It’s Monday night, game night for NYC’s Big Apple Dodgeball league. The Tony Dapolito Recreation Center is packed with 20- and 30-somethings sporting mesh shorts and t-shirts. All eyes are on the showdown unfolding on the court before them. A lone girl contorts her body, narrowly avoiding the barrage of red rubber balls coming from the massive hulk of a guy on the opposing end of the court. As she desperately tries to avoid taking a “Marsha Brady” type shot to the nose, the onlookers chant her name, drowning out all other sound. Suddenly, in an electrifying rush of adrenaline, she catches a ball straight in the chest, clinching the victory. The gym erupts in a euphoric post-game roar. Just another typical recreational dodgeball league moment except for one minor difference: almost everyone in the gym is gay.
The Big Apple Dodgeball league is one of many LGBTQ sports leagues that have recently blossomed across the nation. During the past decade there has been a steady influx of both recreational and semi-professional sports leagues catering to the LGBTQ community. These leagues, ranging from varsity-level sports to schoolyard favorites, play important roles in the community, acting as unifier, social outlet and image builder.
As a recent graduate and former collegiate softball player, Tarah Marvell’s decision to join NYC’s gay dodgeball and softball leagues was a fairly simple one. “I knew the leagues would surround me with people of similar interests and lifestyles and give me a place where I could be totally open about who I am. I’ve been playing sports my entire life and now that I’ve come out, it’s nice to play in a welcoming environment.”
If the old adage of lesbians loving sports is to be believed—and for the most part, it should be—this surge in LGBTQ leagues can be viewed as reclamation of a domain that has always belonged to at least one segment of the community. This time, however, all of its members—male, female and transgender—are joining the game in droves and they are no longer playing from behind the closet doors. This simple act of being a member of one of these newfound leagues removes the burden of coming out yet again.
“A benefit of joining a gay league is that you can skip the sometimes awkward coming out conversation, and you can dive right into playing the game and having a good time with the people around you without hesitation,” said Christina Adragna, another member of gay dodgeball and softball leagues. “It’s also nice to know that there’s a strong community feeling already built into the league.”
This presents a refreshing simplification for LGBTQ people, who are often forced to navigate life in two communities—the gay-friendly one they’ve created for themselves as well as the larger one that includes their job, extended families and acquaintances. “It’s one of the few places in society where gays and lesbians feel completely understood, can be themselves, and can meet other people like themselves,” commented ball-dodger Alisha Conley.
Few stories illustrate that point better than that of Molly Lenore, Commissioner of the New York Gay Football League and active member of both gay dodgeball and softball leagues. As a transgendered person, Lenore has found an extended home in the NYC LGBTQ sports community and it has given her an outlet in which she feels welcome.
“I have been playing sports most of my life,” said Lenore. “I took some time off as I transitioned from male to female because it was a bit awkward. Who do I play with, men or women? It wasn’t until I found the gay sports community that I started to play again.”
Up until recently, LGBTQ and LGBTQ-friendly sports leagues were few and far between. There were a handful of leagues in gay meccas like New York and San Francisco but for the most part, people were left with few options when it came to recreational sports. The scarcity of LGBTQ leagues was not due to a lack of interest but rather to the fact that most people were hesitant about the backlash that might arise from an association with such a league. So, more often than not, most gay and lesbian athletes opted to play within a straight league and remain closeted to their teammates. However, this attitude began to change with the creation of the Gay Games.
Gayer than the Greeks
Originally dubbed the Gay Olympics, the Gay Games is the brainchild of Tom Waddell, a doctor and former Olympian. Waddell saw the need for an international sporting venue that was open to all, regardless of sexual orientation. As stated on its website, the Games aim to “foster and augment self-respect of lesbians and gay men throughout the world and to engender respect and understanding from the non-gay world,” and has been doing so since they were first held back in 1982 in the birthplace of most things gay: San Francisco.
With the same four-year cycle structure as the world’s Olympic games, the Gay Games focuses not only on feats of quasi-super human
athleticism, but also highlights the common thread that unites these athletes in the first place. It doubles as an international Pride celebration of sorts, offering those who attend a wide array of both cultural and
After the initial success of the Gay Games came a surge in the LGBTQ community for other national and international sporting tournaments. Both closeted and out athletes alike were craving more opportunities in which to compete within an LGBTQ-friendly environment. This desire gave birth to national tournaments like the Gay Softball World Series and the Gay Bowl (football), among others. These annual events serve to both further their respective sports and offer another community
building opportunity for gay people.
“Playing in the Gay World Series is an experience that is almost indescribable,” said Raina Rajvaidya, whose San Francisco-based softball team participated in the tournament in both 2007 and 2008. “It’s amazing to be surrounded by a group of your peers who are all playing a game you love at such a high level. The sense of community that comes with those events is remarkable.”
Basketball, Soccer and Softball—Oh My!
Recently, LGBTQ sports leagues have gone through a renaissance of sorts. Both participation and variety of sports are at all-time highs, with membership no longer unofficially restricted to former college athletes. The leagues have quickly transformed to not only accommodate but welcome all skill levels of the rainbow.
Why the sudden explosion of LGBTQ sports leagues across the nation? One theory is the rapidly growing number of out athletes. With the emergence and popularity of the WNBA, U.S. Women’s Softball and U.S. Women’s Soccer over the last decade, more female athletes are finding their personal lives under the media’s direct scrutiny, much like their male counterparts. Not only is their performance on the courts and fields ESPN-worthy, but what they choose to do after the game and between the sheets can also make headlines. Unlike their predecessors who buried themselves deep within the recesses of a walk-in sized closet, many of today’s athletes are opting to be out and proud. One perfect example is the WNBA’s Sheryl Swoopes.
The original poster child for women’s professional basketball, Swoopes’ storied career burst onto the national scene in 1997 during the WNBA’s inaugural season. In October 2005, the three-time WNBA MVP and Olympic gold medalist became one of most high profile athletes ever to come out of the closet. In an interview with ESPN.com, Swoopes explained her controversial decision to go public with her sexuality: “My reason for coming out now isn’t to be some sort of hero. It’s not something that I want to throw in people’s faces. I’m just at a point in my life where I’m tired of having to pretend to be somebody I’m not.”
Swoopes isn’t the only athlete who has made the move to go public with her sexuality. During the Beijing Olympics, there were more out LGBTQ athletes than ever before. Such preeminent athletes as Natasha Kai, Vicky Galindo and Lauren Lappin not only helped the United States win medals in both soccer and softball, but did so while being out and proud—and vocal. Openly bisexual Lauren Lappin of the U.S. Women’s Softball team summed it up in an interview with the O.C. Register: “Really for me the best thing was just embracing it and embracing who I am and it’s made me a better person and a better athlete. And I’ve been able to have deeper relationships with my teammates and that helps our team grow.”
While this wave of Pride parade-attending professional athletes is one trend that can be attributed to the boom in LGBTQ sports leagues, another factor is the recent, and substantial, drop in the average “coming out” age. According to a 2006 study conducted by social worker Caitlin Ryan of San Francisco State University, the national average coming out age now is 13 years old. Less than a decade ago, that average was around 25 years old. Today’s LGBTQ youth are embracing their identities before they can even drive and now that they are no longer waiting until college to step out of the closet, sports have played an increasingly important role in helping young people find their spot in the LGBTQ community.
Going Gay for Play
At first glance most LGBTQ and traditional sports leagues come across as being identical. Same balls. Same courts. Same game. But scratch beneath the jerseys, and there is one fundamental difference that set the leagues apart: LGBTQ sports leagues offer gay and lesbian athletes a community of their very own.
Wanting to relive his glory days on the schoolyard, Paul Burke, Commissioner of the Big Apple Dodgeball League, first attempted to play within a traditional New York City league. Sadly, he found the experience less than welcoming. “As a predominantly gay team in the straight league,” Burke says, “it was assumed that every person on the team was gay even though they weren’t.” These and other complications led to the creation of a now-thriving LGBTQ dodgeballer community.
Having a strong sense of community, especially when it comes to playing recreational sports, is top priority for most gays and lesbians. Team sports tend to provide the perfect arena for forging deep life-long friendships, building on trust through the bonds of teamwork on and off the courts. It also offers a nice alternative—or perhaps a complement—to the existing gay scene found in most cities.
“I chose to join an LGBT league because I wanted to meet other LGBTs. I thought that it would be a great way to make some friends through activities besides going to a bar,” said Norman Piasecki, a seasoned player in NYC’s gay softball, dodgeball, volleyball and football leagues. “Whereas on a straight team I may be the only gay person there and might not have a lot of things in common with those around me, on an LGBT league I can guarantee that I will connect with someone in some way and be able to build a friendship.”
And the allure of LGBTQ sports leagues is not limited to racking up a few new friend requests on Facebook. The leagues can double as a dating pool by providing a refreshing change of scenery from “the bar scene” and allowing people to get to know each other without the aide of $3 margaritas. Many gay and lesbian couples alike can attribute finding the girl/guy of their dreams to playing within an LGBTQ sports league.
Got the Balls?
While the popularity of these leagues cannot be contested, getting an LGBTQ league up and running isn’t a walk in the park. Depending on the requirements of the sport, there are a number of obstacles to overcome before breaking a sweat. Field permits, equipment, financial backing and insurance are just a few of the concerns new leagues face.
Jeff Kagan, known to many in NYC as “Mr. Gay Sports,” is a guru of sorts when it comes to the ins and outs of starting an LGBTQ league.
As founder of both the New York Gay Hockey League and New York Gay Basketball League, as well as Out of Bounds NYC, he is well
aware of the amount of requisite behind-the-scenes work.
A lifelong hockey player, Kagan started out as a member of predominantly straight sports leagues, opting to remain completely closeted to his teammates and other members. While attending a Gay Hockey Tournament in Toronto, Kagan was pleased to discover he wasn’t the only closeted member of his league and this shared connection, coupled with his positive experience at the tournament, led to the birth of the New York Gay Hockey League and, ultimately, the New York Gay Basketball league in 2007.
The success of these leagues showed Kagan that there was a definitive need for other LGBTQ leagues and the resources to help get them started, which led to the creation of Out of Bounds NYC. Aggregating information on more than 30 leagues throughout the
NYC area, the mission of Out of Bounds (oobnyc.org) is to spread awareness of and provide support for the LGBTQ sports community. Interested athletes can get information on a range of leagues and organizations—including Frontrunners, Ski Bums, Metro Gay Tennis, and Team NY Aquatics and Water Polo, just to name a few—as well as gain valuable insight on how to start a league themselves.
As evidenced by the different leagues listed on the Out of Bounds website, the allure of LGBTQ sports leagues has extended beyond the athletically inclined. Regardless of skill level, these leagues practice a strict “all inclusive” policy and most offer an array of divisions that cater to a broader range of interests and experience levels. Now, more than ever, LGBTQers who would normally shy away from pop flies and rebounds are finding their niche in the more recreational divisions.
One Home Run at a Time…
The boom in LGBTQ sports leagues has had a positive ripple effect on all facets of the gay community. From membership sizes and
diversity of their players, these leagues have helped spread the message that even LGBTQers put their cleats on one foot at a time just like everyone else. Whether it’s cheerleading or rugby, these proud members are out and about advertising their leagues, and the
winners of this push for awareness have been gay-friendly businesses.
By reaching out to gay-friendly businesses and bars for sponsorship, LGBTQ sports leagues have been able to boost their revenues and expand their clientele. Most leagues will opt to attend a sponsor bar after games rather than a random location in order to show support, transforming typically slow weeknights at a bar into surprising moneymakers. In turn, these establishments offer discounts and specials to league members, making it a win-win situation for all involved.
Back at the Tony Dapolito Recreation Center, while the balls are being dodged, there’s a general sense of comfort and belonging in the air. Hugs and friendly small talk accompany the customary high fives and congratulations on a good game. Everyone is there not just for the love of game but also for the love of those around them. And in the end that’s the best sign that LGBTQ sports leagues are on the road to scoring big.