IF Colm Cunningham is sure of anything, he's sure that stereotypes do a lot of harm. Growing up in Belfast in the seventies and eighties, he saw the inhuman effects of one group of people making automatic assumptions about another group of people.

This is why, with wary reluctance, Cunningham has been making an issue of his sexuality so that no-one who shares his sexuality needs to make an issue of it. Because Colm Cunningham is the driving force behind Scotland's first gay rugby club, the Caledonia Thebans.

Already, within the Edinburgh-based club's first few weeks of life, the Thebans have around 15 committed players, plus a regular weekly regime of fitness training and touch-rugby games. It's with quiet pride that Cunningham states that the

Thebans, who aim themselves primarily at gay and bisexual men, have also enlisted two straight men to their ranks.

''I'm very touchy about labelling,'' says Cunningham, a nurse-turned-social-worker who now specialises in health-care provision for Alzheimer's sufferers. ''In Belfast, Colm is seen

as a Catholic name so I suffered a lot of nonsense in my youth, people asking what school I went to, trying to work out my roots. It's so insulting to have people decide who you are before they know who you are.

''In the same way, I have a passion for rugby that until now I felt I couldn't express. Discovering the game properly when I came to Edinburgh, I found rugby good, interesting, and fun to watch - and I soon felt I had to play it. That's why I began the Thebans. I wouldn't want to stereotype straight rugby clubs - it's wrong, I know.

''But I also know that not every gay man would feel confident in a straight environment. I know I didn't want to feel uncomfortable if I didn't need to - I'm 34, and I also know I've spent a lot of my life actively not making an issue of my sexuality.

''In fact, since the launch of the Thebans, I've felt that I've been developing my own individual identity. Some gay pals have said, 'Rugby! How butch! How heterosexual!' I've simply replied, 'No . . . it's about me.' In the same way, I got very annoyed on a night out a couple of weeks back in Belfast.

''I was visiting my family, and went out with my two brothers, both of whom are straight. They suggested we go to a gay club for a change, and I got quizzed on the door because I didn't fit the gay stereotype. Should I have to wear a Kylie T-shirt?''

Leaving that ticklish conundrum aside, one thing's a certainty: the Caledonia Thebans have made much quicker progress than Britain's two other gay rugby clubs, the London King's Cross Steelers and the Manchester Village Spartans.

The Steelers were first off the mark in 1995. It took them four years to reach a playing membership sufficient to support entering league competition, around 30. After two years in which they lost every game, the Steelers this season finished in mid-table, in the process earning a commendation as team of the month in Rugby World magazine.

Can the Thebans expect to encounter any problems from the game's rulers should they eventually choose to enter regular competition by applying to join the Edinburgh Union, incidentally? ''Certainly not,'' says a spokesperson for the Scottish Rugby Union. ''Whatever anyone's sexual preference is, it's their own personal business.''

Returning to a consideration of the London King's Cross Steelers, Chris Galley was one of the club's earliest members. A fluent speaker of demotic London-ese, with a tendency to end sentences with every Cockney's diminutive of choice, ''guv'', Galley actually hides a furtive secret in his closet.

''Some of my best friends don't know I'm French,'' he deadpans. ''I was born in southern France, next to Spain in a department that's a bastion of rugby, like the Welsh valleys. I've played rugby all my life . . . before I was aware I was gay.

''I came to London as a student at 18, and eventually became the secretary of an English rugby club, as well as a player. It's my employer's rugby club - I work for Shell. My gay-ness isn't an issue in my work, nor was it at the rugby club.

''But when I saw that the Steelers had formed as a gay club, I immediately felt they needed me more. Not that we encounter problems when we play straight teams, or when we socialise extensively after the game with straight teams - which we do every week.

''In conversation with straight players, it's often 'my brother's gay' or 'my uncle's gay'. More rarely, it might be 'my son's gay'. This all might be a result of

London's relative liberality when compared to the rest of the country. But when I'm asked, 'Why a gay rugby club?' I reply, why shouldn't our one little sector of humanity have a club - there's London Welsh, a London Jewish rugby club, a club for lawyers.

''It was never a political decision. Or we were perhaps making a mundane little point: gay men are capable of playing rugby.''

One point may have occurred to straight rugby players without their being adjudged homophobic, I'd contend. Rugby is a contact sport: blood can be spilled on the field of play, while Aids and the HIV virus have their associations with gay men. Have straight clubs ever posed this as a concern prior to playing the Steelers?

''It's a question that's been raised,'' says Galley. ''Our answer is that on the rugby field you can never be sure who's gay, who's a drug-user, whatever. At least in our club, we've long known what the message is on Aids and HIV.

''Plus it's a fact that no-one has ever contracted Aids from any sport. I'd say that the risk of HIV infection from rugby is none - Aids is a far bigger issue in southern Africa, and rugby there is played without a problem.''

Whenever rugby players gather, their common love of the game is all that matters, as Grangemouth emigre Ian MacDonald attests. In his three years as a Manchester Village Spartan, he's learned there's effectively no gay-straight divide.

''When we communicate, our sexuality is irrelevant,'' says MacDonald. ''That said, we don't make an issue of it. Within rugby circles, 'gay' is only the tag we use to market ourselves to the people we're trying to recruit as players or club-members.

''Anecdotally, gay men's conceptions about straight rugby clubs make them restrict their own access to the sport, and isolate themselves from competitive team sport in general. I know I did.

''For many gay men, it starts at school, where there can be homophobic bullying, and consequently a lack of confidence, a feeling of not being a part of the gang. Our coach, Dave Smyth, who is now our director of rugby, is straight, and he came to us from a straight club where one or two people initially expressed a difficulty about his involvement with us. But we played the club last year, and every player was fine about it.''

San Francisco-based Bryce Eberhardt is one person who knows about the pained sense of exclusion that gay sportsmen can feel. At present he's that all-American rarity, a rugby player.

Eberhardt's club, the San Francisco Fog, are currently working to ensure that Colm Cunningham will feel welcome as the Thebans' representative at gay rugby's second annual 12-team world cup, which starts a week tomorrow - roughly coincidental with a test in San Francisco between the USA Eagles and Scotland.

''I spent eight years on my college and university American Football teams, and I knew I wanted to come out while I was still at college,'' says Eberhardt. ''I was also sure that, while I loved playing football, staying on the team wouldn't be an easy place to be after I'd come out.

''At university, for example, there were relentless gay jokes in the locker room. It was an island of conservatism on an otherwise liberal campus. So I quit, and told them why. A lot of the guys asked me to stay, but a lot didn't.

''So early the next day, a bunch of other guys I've never met before are hammering on my door. 'Are you the gay guy that quit the football team?' Er . . . yeah. 'The van's outside . . . you're joining 15 other rugby players on a road trip.' They taught me the rules as we drove to my first rugby game.

''The more I found out about rugby, the more I enoyed it. It's a thinking game, a game of keeping possession. In American Football, they hit hard, but they don't play smart. In the US, rugby is an outsider's game, too, which appealed. I remember the rugby guys telling me something else, too: 'We're crazy, but we're not homophobic.' ''

Essentially, what every gay rugby aficionado would agree on is the belief that the game offers a sporting arena in which gay men can demonstrate that they can be many things in addition to what might most be expected from the tag ''gay man''.

Mark Bingham was one such multi-faceted human being. He was also a rugby player with the San Francisco Fog. He died last year, which is why the winners of this year's gay rugby world cup will be presented with a trophy bearing his name.

As his many Fog clubmates

have testified in print, 6ft 4in Mark Bingham could be loud, daft, bull-headed, generous, maddening, persistent, funny, inspiring, obnoxious, joyful, obstinate, fearless, and utterly charming - often in the course of a single evening.

The date, place, and manner of Mark Bingham's death defines his nature further. For he died on September 11, in a Pennsylvania field aboard the one plane hi-jacked by al Qaeda terrorists which

didn't reach its target that day. Incontrovertibly, this was due to the selfless, daredevil actions of three passengers in business class - one of whom, almost without doubt, was Mark Bingham.

Gay rugby players: stereotype them, and it's your loss.

Having so far successfully attracted devotees from Edinburgh, Fife, and the Borders, this weekend the Caledonia Thebans will be seeking to score more

over-18 rugby conversions in the west of Scotland. They'll be staging a recruitment drive at Pride Scotland, which takes

place on Glasgow Green on Saturday. Contact: caledoniagayrugby@

hotmail. com

the name game

l The Caledonia Thebans are named in honour of a band of bisexual warriors from Thebes. Their greatest success lay in routing a superior force of bisexual warriors from the city-state which gave the Manchester Village Spartans their

name, Sparta.

l When a group of gay

rugby-lovers gathered in 1995 in a pub in King's Cross, London, they named themselves after a favourite American Football team, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

l Various Steelers journeyed to Edinburgh last month for the media launch of the then-unnamed Caledonia Thebans.