Every Sunday morning—since 1993 in Tampa and 1996 in Orlando—LGBTs and allies wake up early, put on their softball gear and head to the fields.
This year is no different, as both leagues are in full swing of their spring season which serves as a qualifier to the Gay Softball World Series, slated for Dallas this summer.
The Central Florida Softball League in Orlando threw its first pitch of 2014 on Feb. 23 at Lake Fairview Park, where well over 100 people gathered. The “Sounds of Freedom,” the local LGBT marching band, played the national anthem proudly at full blast as Parliament House owner Susan Unger threw the first pitch of the day.
Tampa Bay’s Suncoast Softball League, began its season a week later at the Woodlawn Softball Complex in St. Petersburg on March 2. The league utilizes both Woodlawn and the Greco Softball Complex in Tampa throughout its seasons.
Both opening ceremonies went off without a hitch as players and fans prepared to shake of the winter cobwebs in preparation for this year’s Gay Softball World Series, slated for Dallas this summer. In fact, both leagues are thriving, which is a far cry from how things were in 2010 when the North American Gay Amateur Athletics Association—of which both leagues are members—faced a lawsuit for discriminating against “non-gay” players.
Not Without Controversy
“When we started the league, you know, it was all gay,” says Steven Roberts, coach of the Cardinal Casket Company Undertakers and one of the founding members of the Orlando league. “My team now is at least half straight. Last season I had eight straight guys and about four gay guys. So the only restriction really in our league is you can’t be anti-gay.”
While many celebrate that view, it’s not in agreement with policies put in place by NAGAAA, which limits the number of self-identified straight players to three-per-team.
Between both leagues, roughly 800 players and 58 teams gather every Sunday Morning along the I-4 corridor.
As large as the softball leagues are, they are only a small part in a much larger international network. Both the CFSL and SSL open divisions are a part of the NAGAAA, and the CFSL women’s division is a part of the Amateur Sports Alliance of North America (ASANA). The mission statements for both NAGAAA and ASANA explain they are dedicated to promoting amateur athletics for the LBGT community.
Today, few even talk about the controversy of 2010.
That year, NAGAAA, came under fire when it decided to revoke the second place finish of a San Francisco-based team in the 2008 World Series because it allegedly had too many “non-gay” players. Details of an incredibly uncomfortable inquiry into the players’ sexual preferences soon leaked and NAGAAA found itself facing a lawsuit, filed by the National Center for Lesbian Rights. It sought $250,000 in damages on behalf of three players who identified as bisexual.
U.S. District Court Judge John Coughenour strongly favored the tournament and its First Amendment right and ruled “it is reasonable that an organization seeking to limit participation to gay athletes would require members to express whether or not they are gay athletes.”
In November 2011, the suit was settled, and NAGAAA agreed to adjusted its policy to include an unlimited number of LGBT players on any team, but with a three-player limit applying to self-identified “non-LGBT” on a Gay Softball World Series roster.
When battling the suit, NAGAAA compared itself to other groups that organize around a “commonality,” like leagues geared specifically to African-Americans or Native Americans.
Efforts to reach NAGAAA about the 2010 lawsuit and it’s current rules concerning sexual orientation were not returned to Watermark. Instead, an emailed response was sent with a link to an open letter the association wrote in 2010 defending its policies:
“In 1977 NAGAAA was founded as a private organization with the mission of fostering a safe place for Gay/Lesbian softball players to play and compete in softball,” the letter reads. “We believe that team sports can offer opportunities for personal enrichment, and a sense of community that is not available otherwise. It is not unlike other groups whom choose to organize around a commonality such as the African American Softball Assoc., or the Native American Indian Softball Assoc.
“Our group recognizes that in the arena of team sports, homophobia is still all too common. Almost daily it seems, one hears or reads of another gay bashing, often resulting in fatal outcomes. These tragedies serve as a reminder of our mission to provide a safe place for Gay/Lesbian players to enjoy competition while not compromising their true identity.”
In a press release released shortly after the lawsuit was settled, then-NAGAAA commissioner Ray Melani expressed relief.
“This lawsuit threatened not only the purpose of our organization, but also its future,” he said. “We fought hard to protect ourselves and our core identity and I am relieved this issue is finally behind us.”
One large network
The SSL and the CFSL are two of the largest volunteer-run organizations in the region, run entirely by players themselves and funded and sponsored by iconic Florida establishments like the Parliament House Resort, Hope & Help, Hamburger Mary’s, Tijuana Flats, and Savoy Bar and Lounge in Orlando; and Georgie’s Alibi, St. Pete Pride, CitySide and G. Bar in Tampa Bay.
For those who play, softball is an important part of their weekly routine. The games are an all-day affair, according to Orlando Base Grinders outfielder Dane Calder.
“We go in the mornings to play, hang around and tailgate for a while after, and then everyone goes out to that week’s host bar to hang out all night,” he says.
While the socializing may be a major focus for members of the league, all players are aware that in the spring season, they’re battling for a chance to compete in the Gay Softball World Series.
“The World Series is a pretty big experience,” says Suncoast Softball League’s NAGAAA representative Kyle Streng. “[Qualifiers] from each division get to play against the top teams in the league; you meet a lot of people you normally wouldn’t get the opportunity to meet.”
Being as expansive as they are, the leagues also give back a lot to the LGBT community. In addition to all the advertising for local businesses at the games, leagues are affiliated with a number of different fundraisers such as the Hope and Help Center’s AIDS walk, St. Pete Pride, the Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and host various events such as beer busts, bingo nights, and charity tournaments.
Even more events are planned for the next year and a half, said CFSL commissioner Richard Harem, in order to raise money for and call attention to the 2015 ASANA women’s World Series, which organizers announced would be held in Orlando in the summer of 2015.
But while the players train hard and competition for the World Series is fierce, at the end of the day the softball leagues’ real legacy is the unifying force in each area.
“It helped me to meet a lot of new people when I first moved here,” recalls Orlando MyOptics catcher Justin Musial. “A lot of my best friends play softball.”
Softball is a social outlet more than anything, and commissioners in both leagues recognize that.
“You have people from all these different communities, all different scenes that come together as one big family,” says Richard Harem, who in addition to volunteering as commissioner of CFSL serves as coach of the Orlando Sliders and plays with the Voltage. “Only about half of it is really about softball. The other half is about bringing people together into a community. It’s a great outlet for our community to connect positively… in a way different from all the bars and clubs.”
The CFSL wraps up its Spring Season on April 28. The SSL will close out its 2014 Spring Season with a tournament on Sunday, May 18, at Woodlawn Fields.
For more information on the Central Florida Softball League and Suncoast Softball League, visit CFSLeague.org and SuncoastSoftball.org.
Steve Blanchard contributed to this article.