SF Gay Softball League celebrates 50 years of breaking barriers

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday March 1, 2023
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The SF Fury Unleashed A team traveled to Dallas in 2022 for the Gay Softball World Series. The team took second place in the A Division. Photo: Steven Bracco
The SF Fury Unleashed A team traveled to Dallas in 2022 for the Gay Softball World Series. The team took second place in the A Division. Photo: Steven Bracco

The San Francisco Gay Softball League is celebrating 50 years of uniting the LGBTQ and athletic communities.

Steven Bracco, a gay man who is the director of communications for the league's board, was among several players who spoke with the Bay Area Reporter on the occasion of the milestone.

Bracco, who also writes for Hoodline and serves on the board of the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District, said he's been a part of the league for 14 years. Bracco has worked at the San Francisco Fire Department since 2017.

"I joined to play sports but also to find friends and community in the Castro and in San Francisco," he said. "It's an amazing feat to be able to be around that long."

The league is "one of the last gay leagues around" from the 1970s, according to league Commissioner Vincent Fuqua, also a gay man.

"It's such a milestone," Fuqua said. "Especially considering how things are in this world, it's a remarkable achievement and I'm thrilled and excited."

The league has consistently been popular with B.A.R. readers in its Besties polls. Bracco said that over the 50 years, the organization estimates that approximately 30,000 members have participated.

The new season starts March 26. "This season we will have an estimated 600-700 members," Bracco stated.

SFGSL is open to everyone in the LGBTQ+ community and allies, Bracco explained. The league has two divisions, the Open Division and the Women's+ Division.

Jess Graves, a lesbian who has been involved with the league for 13 years, said, "the biggest thing is community, not only as a whole, but my team as well."

The tournaments help foster [community]," Graves said. "I think it's the variety of teams, the flexibility over the years — for example we're the women's+ division because we accept anyone who identifies as a woman — and I feel the league is ahead of the game on that."

Women have full support of the league, Graves said.

"We volunteer for Pride, we have booths where each team if they choose can send volunteers to serve drinks and make money for both the league and teams, and so that gets us interacting with people," Graves continued.

Graves took up the game again as an adult after a brief stint in junior high school.

"I grew up playing ball in the backyard and played one year in junior high and didn't make the team the following year," Graves said. "I was at that point, as a tween or whatever, where I thought I sucked. I didn't start playing again till 2001 when the dot-com bubble burst, I was out of a job and my wife left me. I started in the city league, and when I heard about the gay league through a friend of a friend, I got involved.

The all-volunteer, nonprofit league has a budget of $136,000 for the coming year, according to Bracco.

"The league collects fees from its members and their sponsor organizations, which fund softball operations," Bracco stated. "The primary expenses of the league are field rental and setup, umpire fees, and playing equipment. In addition, the league works with corporate sponsors to help fund activities for the league members."

Victory over police team was 'enormous news'

During its history the softball league is perhaps best known for a game against members of the San Francisco Police Department 49 years ago.

Roger Brigham, who was a longtime gay sports columnist with the B.A.R. and has been a sports journalist since 1982, said that while he was never a member, the league's first big impact was to "normalize and de-escalate relations between the queer community and the police community."

Homosexuality was first legalized in the Golden State after the Consenting Adult Sex Bill was passed in 1975. It was carried by then-assemblymember Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), who would go on to become the city's mayor. It was signed by then-governor Jerry Brown during his first stint in office. Before then, and even afterward under different pretenses, police raids of LGBTQ establishments were common.

Starting in 1973, police and gay softball teams began playing each other. The gay softball team won for the first time the following year.

San Francisco Gay Softball League members held a social event at league sponsor bar Blackbird that included SFGSL Vice Commissioner Lee Rankin, left; umpire and coach Marius Greenspan; development director Orly Diaz; and Commissioner Vincent Fuqua. Photo:  

"When they [the LGBTQ team] beat the police department it was enormous news," Brigham said. "Most of the time police and queers had been in the same headlines, it was because of police brutality, bar raids, and aggressive acts against our community. Putting police players, queer players on the same field added tremendous legitimacy to the queer community and put them together in a regular activity rather than eying across barricades at one another."

The tradition of the teams playing each other continued through 1978, when the assassination of gay supervisor Harvey Milk and mayor George Moscone by former supervisor and police officer Dan White once again soured relationships between the communities.

The role the softball league has in breaking down social barriers, however, continues to this day, the players told the B.A.R.

On the one hand, being LGBTQ in professional sports is still often stigmatized. For example, baseball pitcher Solomon Bates became just the second active minor league player to come out as gay, as the New York Times reported.

"It helps build camaraderie and people's self esteem," Fuqua said about the league, adding the players are happy about their 50th anniversary partnership with the San Francisco Giants.

"It's a huge thing to have a Major League Baseball team help out," Fuqua said.

Orlando Diaz, a gay man who is the softball league's director of business development, said that while details are in the works, "we're definitely going to be a big part of their [the Giants'] Pride night."

Added Fuqua: "We may also be a part of the throwing out of the first pitch as well."

Pride Night is scheduled for June 10; The Giants organization did not respond to a request for comment for this report as of press time.

Peter Graham, a gay man who has been involved with the league since 2000, said it is his second gay softball league and that there are characteristics that make it unique from others.

"I played in Philadelphia in the league in 1995," Graham said. "I've been involved in the SFGSL since 2000. When I first started playing, it was a great way to meet other LGBTQ folks who were also into sports. It's an LGBTQ league, so we didn't have to worry about any of the stuff going on with harassment or anything like that."

Graham continued that he likes that the league is both friendly and serious about the game.

"SFGSL is just a really great league," he said. "People are friendly, supportive, inclusive — but we're also competitive too and we try to play the right way."

Brigham said that the gay league "helped break down public prejudice against the queer community."

"When they [straight people] see us as jocks, it changes viewpoints in the fight for acceptance," Brigham said.

But the barriers the league tackles are also within the LGBTQ community. Fuqua said there've been all-sober, all-drag, and all-trans teams over the years.

"This is all about making sure our members are fully included," Fuqua said. "We have such a variety because we want people to come and grow and be themselves. We even had an all-straight team because we have a lot of allies."

Brigham said that historically environments like the softball league, and other LGBTQ sporting leagues, have helped people feel included who either feel marginalized by, or are not attracted to, the nightlife scene.

"The greater gay sports movement came out at the same time as AIDS and sort of became an alternative lifestyle to just meeting people in the bars," he said.

Fighting for equality
But that inclusive and open attitude has not come without controversy. In particular, three San Francisco players — LaRon Charles, Jon Russ, and Steven Apilado — helped to spearhead changes to the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Association's rules to include bisexual and trans players.

The three could not be reached for comment.

When San Francisco's team D2 made it to the NAGAAA championship in 2008, the players were questioned about their sexual orientations (players were ruled either gay or straight, with no option for any other sexual orientation or gender identity) and when one stated he was bisexual, a NAGAAA member said "this is not a bisexual world series — this is a gay world series."

The team was disqualified on the basis it had too many non-gay players, which led to Charles, Russ, and Apilado filing suit. They were represented by the National Center for Lesbian Rights. While the three plaintiffs were men of color, two white players who were similarly questioned were ultimately ruled to be gay.

The case was settled in 2011.

"In the settlement, NAGAAA recognized that disqualifying the players from the 2008 tournament was not consistent with NAGAAA's intention of being inclusive of bisexual players," NCLR states on its website. "NAGAAA now recognizes the players' team, D2, as a second-place winner of the 2008 Gay Softball World Series, and will award the team a second-place trophy. NAGAAA expressed regret at the impact the 2008 protest hearing process had on the players and their team. As a result of this case, NAGAAA changed its rules to be fully inclusive of all bisexual and transgender players, permitting an unlimited number of bisexual or transgender players to participate on a Gay Softball World Series team."

Shannon Minter, a trans man who is legal director of the NCLR, stated that the nonprofit is proud of its work on the case.

"We were very honored to represent the plaintiffs in this case and to shine a light on the need to ensure that the Gay Softball League is open to all queer men — including bisexual men of color. Of course our community institutions are not perfect or immune to bias," Minter stated. "Facing up to problems can be painful, but doing so is always better than pretending they don't exist. These issues of exclusion and belonging are often hyper-charged for LGBTQ people because so many of us have faced trauma and exclusion. In our search for safe spaces we must be vigilant about not creating or even passively tolerating new exclusions."

The NAGAAA did not respond to a request for comment for this report as of press time.

The upcoming season is "getting ready to start March 26," Fuqua said, adding that a season-opening celebration will be held March 19 at the James P. Lang Athletic Fields on Cathedral Hill. Teams play usually at either Kimball Field (at Geary and Steiner streets, in the Western Addition) or Moscone Park (at Laguna and Chestnut streets, in the Marina). For more information, click here.

The final day to register for the coming season is May 9, Bracco stated. For most players, the cost to do so is $95.

"The later date gives teams time to finalize rosters before the [NAGAAA] World Series and allows people to join late," Bracco stated. "Regular season games end June 18, we typically wrap up before Pride. Then we have the End of Season Tournament on July 9."

The world series is August 28-September 2 in Minneapolis, and the series for the women's+ division is September 6-9 in San Diego.

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