Some years back, at the Gay Softball World Series, my San Francisco league team decided to exercise its penchant for kitschiness by scheduling a group dinner at the local Hooters. I think the team was also trying to throw a bone to us straight players -- a serious misconception, but you have to appreciate the gesture.
Anyway, the waitress was quite amused at the concept of a gay softball team, thought it was just the funniest thing. So I challenged her to pick out the non-gay among us. She looked each and every one of us up and down, checking for telltale I don't know what -- receipts to Lady Gaga albums? She managed to correctly point out our hetero second baseman. But she had a harder time with No. 2, No. 2 being me, and finally opted for our big, sure-handed but quite gay first sacker.
“Nope,” I said. “It’s me.”
What came next caused a minor identity crisis. “Really?" she said, crinkling up her nose. You?"
And so it goes in the world of gay softball, where traditional stereotypes about sexual orientation and its preconceptions survive about as long as a soft line drive to the pitcher.
I've been thinking of this incident because of the recent buzz over the possibility of an active professional gay athlete imminently declaring his sexuality (see here, here and here). The speculation started a couple of weeks ago, with an announcement by former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, an outspoken supporter of gay rights, that up to four gay NFL players might come out. "They're trying to be organized so they can come out on the same day together," he said. "It would be a monumental day if a handful or a few guys come out."
Indeed it would. Though Ayanbadejo later backed away a bit from his assertion, the introduction of the very idea of actual current top athletes who are gay, as opposed to the extremely logical speculation that yes, of course some are, has created a certain excitement, and perhaps even washes away some of the ignorance that continues to ooze out even in this "It Gets Better" age. You'll recall 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver's pre-Super Bowl comments in January, when asked if he'd ever been approached by gay teammates: "No, we don't got no gay people on the team," he said. "They gotta get up out of here if they do. ... Nah, can't be in the locker room."
That comment was more about out-and-out disdain than an assessment of gay athletes' abilities (Culliver later apologized), but I myself have had a number of otherwise open-minded straight friends over the years make directly for the jokes when informed that I play in a gay league. And I should also say that their ignorance at one time mirrored my own. Since I had played baseball in high school, a friend's invitation to join his team in the San Francisco Gay Softball League immediately prompted the notion that I was going to dominate, since surely everyone threw like a girl. Several years and a couple of benchings later, of that notion I had been disabused.
The SFGSL: 41 years and counting
The league, in which former gay major leaguer Glenn Burke once played, has been a haven for gay athletes for 41 years. But it's so welcoming of straight players that it got into hot water a few years back when a top World Series squad was disqualified for having too many heterosexuals on the roster. (That became the subject of a lawsuit.) Teams, including those in two women's divisions, are grouped by skill level, and the upper divisions are extremely competitive. Many of my teammates have played for decades, and lots of them are softball junkies, participating in multiple leagues, hustling off to weekend tournaments. More than one player has told me they've had a relationship go down the drain due to their preoccupation with the game.
I really had no idea. This was more than an athletic league. It was an entire subculture. A few years back, I interviewed one teammate, a five-tool outfielder with tremendous opposite field power, about what gay softball meant to him.
“For a long time I didn’t know anyone who was gay and who played sports,” he said. “I had my gay friends I’d go out with and my straight friends I’d play sports with. It was hard because a lot of gay guys said by playing sports I was trying to be straight. But when a friend told me about gay softball, I went to a game and it was like, 'Oh my goodness, all these guys play softball?' It was a whole different world. Playing gay softball helped me accept my lifestyle a lot more, because I saw I wasn’t the only guy out there who was gay and was athletic, and that’s how I had been feeling.”
There's actually a whole network of gay sports leagues in the city. Softball, tennis, swimming (even synchronized swimming). My friend Mike from the SFGSL has been playing in some of these for years, and he's coached in both gay and non-gay leagues. When I asked him what it was like for him to play in a "straight league," he took me to task.
"I actually don't understand the labeling of gay, lesbian, straight to describe an athlete," he said. "What does sexual orientation have to do with it? I feel when labels are being used it's due to insecurities, by either gays or straights."
Gay team, straight players
One team in the SFGSL, the San Francisco Renegades, actually has just four gay players; the other 11 are straight. John Steen, the team's pitcher, said he had concerns at first when he learned of that ratio, but was so inspired by the bonding that's developed between team members of different sexual orientations that he decided to make a documentary about the experience. The film will focus on the relationship between gay and straight men on and off the field.
"I [asked] a bunch of friends before I had the idea," Steen said, "do you have any straight male friends that you get together with and go have a drink with? And none of them did. And I’d never had that myself."
Steen said the friendships he's developed with his straight teammates grew slowly, beginning with a team brunch. "We had a great time and after ... I kind of wanted to ask them if they wanted to watch the Giants game. But I was too afraid to do that. So I texted one of them, and four of them came over. So I’m sitting here on my couch and two of the guys are sitting on the couch with me, and I just freaked -- oh my God, this is the first time ... I'd hung out with straight guys by myself.
"I asked one of the straight guys on the team if he wanted to go to the Giants game with me on Tuesday, because it’s my birthday," Steen said. "And I thought, 'Oh my God, a straight guy to hang out with on my birthday.' Stuff like that is happening organically."
Steen said there are still gay players in the league who believe in the "70-30" rule, which means 70 percent of the team must be gay or bisexual, a regulation that is enforced at the Gay Softball World Series. But he said he has not been able to find anyone who will say so on camera for his documentary.
"Are they going to be too aggressive?"
My teammate Tony Robbins is a former league official who has been playing for about 10 years. He says he was wary at first when a handful of us straight guys signed on to the squad.
"I thought, 'Oh f***, this is gonna be nasty,' " he said. "It started out kind of bouncy at first. ... The warmup period takes a little while. Maybe gay guys are thinking: 'Are they going to be too aggressive?' [But] I’ve only had one encounter where a straight player got way too aggressive. He just jumped on the umpire, which is a total no-no in our league.”
That's actually one of the reasons I like playing in the SFGSL. There's a big emphasis on sportsmanship, and if your testosterone happens to get the best of you in terms of your behavior, then that's going to be a problem. I've played in a lot of non-gay leagues where the ultra-competitive attitude borders on the rabid. I mean, I like to win, too, yet I have never felt the need or even the compulsion to trash-talk opponents when there are metal bats in proximity. There's very little if any of that in the SFGSL; at the end of each game, in fact, teams are required to shake hands and thank their opponents with a cheer.
But that doesn't mean that the competition isn't fierce. Here's a 2010 post from a straight player who played in Boston's gay league. He writes, "(T)he better teams in the gay league would absolutely wipe the floor with the straight teams I’ve played on and against." That has been my experience in San Francisco's league as well.
"There's a perception that all gays are not as good as straights," one gay player told me. "That's not true. There are some straight players I've played with who would not make some of the gay teams I've been on."
Mike, who has moved comfortably between gay and non-gay leagues, said he's found that even gay players automatically assume straight players have more ability. "When gay athletes do that, then they're just reinforcing what straight, insecure athletes think of gay athletes -- which is they're a lesser player," he said.
Still, said John Steen, a lot of gay men have had bad experiences with athletics, and the wounds can run deep. He recounted the time when he'd first joined the SFGSL and his team decided to also play in San Francisco's city league. "Which was all straight," he said. "And we got demolished every game. A lot of guys on our team had a real hard time being beaten by straight guys like that. I feel like that’s internalized homophobia. A lot of gay guys growing up had a lot of issues with sports. ... This generation is sort of different, though. A lot more are coming out earlier and a lot are quite athletic."
Awaiting a pro
As to the long-awaited announcement by a gay active NFL or MLB player, Mike said he isn't waiting with bated breath. "Absolutely not a big deal," he said. "I idolize athletes for their body of work and not their personal life."
Both John Steen and Tony Robbins disagreed. "I do think it would be a very big deal if that happened," said Steen.
Robbins said a pro coming out would be important for younger gay men. "There are younger gays out there who are looking up to these sports players, saying, 'Hey look, they’re playing with all these guys, so I can play this game, too.' They can look at it as, 'I have a chance, I don’t have to be blacklisted because I’m gay.'
"My hope is someone will come out and everybody will go ... 'So? Can you play?' This is a professional sport, I’m looking at qualities of what you can do on the field, not who you’re sleeping with."