The Bingham Cup—the championship tournament of International Gay Rugby (IGR)—is named for Mark Bingham, a man his mother, Alice Hoagland, described as “a rugby player, a daredevil and a lover of life.”
A former University of California Berkeley rugby star, Bingham was instrumental in the establishment of the San Francisco Fog Rugby Football Club (RFC)—just the second in the United States and one of the first few in the world. Sadly, just months after the Fog joined the Northern Californian Football Union, Bingham died heroically on United Flight 93 on September 11, 2001.
Bingham was raised in West Palm Beach and Miami, Florida, southern California, Monterey, and Silicon Valley: he graduated as captain of his rugby team from Los Gatos High School in 1988. From there he went on to Berkeley, where he helped the Cal Bears rugby team take two National Rugby Championships.
Hoagland admits that learning that her son, the rugby player and fraternity boy, was gay came as a surprise. “I was shocked when he came out to me,” she said. “It showed me how little I knew about my son, whom I thought I knew so well. When he told me, he announced it proudly…. It’s so clear in my mind, I remember the date and time.”
“Mark invited me up to campus, so I went up and picked him up at the Chi Psi fraternity house. We drove out and had lunch at a lovely French restaurant! I was so pleased—he’d come so far from that high school kid stashing food on paper plates under his bed,” she said with a laugh. “As we were driving back, he was squirming in his seat … and I began to realize he was about to tell me something important.”
Bingham told his mother that there was something he had promised himself he’d tell her before the sun went down. “The sun was going down,” she said, “and he started telling me about his life and his new roommate … very quickly, a whole bunch of words, and then ‘I am gay,’ and then a whole bunch of words, as if he was trying to sandwich it in unnoticed.”
“I didn’t take it very well, and I’m ashamed of that now,” Hoagland admits. “I learned what a powerful gift he gave me sharing that with me, once I finally grew up! I used to tell him, ‘If you keep telling people you’re gay, everyone will know!’ I was so silly! Luckily I got over it quickly….”
After college, Bingham worked with public relations firms in San Francisco and the South San Francisco Bay area in the 1990s, before finally organizing his own public relations company, The Bingham Group. On the morning of September 11, 2001, he was commuting to work on United Airlines Flight 93 between his New York and San Francisco offices, with plans to attend the wedding of a close friend.
Always quick to jump to the aid of those in need, on that morning Bingham, together with a group of new allies, faced the most horrific challenge of his short life. They worked out a desperate plan to retake the cockpit from armed attackers who had murdered the pilots and were guiding the plane toward Washington, D.C., likely targeting the United States Capitol Building. Although unable to save their own lives, Bingham and his fellow passengers saved the Capitol Building and its occupants, including many members of the U.S. Congress.
“On the afternoon of 9/11, I got a call back from a reporter who had spoken to me earlier in the day about Flight 93,” Hoagland recalled. “He asked me to confirm that Mark was gay, and I swallowed my tongue there for a minute…. But I realized how much Mark always wanted to be an asset to the gay community and how proud he was of it, so I swallowed hard, and I said, ‘Yes, he’s gay.’”
“It was still uncomfortable, but he was a gay man, and that’s important. I think that’s what makes Mark such a welcomed figure. Mark of course didn’t know he was going to die on September 11, but I think he would be very honored by how the United States and the LGBT community remembers him,” Hoagland said. “It’s very gratifying to me as his mom to learn that the gay community looks to him as one of its heroes. I feel that the gay community and gay youth need more heroes they can identify with.”
A few days after September 11, 2001 Senator John McCain spoke at a memorial service for Mark on the Cal Berkeley campus. Mark was posthumously lauded as The Advocate Magazine’s 2001 Person of the Year. Senator Barbara Boxer honored him in a ceremony for San Francisco Bay Area victims, presenting a folded American flag to Mark’s former partner. Singer Melissa Etheridge dedicated her song "Tuesday Morning" to Mark’s memory.
The longest-lasting recurring event in Mark’s honor is the biennial Bingham Cup, IGR’s biennial international rugby competition, played predominantly by gay and bisexual men and women. It was first hosted by Mark’s team, the San Francisco Fog, in 2002, and was named for their hero.
“Back in 2002, I got a call from Chris Zerlaut, from the San Francisco Fog,” Hoagland recalled. “Chris asked me to come up to San Francisco around Mark’s birthday to participate in what amounted to Bingham Cup 2002. So I came up, and what a great time we had! There were six teams—the Fog, the Washington Renegades, Kings Cross, and a few others… They had a great time, and I had a great time…. I remember being carried off the field. I had no idea it would become a biennial tradition. Every year it gets bigger and bigger.”
“You can imagine,” Hoagland added, “how excited I am to come to Nashville, as we bring rugby back into the United States. I so look forward to catching up with teams and friends from all over the world!”
Hoagland, too, has come to be honored at the Bingham Cup tournament: there is a Hoagland Division and prize. She is very humble about that honor, but she is very proud of how much she’s grown, thanks to her son and his rugby brothers.
“For some reason,” Alice said, “I’ve become a very odd champion of gay rights…. I’m a Midwestern woman who, until my son confided in me, was vaguely anti-gay. I had a lot of growing up to do, and as usual Mark was the person who set me on that path. I’ve been a pretty active supporter of the LGBT community ever since!”