Never Mind Jason Collins, What About All the Straight Athletes Who Want to Play on Gay Teams?
In April I wrote a post about the San Francisco Gay Softball League, where I have happily played for about a decade despite my status, as it were, as a straight man.
Part of that article dealt with one team that has taken the league’s egalitarian attitude toward participation by non-LGBT players to a new level – the San Francisco Renegades’ roster consists of 11 straight and only four gay men. That situation in particular led to an interesting debate in the post’s comments section about just how many straight softball players does it take to screw up the whole concept of a gay league.
After we posted the article on Facebook with the question, “Should unlimited straight players be allowed on a gay team?” somebody posted this reply:
“That’s like asking if women’s colleges should admit men.”
Not everyone agrees with that, as evidenced in some of the comments we received, shown directly below, edited for length and readability. Most of the remarks address the so-called 70/30 rule, which limits the number of straight players on a roster to three. The rule is in effect at the Gay Softball World Series, under guidelines stipulated by the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance (NAGAA). In 2008, a San Francisco team was disqualified from the series for fielding too many non-gay players, a disciplinary action that became the subject of a lawsuit that drew national attention.
I come from the south where if it were not for the 70/30 rule [limiting the number of straight players on a roster], I would not be playing softball today. When I heard Gay Softball, I tried it and loved it. If straight guys were there, I would not have gone. I come from Florida, not SF where it is OK to hold hands with another guy and straight people do not care. This is all about a straight team with three gay people on it. That’s not inclusive. The rule is about balance and majority, not about exclusivity or telling straights they are not welcome. Since all the straight people are on the same team, what does this really promote?
My concern with the 70/30 rule is that we’re essentially saying that manager/coaches or players that bring straight players to the league don’t have the proper judgment as to the players’ characters. Are we gays really that stupid? Limiting participation of straights that are kind, honest, respectable is reverse discrimination to me.
The rule, while it may have been well-intended in the beginning, I believe now is divisive, proven by the process that occurred in Seattle [at the Gay World Series]. It’s a witch trial! We should not subject individuals in proving their sexual orientation in any way shape or form and in any setting.
The more gays isolate themselves in their own community – it only allows America to treat them as another minority, segregated from the masses.
I vote for no 70/30 rule and just 100% gays.
It’s an issue
While this whole issue may seem esoteric, it’s actually one that many gay athletic teams have wrestled with. As commenter Robert alluded to above, for some gay athletes it goes to the heart of why they joined a gay team to begin with — to find a safe and welcoming place where they can participate in athletics free of some of the heavy-duty hetero attitudes they may have encountered in gym class or previous forays into team sports.
The San Francisco Tsunami is a San Francisco-based gay swimming organization. Its water polo team started out almost exclusively gay and lesbian, but now it’s about 40 percent straight men, says John Kennedy, a gay team member who has played with the club 11 years.
Kennedy said that the team has tried to strike a balance between remaining competitive and keeping its LGBT identity. Unlike straight players who “generally join the team with some skill set,” Kennedy said, gay players are usually novices.
“Most of the LGBT players that we end up recruiting have never played before. They might have swum competitively, but they probably did not play water polo in high school and college. The biggest challenge we’ve had is … actively recruiting these new LGBT players and providing a practice environment that allows them to develop and become water polo players when most of them have had no experience.”
So could the team, which competes primarily against straight clubs, perform better if they recruited even more non-LGBT players?
“Absolutely,” he said. “That’s what we’ve had to try to moderate against.”
I asked him if he could ever see the team becoming predominantly straight.
“The thing about water polo in the Bay Area,” he said, “is that there are many masters [adult competitive] teams out there, and other than our team, they’re all pretty much straight-identified. There are not so many options for LGBT folks that want to learn how to play.
“We do a lot of fundraising, and it’s practically all in the LGBT community, and I would not like a situation where we’re doing our fundraising … and we’re not an LGBT team. If we’re fundraising in the community … our players should reflect that.”
Frank Vella, the current president of the club, agreed that the team felt strongly about maintaining its LGBT identity, but that “our reality is that we aren’t a very popular sport, and if we get too hung up on labels we risk alienating our straight allies and impacting our numbers, our ability to pay for pool time and coaching, and ultimately our strength as a team.”
Vella said that although he purposely joined a gay team in order to feel comfortable being out, he feels relaxed with his straight teammates.
“I wasn’t sure how other teams would react to having a gay member on their team,” he said. “Now that I’ve been on Tsunami, I’ve seen that a lot of our players are friends with other [straight players] on other teams, and I’ve realized that maybe there was a little fear on my part that didn’t translate to the reality of the situation.”
The Tsunami synchronized swimming team has seen an even bigger change in the sexual orientation of its members. Katie McCall, a former board member who still swims with the team (and who happens to be my sister-in-law), said the team started out in 2000 at almost 100 percent gay men but is currently down to less than a third that. The team now consists mostly of straight women. As with the water polo team, she thinks it has been much easier to recruit players who already have experience in the sport, which is almost exclusively dominated by females.
McCall said she worries about the changing gender/orientation demographic.
“It seems to me like some of the straight women aren’t as tied to the community of the swim team,” she said. “One has to be willing to brave the gay male scene at bars like The LookOut or Hi Tops to participate.”
The team’s founder, Bob Wheeler, said he has “mixed feelings” about its current makeup. “They brought a lot of expertise to the team that we didn’t have, so we’ve learned a lot,” he said of the straight swimmers. “But on some level it’s become less unique. Now it’s primarily women and a few men, so it just sort of seems it loses some specialness.”
John Kennedy, from Tsunami Water Polo, said the straight members on his team have gone the extra mile to fit in.
“The idea of sexual orientation — maybe it’s just this new generation, they’re not so hung up about the gay-straight thing. … They paint their toenails, they like to go to our fundraisers and wear a Speedo. I think it might just be a change in the times. Twenty- and 30-year-olds have less of an issue [with] playing on a gay team, ‘I need to guard my masculinity.’ The players that we attract don’t have those kind of issues by and large.”
Which brings up an interesting question …
Why exactly do straight people want to play on gay teams?
My buddy Dan O’Connell, who is straight, has been playing in gay softball tournaments for 15 years. He had this to say about his fondness for these events:
“I love the atmosphere of inclusiveness and camaraderie and team spirit that is much more consistent than in straight male leagues. It’s also great to be in a space with gay people where they can be themselves. If they are more macho, they can be macho. If they’re [more feminine], they can be that way. If they can be both at different times, then they are both at different times. People can be themselves in a way they can’t be at, say, work, even if they are out.”
As for me, I like the emphasis on sportsmanship and keeping the rabidity you often find in sports at any level to a minimum. As I wrote in my original post, I like to win, too, yet I have never felt the need to trash-talk opponents when there are metal bats in proximity. You don’t see a lot of that in the SFGSL. And there’s really something to be said for a league in which chants of “ya gotta hit to run, ya gotta run to score, ya gotta score to win!” can break out at any moment.
In any event, as other gay professional athletes declare their sexual orientation, as is bound to happen at some point now that the NBA’s Jason Collins has taken the plunge, it will be interesting to see if the idea of gay leagues becomes passe.
“There are definitely arguments for moving past the idea of having a ‘gay team,’ as homosexuality becomes more mainstream and we seek acceptance within a broader community,” said Frank Vella, of Tsunami Water Polo. “But then again … I think [a gay team] serves a greater purpose by letting gays and lesbians know there is a place for them … where they will never have to fear discrimination, prejudice or rejection for who they are.”