Jock Talk: Gay softball group still grappling with diversity

  • by Roger Brigham
  • Wednesday July 15, 2015
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The plaque featuring gay baseball umpire Dale Scott is on<br>exhibit in Cincinnati as part of this year's All-Star festivities.
The plaque featuring gay baseball umpire Dale Scott is on
exhibit in Cincinnati as part of this year's All-Star festivities.

Fans attending this week's Major League Baseball All-Star Game in Cincinnati had a chance to see a special baseball exhibit at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center that pays tribute to various individuals who have broken down barriers of intolerance in the sport. (No truth to the rumor the exhibit was funded by former Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott.)

Among those recognized in the exhibition with their own display plaques are Billy Bean, who came out of the closet after playing in the majors and now works for MLB to promote inclusive acceptance; and gay MLB umpire Dale Scott. It's fitting that Scott and Bean will be recognized alongside the likes of Rafael Almeida, a third baseman from Cuba who played for the Reds in 1911-13 and is believed to have been the first Cuban to play in the National League; and second baseman Jackie Robinson, who in 1947 became the first African American to play in MLB when he broke in with the Brooklyn Dodgers. All witnessed and experienced discrimination as they traveled the country playing the game they loved and all excelled in the face of that adversity.

In 2006, Cincinnati became the 13th city in Ohio to include sexual orientation and gender expression and identity in its municipal anti-discrimination code. That reversed a 13-year exclusion of those individuals from legal protection in the city â€" a time during which it remained illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, gender â€" or what part of Appalachia you are from. (Nope, not making this stuff up.)

The Diversity in Baseball exhibition, which runs through September 12, is a testament to the positive power for human change that comes through unfettered, desegregated social interaction and acceptance of human diversity. That's a similar message that is currently being delivered at the Pan American Games Pride House in Toronto: Diversity makes us strong, and we are strongest when we have the courage to accept.

That's a message yet to be received by the likes of the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance, which will hold its 39th annual Gay Softball World Series August 17-22 in Columbus, Ohio.

Now, compared with Cincinnati, Columbus is a fairly progressive and accepting college town. Sure, the state had a same-sex marriage ban until the Supreme Court struck it down this year, but Chapter 2331.04 of Columbus municipal code prevents organizations or individuals from denying use of public recreational grounds to "any person on account of race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, age, disability, familial status or military status or that such person is unwelcome, objectionable, or not acceptable, desired or solicited." It says organizations and individuals may not publish any communications indicating that any of those individuals would be denied the use of the grounds because of one of those forbidden forms of discrimination. Violation of the code is a misdemeanor.

Thumb through the 47 pages of the NAGAAA bylaws, however, and on page 28 you stumble across a most unwelcoming message â€" an antiquated restriction on "non-gay" players that is a legacy from a more paranoid and homophobic era and that has been modified only marginally (and with resistance) as the rest of the country marches toward enlightenment.

For years, softball series rules, written at a time most cities and states did not have anti-discrimination laws guaranteeing access to public parks for LGBT individuals, restricted teams to having no more than three straight players. Because of another team's protest under that rule, D2, a team from San Francisco, was yanked out of the championship game in 2008; an ad hoc hearing was held in which players were asked invasive questions about their personal sexual preferences and activities; and the hearing panel ruled that three players of color on D2, none of whom self-identified as heterosexual, were ruled to have disqualified the team from the tournament. After a failed lawsuit, NAGAAA modified its rules slightly, changing the restriction of three "straight" players to two "non-gay" players, and laying out the protest hearing procedures more clearly.

So what's my beef with the way things are now?

First, we have spent the past few decades arguing for equal rights, equal opportunity, equal access. In some cases we have won, and the access to public accommodations, in places where it has occurred such as Columbus and Cincinnati, is as important, if less celebrated, than the right to fight in war or to wed in matrimony. Access and visibility are not the same thing as acceptance, but they are essential rights and are building blocks that engender acceptance through exposure and familiarity. It is easier to sustain hate against the person you do not know than it is against a neighbor.

So it is hypocritical and counterproductive to argue we should have the right to exclude others from public access. The point of public access is for us to interact with each other, not just ourselves.

Second, the invasion into people's sexual orientation is repugnant and reminiscent of the inquisitions the military used to conduct into the intimate lives of service personnel. Haven't we been arguing that this crap shouldn't matter, shouldn't be anybody else's business? And suppose you are a 20-something man with questions and confusion about your own sexuality? You're inexperienced, you do not understand your own impulses, and you are finally comfortable playing on a team in which not every conversation is a bunch of false bragging about who got pussy last night. Ya know, you just might not be ready to sit under a spotlight and declare with clarity what your sexual preferences are â€" or if you have even had any sexual experience or impulse at all.

But Section 2.8 of the NAGAAA bylaws requires players registering for the series to select in advance their "LGBT/Non-LGBT status." How comfortable would you be with a question like that on an application for housing or employment?

Why were limitations on straight players ever imposed? Initially it was to help build a sense of unity, a sense of sameness, and to ensure no team was stacking its roster with super-talented "ringers" to gain an unfair advantage.

But in this day and age, such rules have become artificial barriers toward social acceptance. They fail to recognize that many of us athletes playing in LGBT-friendly sports have straight and queer friends, have straight and queer family members, and straight and queer teammates. They fail to realize that the important thing is not whom the players sleep with when they leave the field, but whom they bond with when they come together as a team.

I'd suggest officers of NAGAAA take a break between games next month and take the 90-minute drive down the interstate to Cincinnati. Go see the Diversity in Sports exhibition and look at the tribute to Robinson. What led to change: equal opportunity, or the courage to tear down a barrier? Then go to the restroom and take a long look in the mirror.