Same Sex Profits: Williams says softball could bring 0 million to D.C.
Same Sex Profits: Williams says softball could bring 0 million to D.C. Credit: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

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Last week, a group called Destination DC announced that its effort to bring the 2013 Gay Softball World Series to our city was successful.

The series dates back to 1977, when New York’s Ramrods defeated San Francisco’s Badlands for the championship. Online magazine Outsports recently named the event’s founding as the 9th most important moment in gay sports history. The tournament, sanctioned by the North American Gay Amateur Athletics Alliance (NAGAAA), is expected to bring between 150 and 170 teams from across the continent here.

That means money.

The Tourism Board of Columbus, Ohio, estimated that out-of-towners spent $5 million when that city hosted the 2010 Series. D.C.’s organizing committee says it’ll be even more valuable here. “We’re thinking it will bring approximately $10 million to D.C.,” says Wayne Williams, chairman of DC Series 2013.

I’ve written a lot about gay sporting events in my years of doing this column. Stories about gay rodeos and gay croquet leagues and gay rugby teams and gay swim meets and, yes, even stories about the Gay Softball World Series in 2003, the last time it was held here.

Every one found me wide-eyed. The 1996 International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics Championships ended with competitors exchanging wet Speedos the way soccer stars exchange jerseys. D.C. was awarded the competition that year partly because the dates coincided with an appearance of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt on the National Mall. To me, it was a gay cultural event first and a competitive sports event second. Ditto the 1999 Atlantic States Gay Rodeo, the highlight of which was the Wild Drag round: One man, one woman, and one man dressed like a woman subdued a steer so the drag queen could ride him.

Yet this recent NAGAAA Series announcement struck me as different. In talking to folks who put together the bid that beat out finalists Portland and Dallas, the “gay” part wasn’t the big deal it once was. The big deal about the 2013 Series is, well, what a big deal it is.

“There are hotel bookings associated with this, and people from out of town eating at our local restaurants,” says Robin McClain, director of communications for Destination DC. “And people shopping in our stores and going to our museums, some of which aren’t free. We’re not a gay group—any event we’re after is in terms of business, and we’re open for business for everybody, so we went after this.”

Williams, a longtime advocate of the local gay sports scene through the group Team DC, says that it was originally Destination DC’s idea to bid on the games. They got help from Marriott, the Greater Washington Sports Alliance, Events DC, and the Washington Nationals—mainstreamers, all.

That’s progress, right?

Ballfields have historically been a haven for hate. In 1975, a reporter from the gay publication the Advocate requested help from Major League Baseball in putting together a story on homosexuality in pro sports. “The copout, immoral lifestyle of the tragic misfits espoused by your publication has no place in organized athletics at any level,” replied Minnesota Twins PR director Tom Mee Sr. “Your colossal gall in attempting to extend your perversion to an area of total manhood is just simply unthinkable.” As late as 2002, New York Mets star Mike Piazza held a press conference just to declare, “I am not gay!”

But tolerance for sporting intolerance ain’t what it once was. Kobe Bryant got fined $100,000 by NBA Commissioner David Stern last year for calling a referee “faggot.”

Ted Leonsis, owner of the Washington Wizards, Mystics, and Capitals, has been treating the gay market like any other demographic. Before Leonsis bought the Mystics in 2005, the WNBA team all but refused to recognize the massive lesbian presence in its grandstands. In 1998, for example, they discontinued the “Couple of the Game” promotion rather than include same-sex couples. After Leonsis assumed control, I asked Mystics Chief Operating Officer Curtis Symonds if it was “brave” for a pro sports organization to be as overt as the franchise suddenly was with its gay outreach.”

Nah, Symonds told me: “It’s business.”

During the last hockey season, Leonsis regularly directed readers of his personal blog to PuckBuddys, a site for gay hockey fans.

And nine years after Piazza’s infamous presser, baseball has stepped up to the plate to support the Gay Softball World Series. The Chicago Cubs were a major sponsor of the 2011 NAGAAA World Series, held in Chicago this summer. Williams says the Nats also helped D.C.’s pitch.

In fact, the Nats have worked with Team D.C. since 2005 to produce Night Out at the Ballgame, now the largest annual LGBT event in pro sports. In June, the promotion brought 3,500 presumably gay ticket buyers from Team DC to a Nats/Mariners game. The team agreed to hold the 2013 Night Out during the softball series if D.C. got the gig.

“I think having the Nationals with us meant a lot [to NAGAAA],” says Williams.

Shortly after finding out that D.C.’s bid was successful, Williams attended the Sneaker Ball, a massive annual sports charity gala. The emcees announced some of the more notable happenings on the city’s upcoming sports calendar. “They’re listing the National Marathon, the Triathlon, all these big events,” Williams says. “And right in the middle of I hear them say that D.C. had been awarded the Gay Softball World Series. I mean, that was something. I’m from a generation where this wasn’t so mainstream.”

Douglas Schantz, proprietor of Nellie’s, a U Street NW establishment recognized as one of the country’s first gay sports bars, helped sponsor the Gay Softball World Series bid. He says his sponsorship was motivated by business concerns. But, as a gay man, he’s aware of the bigger picture. “We are in the middle of a cultural shift, and [the gay community is becoming] more of a mainstream group,” he says. “My business is part of that. As time goes on, that shift will continue, and that’s a good thing.”

In fact, some folks appear worried about wading too far into the mainstream.

NAGAAA has long had a rule on its books placing a limit on non-gay players in the Gay Softball World Series. Article 7.05 of the group’s “Instruments of Governance” states: “A maximum of two Heterosexual players are permitted on a GSWS roster.” “Gay” is defined as “a predominant sexual interest in a member of the same gender.”

That rule and definition were in place when the Series was played here in 2003. But Bruce Sprague, who helped organize that event, told me back then that the gay limit was largely ceremonial, and that organizers would take “a player’s word” for his sexuality.

Then, at the 2008 Series in Seattle, organizers forced five players from the second-place San Francisco team to attend a hearing at which they were asked about their sexual orientation. Three of the five said they were bisexual. NAGAAA officials ruled those three players weren’t gay enough, and the team was forced to forfeit.

The men sued NAGAAA for discrimination, and are now being represented by the lawyers from the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

“Gay sports leagues and teams have served a real purpose,” says Brent Minor of Alexandrian, who’s been active in the area’s gay sports scene for two decades and now works for Team DC. “They’ve given people confidence, they’ve given people a chance to connect with their community, they’ve given people a place to come out. Some people come out in the office, some come out on the field. But now [since the discrimination case], we’re asking: What makes a ‘gay’ sports team? Is it something only for people who sleep with people of the same orientation? Or is it a welcoming group where everybody can feel safe? It’s a luxury that we’re getting to ask the big questions now.”

The softball suit goes to trial in federal court on Nov. 7—yet even without a verdict, Outsports has named it the 78th most important moment in gay sports history.

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