Acceptance in mainstream sports is certainly moving in the right direction.
But don’t expect full integration of gay and straight recreational sporting leagues any time soon. Even as Americans become more open toward gay and lesbian athletes, the need for recreational gay and lesbian sports leagues continues.
For some LGBT sports league participants, it’s all about the competition and the thrill of victory. For others, such leagues primarily provide a healthy way to socialize and make friends.
Anne Barr, head of the Decatur Women’s Sports League, says that most of the women who play in her league are looking for fun, not competition. The league has offered softball, basketball, badminton, volleyball, bowling and just launched a soccer league.
“The reason people play our league is that it’s a good alternative to bars,” Barr said. “It’s good exercise. It’s a great way to make friends and network.”
Though the Decatur Women’s Sports League, founded in 2007, is not specifically a league for lesbian amateur athletes, an overwhelming majority of its players are lesbian, Barr said.
“Since we’re 90 percent gay, it’s listed under a gay league but everyone is welcome,” Barr said. “We even have trans players. We have three trans players on one [softball] team.”
Besides a handful of trans players, Barr said that a few of the league’s players are straight. One of the league’s straight players wears a jersey with the name “Token” on the back.
“Their husbands usually don’t mind,” Barr joked.
The glue that holds the league together, Barr said, is the friendly environment where women can come together to socialize in healthy surroundings.
“These friends they make turn out to be lifelong buddies and we’ve even had a few marriages come out of the league. It’s wonderful to know that we have such a variety, so much talent and diversity out there,” she said.
The friendly nature of the league means that serious competitors might not find what they’re looking for from the DWSL.
“Instead of spending money on trophies, we spend money on charities and making sure everyone has a place to play,” Barr said.
To date, the Decatur Women’s Sports League has donated more than $70,000 to its primary beneficiary, the Health Initiative, formerly known as the Atlanta Lesbian Health Initiative.
The Hotlanta Softball League, which offers more competitive levels of play, follows the guidelines set by the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance which allow three “straight” players per team.
In 2011, a federal judge ruled that a gay recreational sporting league was within its legal right to limit the number of heterosexual players on its teams following a claim from three bisexual men that they were kicked off of their softball team during the 2008 Gay Softball World Series.
The three men were later awarded trophies for their second place victory after a settlement was reached, but the rule they challenged is still the law of the gay softball land.
The story made headlines around the world and raised an interesting question about the future of gay leagues and possible integration to allow more straight players.
Michael Carlton has been involved with Hotlanta Softball League for two seasons.
“I like to be competitive,” Carlton said. “One of the teams that made the World Series picked me up and we compete to win the league. It’s a huge part for me; winning is the ultimate goal.”
Carlton recently moved to Atlanta from Tampa. The new city brought a new opportunity to rekindle his athletic drive, he said.
“I had always had a job where I was required to work on Sundays,” Carlton said. “When I moved here, I looked to broaden my social circle and get out to do something. I’ve been addicted ever since.”
Carlton grew up in South Carolina and played several sports during high school, including varsity football.
“I came out my junior year of high school,” he said. “I got outed. There were a couple of people that knew. One of the football players’ mother knew. Some of the parents tried to force me out of the team and make me take showers separately. It was the football players who rallied around me. I still enjoy organized sports because I feel like I can be myself.”
Hotlanta hosts the annual Big Peach Softball Tournament each year over Memorial Day Weekend. This year’s tournament will run May 24-25 and will feature teams from more than a dozen cities in three different divisions. Because the tournament is a NAGAA sanctioned event, certain guidelines, like the straight player rule, must be met.
When Montoya Jennings moved to Atlanta in 2005, he wanted to make new friends and stay active. After attending a few Hotlanta Softball League games to see friends play, he decided to join in the fun.
“I’ve pretty much played with the same group of guys but we’ve been on a few different teams. I’ve played for the Atlanta Steel, A-Town Ballers,” Jennings said.
Jennings said the social aspects of playing on a team are his primary reason for playing ball. Softball, he said, offers something away from the bars and nightlife often associated with the LGBT community.
“We look at the gay scene as the club, but there’s more to being in a club. There’s sports. There’s traveling. There’s so much you can do,” he said.
While he’s found a home in the primarily gay Hotlanta Softball League, Jennings said it might be time to allow more integration of straight players into the league.
“It is the rule but it might be time to change with the times,” Jennings said. “In order for us to evolve, we have to break through the barriers on both sides. My hat is tipped to those players that are straight and play in a gay league. That shows their maturity and their growth. Some people can’t deal with that.”
Top photo: Anne Barr (center) seen here at the Decatur Women’s Sports League’s opening day in 2011, says the league is a good social alternative to bars. (by Sher Pruitt)