Three years ago, a disagreement erupted on some ball fields just south of Seattle. The 2008 Gay Softball World Series was under way, an alternate universe of competitive sports that moves each year to a different city, bringing with it nearly 200 gay softball teams from across the United States and Canada, as well as thousands of spectators. Drag queens rally the fans. Shouts of "Giiiiirrrl" carry across the grass. Guys with their arms draped over other guys stand in the dugout, next to women with biceps bigger than their own.
It's serious competition, with all the usual intensity and emotion—including, in 2008, suspicions of cheating.
For the Seattle world series, the San Francisco Gay Softball Association, one of the oldest gay softball clubs in the United States, sent a team that called itself D2. They'd been together for some time, but so far the best they'd ever done at the Gay Softball World Series was place fourth. LaRon Charles, a short, scrappy, goateed military veteran, was serving as the team's coach. As he would later recount in court documents, he and his team decided early on that in order to win, they would need to push themselves "harder than we ever had."
Down in San Francisco, during the regular season, D2 added practices on weekdays for the first time in the team's history. Players traveled to weekend tournaments to get in top form. The club held fundraisers to defray hotel and airfare costs for getting people to Seattle.
The work paid off. On August 30, 2008, having sailed through the early rounds of competition at the Seattle Gay Softball World Series, D2 found itself in the semifinals. Their opponents were the Atlanta Mudcats, and they beat them in a blowout, 23–3.
There was just one game left: a championship match against the Los Angeles Vipers.
The night before that final game, rumors began to swirl.
D2 was cheating, the rumors went, and doing so in a way that is unique to the world of organized gay sports.
The accusation, which ended up spawning a federal lawsuit that could change the way gay sports are played around the country, was simple and yet very hard to prove: D2 was fielding too many heterosexual players.
The North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance, which puts on the Gay Softball World Series, was founded in the 1970s by gay players in San Francisco and New York seeking to promote a safe and separate space for gay softball. The group has a long history of limiting the number of straight people allowed on the field during world series play; in the organization's early years, straight people weren't allowed on the field, period.
Which is not to say that many straight players wanted in. This was the 1970s and 1980s, after all.
It wasn't until 1993, as hardened cultural animosities toward gays were beginning to crack, that the flat-out ban on straight people loosened. "The rationale for changing the rule," said NAGAAA commissioner Roy Melani, "was that we now had advocates in the straight community. Plus, we also had family members, whether it be sons or parents, who wanted to play."
A new rule was adopted: Two straight players per team were allowed during the Gay Softball World Series.
Melani and I were seated across the table from each other at Scandals, a gay bar in Portland, as he told me about this evolution. He's 51 and trim, and wore a purple striped dress shirt. He pitches for a gay team known as the Portland Brewers, and he apologized in advance for the way he speaks—explosive emotion, chopping hand gestures—saying it's a combination of his passion for gay sports and his Italian heritage. His lawyer, Roger Leishman of Seattle's Davis Wright Tremaine, sat next to him, listening closely.
Melani told me right up front that playing against straight teams in the Portland city leagues has convinced him it's important to have a cap on straight players for NAGAAA's premier annual event.
"The amount of slurs and the amount of abuse that we take—in Portland, Oregon!—is amazing," he told me. "Last year, we arrive to play against another team, and the umpire says, 'Oh, here come the crossdressers.'" On the field, he's heard opposing players call out "Faggot!" or "You throw like a girl!"
"Meanwhile," Melani said, "we beat the shit out of these guys."
He went on: "There was one time, a few years ago, where we split a double header with a straight team—they were ready to take baseball bats and come to blows because we were gay. Mind you, my team was not out there hugging and kissing everybody. That was not what we were doing. We were playing softball. And we were beating them. And that was a problem for them."
This is one of the many hard-to-duplicate experiences that come with playing on a gay sports team, this opportunity to humble—and enrage—straight people who aren't used to gays being good at sports. It's a reminder that, to make the clichéd metaphor literal, the playing field still isn't even. Even in our quickly shifting culture, gay people still face discrimination and hostility, still spend a certain amount of time crisscrossing the divide between explicitly queer spaces and dominantly heterosexual spaces. Partly because of this, for many in the gay community there's still a powerful pull toward moments, like the Gay Softball World Series, in which that kind of divide-crossing gets put on extended pause.
The problem comes—as NAGAAA is now finding out in federal court—when a group of people tries to defend queer space by enforcing a limit on exactly how many non-gay people can be included.
In Seattle, figuring out who had a right to be included involved a kind of tribunal, with players being hauled before a "protest committee" to answer pointed questions.
All the suspicion made a competitive atmosphere even more charged. "In the first innings of the championship game, we were playing well," LaRon Charles, the D2 coach, recounted in a March declaration to the court. Then, suddenly, the game was stopped for a discussion of the fact that D2 was being officially protested based on the allegation that it had too many straight players. Charles went on:
The game resumed, and we were leading the Vipers by about 10 runs when play was stopped again in the third inning. Again, there was a discussion about the protest against our team. Then the game resumed. This happened at least one more time... People had started coming up to our dugout asking questions about different players and what their names and jersey numbers were... Between the interruptions and the buzz growing in the park about our team being protested, we lost focus and lost our momentum. We ended up losing the championship game, 31 to 28.
What happened next is at the heart of the federal lawsuit, filed in April of last year by the National Center for Lesbian Rights on behalf of Charles and two other D2 players who were brought before the tribunal.
NCLR lawyers allege that at the tribunal, Charles and the two other D2 members had their privacy unlawfully invaded and were illegally discriminated against based on their sexual orientation and race. (All three plaintiffs are "men of color," according to court documents.) The NCLR is demanding unspecified monetary damages for the "emotional distress" suffered by its clients—described in court documents as "vivid flashbacks," "loss of sleep," and feelings of "humiliation, embarrassment, and anger"—plus a nationwide injunction against enforcement of the two-straight-players-per-team limit at the Gay Softball World Series. "Nobody should be put into a situation where they're marched into a room and forced to answer questions about their sexuality," said Chris Stoll, the NCLR's senior staff attorney.
This is the first time the NCLR has ever sued another gay group. It's taken the unusual step, in part, because it has a profoundly different sense of the current culture—and what's required to defend gay space—than Melani's organization does.
"These rules are a legacy of an older time," Stoll said, speaking of the two-straight- players-per-team cap at the Gay Softball World Series. "Given how much progress we've made, they seem kind of antiquated. Today, a rule that limits participation based on sexual orientation just isn't necessary to have in a gay sports league, or any kind of gay-friendly space."
The disagreement is bigger than just this lawsuit. Across the world of gay sports, there is wide divergence on how to handle straight players.
This summer, Vancouver, BC, will play host to the North America Outgames, an Olympics-style competition involving gay teams competing against each other in soccer, swimming, hockey, volleyball, running, mountain biking, badminton, golf, poker, and, yes, softball. The Outgames makes an explicit point of not discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation—meaning straight players and teams are theoretically welcome. That's a very different policy than at the Gay Softball World Series or in the National Gay Flag Football League, which also limits the number of straight players allowed on a team to 20 percent.
This kind of protective discrimination is not unique to gay sports. According to court documents, the Black American Softball Association allows just four "non-black" players per team and demands birth certificates as proof of race; the Native American World Series has a cap of two non-Native softball players per team and requires players to carry "Indian identification"; and the SMASH Softball Tournament for Asian/Pacific Islanders allows only three non-API players and requires "proof of ethnicity."
The 2008 tribunal, Charles recounted in his court declaration, "was held in a small conference room inside a complex at the park." All the D2 players waited outside as, one by one, their teammates were brought before a panel composed of leaders in the national gay softball association. Accounts of what followed differ considerably between the plaintiffs and the defendants, but Charles said in his declaration that "more than 25 people were crowded into the small hearing room" and that "the atmosphere felt like a circus."
According to Charles and his fellow plaintiffs, people inside the hearing room were texting private information to people outside while the questioning was taking place. "When I came out of the hearing room, people I didn't even know were making comments about my marriage and other things we said in the hearing," Charles said. (He is married to a woman.)
Meanwhile, the hearing itself seemed to have incomprehensible and shifting standards for how to prove one's sexuality. Bisexuality, in this recounting of events, was not sufficient evidence to convince the members of the tribunal that a person was not heterosexual.
"Someone on the Protest Committee read me NAGAAA's definition of 'heterosexual,'" said Steven Apilado, one of the challenged D2 players, in a March declaration to the court. "I was asked whether it defined me, and I said yes. Then someone on the Protest Committee read me NAGAAA's definition of 'homosexual,' and I was asked whether that definition defined me. I said yes to that question, too."
Apilado, who is African American and Filipino, had been introduced to the gay softball world when his brother invited him to play on his team. He was ruled "non-gay" by the tribunal and claims that until the hearing, "I had never disclosed my sexual orientation to anybody."
Charles, who is African American, said that when he, too, professed bisexuality, one of the NAGAAA board members in the room told him, "This is the Gay World Series, not the Bisexual World Series." Multiple votes were taken with regard to Charles's sexuality, he said, and "on the final vote, I was voted to be 'not gay.'"
John Russ, another of the challenged D2 players, refused to answer the tribunal's questions. "I didn't want them getting into my personal business," he explained in court documents.
Russ is African American. Just like the other men of color brought before the tribunal, he was ruled "non-gay." Curiously, Russ said, another D2 player—a player who is not a plaintiff in the lawsuit—was questioned by the tribunal and refused to answer. That player is white and was ruled "gay."
What was the racial makeup of the tribunal? "All but one of NAGAAA's protest committee members were Caucasian," according to court documents filed by the NCLR. Leishman, the lawyer for Melani and NAGAAA, said there were five committee members, four men and one woman. One of the men was Asian and the rest were Caucasian.
All five committee members have been offended by the suggestion that racism played any part in the proceedings, Leishman said, contending that they made their decisions based only on "the demeanor of the individuals"—meaning, Leishman said, "which ones seemed evasive and not forthright."
"By the time the voting was over, I was extremely upset," Russ said. "I raised my hand and I asked how they could ask me these few questions and determine what my sexuality is. Nobody responded."
With three of D2's players now ruled "non-gay," the team was retroactively disqualified from the Seattle Gay Softball World Series and forced to forfeit its second-place trophy.
"I felt like we had gotten hit by a train," Charles said.
"I started to cry as we were leaving the complex," said Apilado. "I didn't want this to end there."
It did not end there, and Melani now hotly disputes the plaintiffs' recounting of what went on that day. "First of all," he told me, "I want to say: They were not treated poorly in any way, shape, or form."
They certainly feel that way, I told him.
"I know that," he said. "But you need to hear the other side of the story. This is a really hot button for me. They are at the Gay World Series. Is it unreasonable for someone to say, 'Are you gay?' at the Gay World Series? It is not."
Even so, did this particular line of "Are you gay?" questioning go a bit off the rails?
"They have said that this is a kangaroo court that they were brought in front of," Melani replied. "In no way, shape, or form was it done like that."
Central to Melani's account is his contention that the D2 players never said at the hearing that they were bisexual. "If they'd have said that," he told me, "we wouldn't be sitting here."
At the time, the policies of NAGAAA allowed bisexual players to play in the Gay Softball World Series and not be counted as straight, said Leishman, admitting, "Some people seem to have been confused."
But he contends that no one with a vote on the tribunal was confused, nor did any of the voting members make any statement about it being "the Gay World Series, not the Bisexual World Series."
In any case, Leishman said, the gay softball association's policies have now been clarified. Bisexuals are even more explicitly allowed to play in the world series—as are lesbians, transgender people, and limited numbers of straight people—and the way the organization determines a person's sexuality is simple: self-declaration. "We don't have cards, we don't have pink triangles, and no one's gaydar is perfect," said Leishman. "All you can do is ask."
Stoll, of the NCLR, isn't sold.
"It's hard to understand what's particularly important about the magic number of capping it at two heterosexual players," he said. "And the real problem is that any way you try to enforce a cap like this is going to have real, devastating consequences. Just look at what happened to the guys in this case."
Plus, what about the cap's implication that a gay team can't—
Melani cut me off.
"Don't misconstrue," he said.
"But you know what I'm going to ask."
"I know exactly what you're going to ask," he said.
"Okay, let me just ask it, just for the formality of it: Are you saying that a gay team can't beat a straight team?"
"No, I'm not saying that. I'm saying that they have, and that's breaking down the barriers of sports."
Still, Melani feels there's a place for that kind of majority-gay versus majority-straight competition, and a place for majority-gay versus majority-gay competition—and the Gay Softball World Series is the latter.
After his trip through the tribunal, Charles came away with a very different impression.
"I felt, and still feel, offended that someone would think that having players who were voted by a group of strangers to be 'non-gay' would make the difference in whether we win or lose," he said. "A straight player is no better than I am."
A trial is set for June in Seattle before US District Court judge John C. Coughenour. One of the more interesting legal questions that lawyers are preparing to debate is whether the Gay Softball World Series, as it manifested itself in Seattle, constituted a "public accommodation." The phrase is important because it connects to Washington State's nondiscrimination law, which is designed, for example, to prevent people from being denied access to a water fountain because of their race or kicked out of a business establishment because of their sexual orientation.
As we were sitting at Scandals, Leishman pointed out: "This is a public accommodation." His message was that if the bar were located in Washington State, a person couldn't be denied entry because of his or her race or sexual orientation.
In court filings, the NCLR has argued that the Seattle Gay Softball World Series was a public accommodation (it was played on public fields and advertised widely) and that by denying "non-gay" people the ability to participate, NAGAAA violated the state's nondiscrimination law.
Leishman, returning to his example, explained that essentially what the NCLR is demanding here is not just the right for anyone to enter a gay bar regardless of race or sexual orientation, but also the right for anyone to leap over the bar and start pouring beer for customers. At the 2008 Gay Softball World Series, anyone could buy a ticket regardless of race or sexual orientation, but not everyone was allowed on the field. "You can't just walk off the street and pick up a bat and start playing on a team," Leishman said.
Additionally, Leishman argues, the group that puts on the Gay Softball World Series is a private organization—like, say, the Boy Scouts of America, which explicitly excludes homosexuals and in 2000 successfully fought all the way to the US Supreme Court to defend its right, as a private organization, to do so. It just so happens that NAGAAA discriminates in the opposite direction.
Melani, frustrated by a sense that his group has been unfairly singled out, challenges the NCLR to be consistent. Why, Melani asks, has the NCLR not also filed suit against lesbian softball teams that allow only women, or taken some of the race- and ethnicity-based softball competitions to court?
"Are rules like that possibly illegal?" Stoll asked in response. "I think it's entirely possible."
Talk to Melani about his path into the world of gay softball, and it quickly becomes clear why a safe space for gay players is so important to him.
It begins with a flashback to high school, which is common: Adult gay athletes are competing not just against their on-field opponents, but also against the memories of what happened to them back then. Craig Kelly, the coach of the Seattle Quake rugby team, sees this all the time in new players, many of whom have never before played organized sports. "In high school, they probably weren't encouraged to be athletes," Kelly said. "They were probably singled out as nonathletic when they were younger. Or maybe their own desires were growing—you don't want to pop wood in the shower." Michael Coleman, who runs Jet City Hoops, Seattle's gay basketball league, sees the same thing. "They were either the last person picked on a team, or not picked way back when, and they just want to come out and be a part of that now," he said. "There's obviously a comfort level if you're with other gay people and other people at your skill level." Plus, he said, "You can say to your fellow players, 'That guy's kinda hot.'"
"I played football, I played basketball, and I played baseball," Melani said of his high school years. He was good, and no one knew he was gay, though Melani was beginning to wonder.
He also was beginning to observe how gay men who had a harder time masking their homosexuality were treated. "I remember," Melani said, "when we were in gym class, and there were a couple guys I knew were gay. You just know. And the poor guys were the last ones picked. And I remember some sense of 'If I could make a difference in that situation...'"
I asked whether a kind of survivor's guilt—a guilt at being able to pass as straight and thrive in the world of high school sports—was behind Melani's later involvement in the world of gay softball.
"It may well have been," he said.
If his gay softball association hadn't had insurance against lawsuits like the one the NCLR is bringing, Melani said, "we would be defunct." The pretrial legal bills alone would have sunk NAGAAA.
But there's another money issue that Melani now worries about: If, as a result of this legal fight, the purity of the gay demographic at the Gay Softball World Series is diluted by court order, will NAGAAA still be able to receive lucrative sponsorships from gay-targeting beer companies and the like, the kind of sponsorships that make the event possible?
Adding frustration to his fears, Melani said that one of the men who's suing NAGAAA over its cap on straight players has himself been playing in the SMASH Softball Tournament for Asian/Pacific Islanders—that's the tournament that sets a cap of three non-API players per team and requires "proof of ethnicity."
Interestingly, all the parties involved seem to think that someday there will no longer be a need to fight in federal court over how to defend this country's gay sports space.
The sticking point is just whether that day is in the future or right now.
Jeff Card, commissioner of the Emerald City Softball Association, which oversees 35 gay softball teams in Seattle, told me: "My view is that eventually this cap on straight players will probably go by the wayside, anyway. It's just a matter of when. If there's any judicial action, it would have the effect of simply speeding up the outcome."
During the regular season, Seattle's gay softball teams don't enforce the cap—and aren't required to by NAGAAA. A good number of straight players participate, some because they simply find gay sports teams more supportive and fun than straight teams. However, Seattle's gay softball teams are required to enforce the cap when sending teams to the Gay Softball World Series. And the Seattle association has repeatedly used its vote at national board meetings to uphold the world series cap because, Card said, the experiences of gay softball teams in less tolerant cities—"like Tulsa and Oklahoma City"—make a cap on straight players at the world series "a lot more pertinent."
When I told Melani and Leishman that the lawyer for the NCLR had called the cap on straight players "a legacy of an older time," Leishman quickly shot back:
"Maybe it is in San Francisco."
Melani immediately added:
"Not in Birmingham, Alabama, or Memphis, Tennessee."
Both are places with gay softball teams that need a separate space for gay sports far more than, say, major coastal urban centers. Melani continued: "It would be wonderful to say that we live in a world with no discrimination, and that gay men and women are free to marry and be without discrimination in a job—it's not the reality that we're living in. And until that changes, that's the basis of what we need. Especially in sports. You tell me one Major League Baseball player who is out and proud, and I'll give you a million dollars."
I asked: When I can tell you one Major League Baseball player who is out and proud, will you declare mission accomplished and shut down the Gay Softball World Series?
"Yes," he said.