Every Sunday, dozens of casual athletes meet behind the fogged windows of the Yesler Community Center to melt the notorious Seattle Freeze into a puddle of sweat.
Social worker Wayne Smith moved to Seattle from Portland eight months ago, and after struggling to form a new group of friends, he started searching for a queer sports league to join. He was willing to join any that had the word "gay" in it, he said one recent Sunday morning, before grasping at a ball, using it to give a quick sign of the cross, and flinging it at the other team.
A game was just starting, and various players stomped, swished, and swaggered into place. Even though this is gay dodgeball and many of the players are gay, not all of them are, and you don't have to be gay to join. Organizers don't know how many straight people are involved because they don't ask—and they don't want anyone to feel like they have to express an identity. But the group who showed up on the day I stopped by included theater queens chatting about The Book of Mormon, jocks shouting joyfully about whatever it is that the Seahawks do, a large contingent of social workers like Wayne ("We don't get paid a lot, so we do cheap things," he explains), and radical faeries and tech nerds and hipsters with startling facial hair.
The mastermind behind it all is Keith London, who launched gay dodgeball teams in multiple cities this year. London blipped briefly on the national radar with a 2014 appearance on American Idol, where he made a dig at gender tropes by singing "If I Were a Boy." It didn't go over well: The judges muttered that the idea of men questioning masculinity was "bizarre," and he was cut. His music career faded, but now he's found a way to spread gay cheer to a much more receptive audience.
"I need to see I'm making a difference," he said. "I have a thousand people in dodgeball. That makes me feel like I've done something."
What he's done is lay the groundwork for queer social circles that might never have otherwise existed. That's been a particular boon for Seattle's ever-expanding pool of newcomers. New players can register at gaydodgeball.com three to four weeks before a season starts.
Shane Petersen moved to Seattle about a year ago to teach elementary school. "I'm still trying to figure Seattle out," he said. "People talk about the Seattle Freeze, and I think it's pretty true. It's hard to find people who are willing to let you into their group."
After a few months of making plans that fell through, Shane joined the dodgeball league. Previously, his friend group consisted mainly of coworkers—most of whom were middle-aged, had kids, and weren't particularly eager to barhop to the Eagle at 1 a.m. He also had a gaggle of gays whose late-night partying was starting to exhaust him. In dodgeball, Shane said, he found the perfect balance between those two social styles.
For many players, winning takes a back seat to socializing. "We were determined to put together a team where we weren't stressed about winning," said Dan Zoshaier, who moved to Seattle from Washington, DC, last June. "A place where we could delight in our fellow faggotry." His team, called Mermaids, deprioritizes athletic prowess in favor of elaborate costumery, sexy ensembles, and pizzazz.
That goes over well on the court, and even better when the teams retire to Diesel, a gay bar, for pizza and drinks after the game. "That's really the part that I look forward to the most," said Dan. "That's when you can have an actual conversation."
Other teams in the Seattle league have names like Army of Skanks, Below the Belt, and Douche Balls.
At a recent match, a woman named Brandy Reed, who plays along with her husband, pointed at a player on the opposing team who'd tripped. "Hit him while he's down!" she hollered at a teammate.
After being slammed with a ball, the player stood and trotted over to Brandy, hugging her and laughing about his brutal elimination.
"I like it because my husband and I play together," Brandy said about the league. Her husband wandered over, engrossed in conversation with a gaggle of gay players, to give her a hug. "We're very straight," Brandy said, squeezing him in one arm and her teammate in another, "but we love our family."