Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

In the beginning, there was Jack


Gene Dermody, left, shares memories with Jack "Irene" McGowan. Photo: Roger Brigham
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Change. It's what we always fear and what we always seek. Thirty years ago, we feared it when Harvey Milk was shot. This year we are hoping for the best of it with the election of our first African American president. It seemed like a good time to gain some historical perspective on the local LGBT scene, so I sat down with one of the pioneers who shaped our queer athletic world: Jack "Irene" McGowan, the granddaddy of local gay softball. On my visit I took along Gene Dermody, the local godfather of gay wrestling.

McGowan is 78; Dermody turned 60 last week. More than 30 years ago, McGowan was getting gay softball kick-started in the Bay Area, while Dermody was living in New York, spending his summers in San Francisco before moving here after the first Gay Games in 1982. Like Gilgamesh and Enkidu, they have seen and done it all. Much of what we take for granted now – enthusiastic city support through parks and recreation departments, a plethora of sports teams and disciplines to choose from, international and national tournaments, – is due to the hard work of them and countless other pioneers: Tom Waddell, Mark Brown, Susan Kennedy, Tony Jasinski, Rick Thoman, Rikki Streicher – the list goes on and on. But few have been as hard-headed, articulate, outspoken and as persevering as they were.

McGowan starts off the conversation:

"There are so many stories we could tell about the beginning of gay sports. When I was younger, the only gay sport we had was bowling. Out of the bowling group, a bunch of us used to get together every Sunday out at the [Golden Gate Park] Rose Garden and play volleyball. In the summer, my 15-year-old and 16-year-old nephews used to come up and stay with me. We went out to play one day, and the kid who was supposed to bring the net forgot it. We had nothing to do, but there were about 20 of us. So my nephew Russell said, 'Why don't we play punch ball, like we did when we were kids?' So we formed four teams and we played punch ball, and we had such a good time that we went back to the old Detour (bar) and everybody was just talking about their experiences.

"I grew up in an orphanage, so I've been playing baseball and or softball since I was about 5 years old and I'm an absolute diehard Yankees fan. Even at this age – I'm 78 –   I spend most of my time watching sports on television. I suggested – I hate to say 'I,' but it's true – I suggested we get a softball tournament together. I called up the Park and Recreation Department and reserved some fields for a couple of weeks ahead ..."

Dermody: "Whoa – Parks and Rec actually listened to you?"

McGowan: "Oh, no – I had to fight with the mayor. It was 1973. He wouldn't sit with us; I had to meet with his assistant. I went around the town with a sandwich board on my back, looking and advertising for softball players. I was told by most people, bar owners and most customers, 'Oh, gays don't want that; they aren't interested in sports and all that.'

"But we managed to get together a few teams. It was the Mint, and Sutter's Mill, the Pendulum, Midnight Sun. And there was some place on Castro that used to be some kind of health club, Jeff's Gym or something – they were the other team. We used the fields over at old Army Street and Bayshore.

"The Latino kids came out and confronted us. We had a near riot. I've always stood up for what I believe in. We went out and confronted them. We had bats but we never did swing them. The cops came, but we had a near riot because the Latino kids didn't want queers using their playground."

After that, a game was arranged with the San Francisco Police Department.

"The first game with the cops was a disaster," McGowan recalled. "We were ahead 3 to nothing at the end of four innings. I was managing and I took out the starting pitcher because I wanted to give everyone a chance to play. Then we got beat 11-3. So I was not too popular for a while."

But the sport was. The following year a league of eight-player squads was formed and a full season played, with McGowan's Twin Peaks team winning the championship and a second chance against the cops.

"We beat the police champions 9-4 and it was magnificent," McGowan said. "It happened to be on the same day as the Castro Street Fair. The mayor, the chief, and a whole police force of about eight cars surrounded Twin Peaks. They came in and we went up on the upper level of Twin Peaks and we had a magnificent celebration. And in the Gay Day Parade we had a big sign, 'Gays 9, Police 4.'

"From that one league came the Minneapolis teams and New York and now there's something like 60 cities involved in the Gay World Series. It all came from San Francisco," McGowan added.

Dermody recalled the victory.

"I used to come out from New York and spend every summer here, especially those years before [Mayor George] Moscone was killed," Dermody said. "And I remember when you guys beat them, because it was a big to-do. It was almost as big as the Supreme Court ruling that you could get married. Beating the cops was a major breakthrough.

"We were heroes."

"That's what it was like in those days," Dermody continued. "When the Gay Games came, you'd go into a restaurant and they'd pay for your meal. And people would stand up and clap for you. That's what it was like."

McGowan said he had an idea for a gay multisport before the Gay Games were invented, but the organization he formed could not get together the needed funding. But he mentioned the idea to Waddell, his center fielder.

"He was a great athlete, obviously," McGowan said. "But he was a terrible softball player. He used to take the ball in center field and throw it over the backstop. He had a great arm and no idea where to throw it.

"I told Tom about it and he was really enthused. He had been in the Olympics. He and Mark Brown to their credit got the financing and got it all arranged."

So much has changed since then. The leagues were formed at a time when there were few if any legal protections for queers; now most states have sexual-orientation anti-discrimination laws providing equal access to public accommodations and other protections. Occasionally the rules under which leagues were formed, such as those restricting the number of straight athletes allowed on a team, clash with the laws they have helped engender.

McGowan knows all about the need for those laws. He was given a dishonorable discharge from the Navy in 1951 after he came out to his officers. But before he got out he earned his nickname Irene and has used it proudly ever since.

"I was in the Navy and I was on the football team – the six-man Pacific Coast champion football team," McGowan said. "The Korean war broke out. They had USO troops during the second World War but they had abandoned that, so they had no entertainment. So the Special Services commanded the reverends and the rabbis to get some entertainment for the wounded.

"So the chaplain put on a show and it was just terrible. Well, his yeoman was my quarterback. Now, I was relatively pretty and I had Betty Grable legs. So the yeoman said to the chaplain, 'We have this kid on the team who looks like a girl. His legs are just like a girl – why don't you ask him to dress up?'

"Well, I was already gay when I was 15. I was living in the streets of New York. The chaplain's wife came to me – the chaplain was afraid to ask me – and she asked me. Of course, I jumped at the chance to do it because I loved being admired. Didn't we all?

"So they set up a show in a big Quonset hut with about 50 patients and about 100 standees and I went from bed to bed doing my Betty Grable invitation, kissing them on the cheek and singing, 'I'm a big girl now and I want to be treated like a big girl now.'

"We did that for three or four months. We did all the hospitals. I had a picture of me sitting on Admiral [Chester] Nimitz's lap. Then the USO got back together again. When they sent over their first traveling entertainment troops, they had a goodbye party for me."

He came out of the lavatory after that last show to find about 500 servicemen still hanging around. 

"Someone had plugged in the jukebox," McGowan said, "and they put on 'Goodnight, Irene.' And all these straight guys stood up and sang, 'Goodnight, Irene.'

"So I earned that name."

There was much more they had to say; I'll share it with you sometime. For now I'm thinking about change and the way things were, a world in which we don't ask and don't tell and some sports have rules that say they will ask and you better tell. Tonight, I'm remembering a time of heroes and battles won.

Good night, Irene.

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