Out In The Outfield

Finding queerness in a sport that’s way too straight

Baseball is the only sport I feel like I can kinda-sorta-play, however badly. In soccer I tripped over the ball, basketball is far too tied with school-aged PE trauma for me and football still scares the hell out of me. But you bet your ass I can hit a ball with a stick, something I can’t accomplish in golf, but I can occasionally pull off on the diamond.

You’re probably rolling your eyes, but wait, please. Hold on. This is gonna get gay. Because if you haven’t heard, queer baseball leagues exist, and they are magic—pure, unencumbered magic.

To grow up gay is to be molded by make-believe limitations. Everything is a constant reminder of what isn’t possible, whether physically, romantically or emotionally. But baseball is sometimes a reminder that such manufactured limitations are nonsense. I’m gay, and I can throw a pitch. It’s terrible, but I can do it. This love/hate relationship with the game haunts me, namely because Major League Baseball is a constant reminder of what I shouldn’t do.

Let’s get some facts down: Baseball is the straightest major sport in the United States by the numbers. MLB is the only organization without a single openly queer player, and in its century-plus history, there are only two known out players: The late Glenn Burke and Billy Bean, both of whom only came out after retirement. Burke’s autobiography, Out At Home, argues his sexuality ended his prospects in the game. Unlike every other sport, no queer person has ever been able to look from the stands and see representations of themselves in baseball. Of course there are queer MLB players, but such a conservative league doesn’t provide support in the coming-out process. Its leaders aren’t interested. Queer folks aren’t their target demographic.

So what do we get as recompense? The joy of MLB’s corporate Pride nights, during which every team but one (hey, Texas Rangers) adorns rainbow pins in an ultimately meaningless display somewhat akin to cancer awareness nights. Even just a few weeks ago, five members of the Tampa Bay Rays refused to adorn any Pride regalia, with pitcher Jason Adam explaining how they supported a welcoming environment while also not wanting to support “that lifestyle.” Thanks, asshat.

So, maybe the big-time stadiums aren’t the safe spaces of which we dream, but that’s where our queer baseball teams come in. Teams like these are colloquially known as sandlot leagues—a callback to those joyous Americana notions, the main difference being that everyone is damaged by our heteronormative society and desperately needs therapists. See, many queer people spend their lives torn between being properly gay and properly hiding. As psychologist Walt Odets, who focuses on the gay male viewpoint, wrote in his 2019 book, Out of the Shadows: Reimagining Gay Men’s Lives, “Without liberation or [HIV] to unite us, today’s gay communities—still living in a highly stigmatizing American society—are surprisingly divided on what it means to be gay and live a gay life.”

And for a lot of us, living a gay life means a separation from hetero culture and expectations. For others, it is purely the goal of assimilation. Sports, then, can be a minefield. Still, when I saw my first Austin Drag baseball game on a balmy, sweaty night in Texas some years ago, such debates didn’t seem to matter as much. For a few hours, that slice of American culture felt like it belonged to me. I had a right to experience this joy and a right to feel like I wasn’t burdening the larger hetero world by doing so. It wasn’t handed over to us, either; queer people built this space, carving out a place for themselves in a sport in which no one seemed to want us.

Queer baseball leagues aren’t spaces cultivated by allies as a gift to us, they are spaces constructed by queer people for queer people. It results from that de facto segregation, from kids who felt both isolated by gay pop culture and the macho sports world. Seeing and engaging in queer sports spaces is a reminder the world is not as binary as we’ve previously thought. Through baseball, I’ve learned it isn’t just gay or nothing. We can live as complex beings with multiple interests and still not lose the close-knit queer community we need to function.

This isn’t to say you’ve got to rush out and join a queer baseball league to be queer right. You don’t need to be hell-bent to start one (though we could use one, Santa Fe, if anyone’s up to that task). But becoming a part of these spaces can be as simple as spectating whenever the chance arises. Even just that action can serve as a reminder that the culture usually denied to queer folk isn’t a fact of nature: You, regardless of your romantic or gender identity, have every right to experience sports if you so choose. We have a home we built and can expand ourselves, homophobic sports bros on Twitter be damned. Be gay, do crimes, score a home run. And thanks for the little rainbow pins, MLB, but I’ll stick with the sandlot teams.

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