journey as well. His best friend and mother knew he was gay, but to most people Mark was still the outstanding rugby player, the Chi Psi fraternity president, and the guy who would get so blasted on vodka and orange juice at Cal football games that he sometimes dashed onto the field in often-successful attempts to tackle the opposing team’s mascot. His softer side was no less remarkable. Friends say he had a Clintonian ability to bring people out of their shells, to make them feel like no one else was more important. He made a concerted effort to be both the life and the lifeblood of all his social circles.
He was also a mama’s boy who, along with some college friends, parked in front of his mom’s house a car that was painted from front fender to back bumper with the words ALICE HOGLAN IS A GODDESS. “I don’t know where he got that,” Hoagland says, still blushing, with a mixture of embarrassment and pride. “I never told him that I was a goddess!”
Mark was fresh out of college and in classic form when in December 1993 he met Paul Holm at a Christmas party. “I noticed him standing at this table, where he proceeded to eat a whole bowl of shrimp,” Holm says. Mark noticed Holm too and walked over, stuck out his hand, and with a big grin said, “Hi, I’m Mark Bingham. Who are you? ” The two of them spent the rest of the party talking about a number of things, not the least among them Cal Berkeley, where Holm had also gone to school.
At 7 o’clock the next morning a telephone call and Mark’s voice on the answering machine woke Holm up. “I don’t know if you remember me,” the voice said. “It’s Mark from last night, and I wanted to see if you wanted to get together today.” The two of them were together for the next six years.
“We had a very intense and wonderful relationship,” says Holm, who shared with Mark his home in San Francisco’s Castro district for five of the years they were together. “We did everything from sitting in front of the TV watching football to traveling to France once or twice a year.”
The couple also had a fondness for feasting on fine food and wine while chewing on each other’s hopes for the future. It was during one such meal that Mark first mapped out an ambition to start his own public relations firm. “We spent hours and hours talking about everything, including business,” says Holm, who started his own firm, the Holm Group, when he and Mark were together. “When I was going through some memorabilia, I found an old menu where, on the back, we had written the potential names for our companies. And there was THE BINGHAM GROUP in big letters among all the others.”
Upon graduating from Cal in 1993 with a degree in social sciences, with an emphasis in international relations, Mark went to work for high-tech PR powerhouse Alexander Communications (now Alexander Ogilvy) and later took a job with 3Com. High-tech PR, like rugby before it, was a perfect fit for Mark, who as a teenager knew his Commodore 64 inside and out. And there was no better place to ride the rising high-tech wave of success than San Francisco in the mid ’90s.
Soon the going got so good that Mark decided to realize the dream he first outlined on the back of a restaurant menu. The Bingham Group officially opened for business in 1999 in a loft space Mark shared with a friend’s Web-design firm. By focusing on what he knew best—high-tech PR—Mark was able to secure a number of clients, hire several employees, and, in May 2000, open his own office on San Francisco’s Lafayette Street.
“At the office-warming party there were probably 200 people, and it took me 20 minutes to get in the door and another 15 minutes to get a spot inside,” Hoglan says. “But by that time in my life I had become much more accustomed to having Mark be a larger-than-life figure. He wasn’t famous, exactly, but he was extremely popular, and I kind of basked in his reflection.”
Derrick Mickle was playing in a flag football game at San Francisco’s Dolores Park when he first ran head-on into Mark. “Here was this huge guy who was just tearing people up,” he says. “And it was kind of frustrating because I had played a lot of pickup football growing up and there was always an unspoken rule that you didn’t showboat.”
Mickle soon learned that Mark wasn’t showing off but that he just “never dumbed down his game to placate anyone.” It wasn’t long before Mickle, who played rugby at Vassar College, tossed the idea of a gay rugby team Mark’s way. When the idea was no more than a “what if,” Mark was enthusiastic, he says. But when Mickle got serious, Mark became “dead against” the prospect. “He said, ‘You’ll never get accepted by the [rugby] union’; ‘The guys out there will tear you up’; and ‘You won’t ever find enough players.’ ”
Mickle went ahead without Mark’s blessing, and just two months after he first fielded a “rag-trap of rugby players” for the San Francisco Fog’s first practice in October 2000, Mark had a change of heart. “He came out for a practice and proceeded to act the same way as when I met him. He just plowed through the field, leaving a sea of bodies,” Mickle says, adding that after the team’s initial response of “What the hell is this guy doing?” Mark’s intensity eventually helped raise the level of everyone’s game.
And after practice, “Mark’s great, nurturing spirit came through,” says Bryce Eberhart, who was among those Mark ran over on the field that first practice. “He went up to everyone and patted them on the back and told them they were doing a great job.”
Once again Mark had fallen in step with a program that was just right for that point in his life. And in the summer of 2001, when the Fog was accepted as a permanent member of the Northern California Rugby Football Union, he didn’t hesitate to share his enthusiasm in an E-mail to his teammates:
“When I started playing rugby at the age of 16, I always thought that my interest in other guys would be anathema,” he wrote. “I loved the game but knew I would need to keep my sexuality a secret forever. 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.
“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,” he continued. “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 partyers. Good sports. Good men.”
Despite the tone of his E-mail, Mark never considered himself a gay activist. In fact, he thought of himself more as a man of action than a man of example. He supported John McCain’s 2000 presidential bid, for instance, despite the Arizona senator’s stand on gay issues—he opposes hate-crimes legislation and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. McCain, who spoke at Mark’s September 22 memorial service and calls him “an American hero,” tells The Advocate he won Mark’s support in the campaign because “I was straightforward and not your typical politician.”