THE BLOG

My Life With the Warwick Rowers

03/12/2015 11:19 GMT | Updated 01/12/2016 10:12 GMT

For the last six years, the men's rowing team at Warwick University have been producing a naked calendar. Nothing exceptional about that - there are a lot of naked charity calendars out there.

But to the legions of admirers in over eighty countries around the world who every year buy their calendars, films, t-shirts, posters and more, the Warwick Rowers are probably second only to One Direction as the hottest British boys on the planet. More than that, they are for many a symbol of hope for a kinder, more tolerant world.

So how did a student calendar become a global phenomenon?

Our story began in 2009. A "resting" TV writer and producer, I had recently picked up photography as a hobby and found myself doing some portfolio shots for Chris, a young student with ambitions to become a model.

Chris mentioned that his rowing club was short on funds. "You could always do one of those naked calendars," I joked. Less than two weeks later, I found myself driving up to Warwick campus on a freezing October morning with a camera, a couple of lights and a lot of misgivings.

As a confused and under-confident LGBT youth, I had been harassed both at school and university by the "sports" crowd, so did not at first know what to make of the group of boisterous and privileged varsity athletes I would meet that day. And to be fair, I doubt the rowers had encountered an old-school LGBT activist before!

It could all have gone horribly wrong, and there were moments on that first shoot when I thought it might. But I was mistaken. What began that day has affected me profoundly, and delivered an object lesson in the value and importance of diversity.

The pivotal moment happened early on, when the calendar went from selling a few hundred copies on campus to developing an international fan base in the gay community. The boys swiftly and publicly embraced this support and decided they would dedicate their calendar to challenging homophobia. It was a decision that would transform the calendar, and cement our partnership as a true gay/straight alliance.

Nudity remains a potent form of magic in our culture. Even in the blasé, over-sexualised era of the internet, the naked body retains its historic dual powers to disrupt and delight. For a group of university athletes to stand naked in front of the world as a protest against homophobia in sport is a compelling and entirely appropriate use of both of those powers.

Homophobia is, among many other things, a wish to deny the happiness of others. The Warwick Rowers challenge that in the most meaningful way possible. They offer us their naked bodies both to draw attention and show their commitment to their cause and to prove that it is possible to embrace the sexuality of others with generosity, grace and style.

A young Australian (I'll call him Sean) recently wrote to us with this message. I cried when I read it. It captures so absolutely what we have been working to achieve with this project and this calendar, and took me right back to when I was 17 myself (it's a while ago now).

"Hi, my name's Sean. I'm a 17yr old Australian who recently came out as gay to his friends and family. I just wanted to say thank you, so very very much for what you guys do. The promo shots of your calendar and some of the pictures were some of the first ever photos of those kind that I saw. In fact it was the calendar images that made me realise my attraction and thus homosexuality.

But I think the most powerful aspects of the images are that they show that camaraderie and mateship is still possible when there are accepting people who don't care about your sexuality. They gave me the realisation that when I came out to my friends they wouldn't treat me any differently, but just like a mate. Infact the day I came out I put one of the posters on my phone lock screen as motivation to come out.

Anyway, I just wanted to say thank you for what you're doing, fighting homophobia and giving confused guys like me confidence in their attraction and eventual acceptance. As soon as I get a job I will buy one of the calendars and support this great cause, so hopefully you can keep helping others like me."

I didn't have Sean's bravery at 17. I will never know what difference the Warwick Rowers would have made for me. But I am humbled that he feels we made a difference for him. And we're going to make sure he has a great Christmas with the Warwick Rowers!

If you would like to put a rower in someone's stocking this Christmas, you can find us here: http://warwickrowers.org

To get a flavour of this year's calendar and hear the boys share their perspective on the project, watch this:

https://vimeo.com/142398964