Left to right: Julie Dunn, Andrew D’Agostino, Kelly Rush (team captain), Matthias Vecanski, Mark Leonardo II, Gregory Rayo
Absent Team Members: Joshua Young, Jesse Lee Meyers, Valeria Gould Heithaus, Paul Heithaus (Photo Credit: Julie Dunn/JP Horn)
The Boston Ironsides Rugby Club isn’t one of those elitist gay sports teams. They enthusiastically embrace anyone who wants to play, and the result is a colorful blended family that would put the Brady Bunch to shame. Ironsides members are from all walks of life: lifelong athletes and newbies, seasoned Bostonians and recent transplants, LGBTQ folks and allies. Dedication to building community is at the heart of everything the Ironsides do. When the opportunity to create an AIDS Walk & Run Boston team this year arose, it fit naturally into that mission.
Newly formed Walk team Divas & Devils of the Boston Ironsides RFC is a collaboration between two labors of love for longtime AIDS Action supporter Kelly Rush. Rush formed the original Divas & Devils AIDS Walk Boston team back in 2011, which for years has been one of the Walk’s most successful fundraising teams.
His time with the Ironsides is more recent history; Rush first got to know the team when a friend started playing, and eventually he decided to join as a supporter. Although it was Rush’s first experience with sports since childhood, he felt welcome right from the start.
“I very much believe in the Ironsides’ mission of inclusive sports,” said Rush. “It doesn’t matter if you’re gay or straight; it’s what happens on the pitch that matters. It’s the ‘you can play’ concept that’s so important.”
Team member Gregory Rayo joined the Ironsides as someone completely new to rugby. “They’ll take people who have never played a sport before and teach them. You don’t have to be incredibly talented or in amazing shape. With the Ironsides, you don’t just join a sports team; you join a community that looks out for each other,” he said. “I made 30 friends overnight.”
Jesse Lee Meyers joined the team to support his best friend. While he doesn’t identify as LGBTQ himself, Jesse was excited to make new friends with from different backgrounds. “I consider the rugby team to be part of my family,” he said.
Joshua Young, the current sitting President of the Boston Ironsides, has made charity engagement a major priority for the team. “The AIDS Walk is a cause that many of us on the Ironsides can relate to,” he said.
Rush, who sits on the Ironsides’ social and philanthropy committee, was looking to expand the fundraising potential of the Divas & Devils team. “It made so much sense for the Ironsides to join Divas & Devils, because we both wanted to increase our ability to give back,” Rush explained.
Meyers has been involved in many charity fundraisers in the past; when he was introduced to the AIDS Walk this past year, he did his research and learned about the continued need for HIV/AIDS care and services. “It’s such a worthy cause and I’m glad that I can help out,” he said. Jesse even raised the stakes a bit to make his fundraising efforts more interesting: If he brings in $10,000 for the AIDS Walk, he’ll run the entire 5K in a dress. Now that is dedication!
For those who are unsure about how to start fundraising (whether in or out of drag), or perhaps feel a little hesitant when it comes to asking for money, Rush has a great piece of advice: “Remember that it’s not about you. Even if you’re feeling a little shy, remember that you’re not asking for yourself; you’re asking for this organization that helps so many people and has an immeasurable impact on what’s happening with HIV in Massachusetts and nationally.”
For Andrew D’Agostino, who recently rejoined that Ironsides, being on the Walk team is part of a challenge to himself: On June 2, he’ll be running his first ever 5K with his fellow ruggers by his side. He’s happy that this milestone will help support a cause that is near and dear to his heart: the programs of AIDS Action.
One program that sticks out for D’Agostino is Youth on Fire (YoF) is a drop-in center for homeless and street-involved youth, ages 14-24, located in Harvard Square, Cambridge.
“I was pretty lucky growing up with the family I had, and I know a lot of people aren’t so lucky,” he said. “Especially for kids coming out who may not have supportive families, any service that can help them is so important.”
As noted by several Ironsides members, one of the most important services that the AIDS Walk helps fund is education. Three decades since the first recorded case, harmful attitudes and misinformation about HIV persist. “As a society, we paint HIV and people who live with it in a very bad light,” said team member Matthias Vecanski. “The fact is it’s a very preventable disease. With good education, support structure, and the right resources, we can stop new infections.”
He also noted that while pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is an incredibly effective way of preventing HIV infection, not everyone has the insurance or finances needed to access this medication.
“The stigma is still very much there. It is impossible to undersell the stigma of being both HIV-positive and LGBT,” Rush added. “Many of the behaviors that lead to infection are grounded in internalized shame and homophobia.”
The language used to discuss HIV is in itself often loaded with judgment. “When I hear people say things like ‘clean’ or ‘dirty’ [to talk about HIV status], I try to correct them,” Rayo. “I wasn’t always the most enlightened about HIV when I was younger; I want to do better now and help educate people.”
Drug users are another HIV infection high-risk group that are being hurt by societal stigma, noted Vecanski. When users are treated like criminals, rather than people who need help, they are less likely to access to risk reduction tools such as clean needles.
“The Ironsides is an inclusive team and a mainstay of the Boston gay community; it’s important for people with agency to step up and try to make a change,” Vecanski said. “The community has accepted me since I moved here [from Australia] and I want to give back.”
Young, who lost an uncle to AIDS, knows firsthand that the battle against this epidemic has yet to be won. “It’s not over until there’s a cure,” he said. “I’m dedicated to do what I can to help us reach that goal.”
On June 2, Divas & Devils of the Boston Ironsides RFC will join scores of others walking and running toward that brighter future.
“The AIDS Walk has always been part of my journey out of the darkness that stigma causes,” Rush said. “It’s reaffirmation of living without shame.”
The Ironsides are champions both on and off the field, but they need your support to meet their fundraising goals. On May 10, Boston will have a chance to show the Ironsides some love and help them fundraise, all while having a great night on the town. Please join them at Club Café at 7:00 PM for their Rucks and Tucks Drag Lip Sync Battle, where ruggers will perform in multiple rounds of lip sync battles to compete for the crown of Miss Ironsides. This evening of fun, surprises, and fabulous drag can’t be missed! For more info, please visit the Ironsides Facebook page.