This week a lesbian rights group filed suit against a gay sports league on behalf of three ostensibly bisexual men after their team was kicked out of a gay softball tournament. The athletes themselves weren’t disqualified because they weren’t gay, but because the team they played on had exceeded the “2 non-gay player limit” each team is allowed.
Sensational snippets of this story have been making their way around both TV and social networks in the last 24 hours because of the story’s appeal. But a probe deep beyond the spin and rhetoric exposes an issue connected to a raw nerve that fundamentally asks this question: In an effort to provide a safe space for gays and lesbians, is it OK to discriminate against heterosexuals?
First, The Facts
On Tuesday, the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) announced it was representing three men kicked out of the 2008 Gay Softball World Series for being “non gay,” and is pursuing a lawsuit aimed at getting the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance (NAGAAA) to eliminate its policy that allows only two non-gay players per team.
The NCLR is also seeking $75,000 in damages for each of the three affected players, the maximum allowable under Washington’s discrimination law.
In a statement released on the organization’s website, the NCLR said the plaintiffs faced discrimination, hostility and suspicion, throughout the tournament.
Founded in 1977, NAGAAA is the national governing body under which nearly all gay softball leagues in North America operate. There are over 35 member cities from New York and Toronto to Seattle and San Diego. Each year, NAGAAA organizes a championship tournament it calls the Gay Softball World Series (GSWS).
NAGAAA’s policy of only allowing two “non-gay” players per team applies only to the World Series tournament and dates back to the organization’s earliest days. The policy itself is a modification of the alliance’s original position, which was to permit only gay and lesbian athletes to participate in the championship tournament. The change came after teams in various member cities petitioned to incorporate supportive family members and friends.
The purpose of the policy is to provide a safe and comfortable environment in which gay and lesbian athletes can compete, free from discrimination and intimidation.
The 2008 GSWS was held in Seattle and teams from every NAGAAA member city came to compete for a world championship. One team, San Francisco’s “D2,” enjoyed a particularly good week and played in the A Division’s championship game.
Before the game was over, however, a team D2 had beaten earlier lodged a protest on the basis D2 had exceeded the “2 non-gay player” limit.
D2 lost the championship game, seemed thrilled to have taken second place, but still had to answer the allegations brought forward by their former opponent.
What followed was a surreal, Faustian exercise aimed at determining whether the players specified in the protest preferred their own gender or the opposite gender as sexual partners.
According to the NCLR complaint, following the championship game, the plaintiffs “were each separately brought into a conference room in front of over 25 people for a ‘hearing’ by NAGAAA to determine whether each plaintiff was heterosexual or gay.”
Melanie Rowen, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, told SDGLN the orientation of five D2 players was protested, and each one was brought in separately for questioning. After being asked what their sexual preferences were, one said he was gay, two refused to answer, and two more said they enjoyed both men and women and that one of those was married to a woman.
The State of Washington has a law that prevents public entities from practicing discrimination on a number of grounds. One of those is sexual orientation.
The NCLR complaint argues first that NAGAAA is a public entity and as such, is subject to the Washington statute because the event occurred in Seattle. The NCLR further argues that NAGAAA’s limitation to two non-gay players per team violates the state’s non-discrimination law. In other words, NAGAAA discriminates against players it doesn’t consider gay and that’s against Washington law.
However, Beth Allen, the attorney representing NAGAAA, said her client is exempt from the statute.
“[NAGAAA] is a private organization, and as such is entitled to place restrictions on who participates,” Allen told SDGLN. “If it were a public organization, it certainly could not have any policies in place as to the question of lesbian and gay participation. If it were a public entity it would be subject to the Washington law against discrimination, but because NAGAAA is a private organization, that law does not apply.”
Rowen, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, replied simply, “We disagree.”
She continued, “The U.S. Supreme Court and Washington’s Supreme Court have clearly identified what constitutes a public organization and NAGAAA squarely fits within that category. At the end of the day, discrimination based on sexual orientation is discrimination based on sexual orientation.”
To Bi Or Not To Bi
Much has been made that the men NCLR is representing self-identified as bisexual to the protest committee but that the committee still voted them as being “non-gay.”
This raises the question: Is bisexuality far enough removed from homosexuality to be considered non-gay?
According to Allen, NAGAAA’s attorney, the answer is probably yes. “As I understand the process, the question is, do you prefer members of the same sex or do you prefer members of the opposite sex?”
Allen said the committee members would have been compelled to ask that question and get an answer.
“Well that would exclude quite a lot of bisexuals.” NCLR’s Rowen said.
Allen conceded how a bisexual player should answer the question of their sexual orientation - as far as NAGAAA is concerned - is a tricky subject and one he or she should talk to their league about.
However, according to Allen, the plaintiff’s claim of bisexuality is a recent one.
“As far as I know,” she said, “bisexuality didn’t come up in the protest hearing. Nobody said they were bisexual. That claim came out of left field.
“The bottom line is, they knew what the rule was when they joined,” Allen said.
We’ve Been Here Before
According to Rich Riccio, a former commissioner within San Diego’s NAGAAA chapter, America’s Finest City Softball League (AFCSL), the issue of whether to drop the 2-player limit has been brought up before, at least 10 years ago.
“The way the Board answered the question then was to say that it’s a league for gays and lesbians,” Riccio said. “They said the goal was to create an atmosphere where we could play against other gay and lesbian athletes.”
According to the NCLR’s Rowen, in 2009, following the 2008 debacle, their group worked with the San Francisco Gay Softball League to bring this issue to the NAGAAA Winter Meetings in Milwaukee in an effort to avoid the litigation process.
“But the policy didn’t change,” she said.
Where Do We Go From Here?
In the interest of full disclosure, I coach two teams in the AFCSL. One of them went to the GSWS in 2009, and with a lot of hard work, luck and determination, one or both will go to Series 2010 in Columbus. Overall, I’ve been a coach, player and board member in our league for 15 years.
I “get” both sides of this issue.
I understand that it comes across as hypocritical for a gay organization, comprised of people who are constantly being discriminated against to perpetuate further discrimination, especially based on sexual orientation.
But as an active participant in the gay sports community and as a coach, who has been there countless times, when the guy who was that awkward, last-kid-picked for dodge-ball, finally drives his first hit through the infield; I know that moment of sheer, unadulterated joy would never have happened without a supportive gay sports league. I am also a survivor of a violent hate crime. For these reasons, I am a fierce defender of our right to create for ourselves a safe and supportive environment for gay and lesbian people to come together.
When NAGAAA was founded 33 years ago, let’s face it, gays and lesbians needed protection. We needed to have our own bars, our own leagues, our own community centers; because the world didn’t like us very much. We had to build great big walls around our community to keep out those who would do us harm.
But our little corner of the world has changed a lot since then.
Straight (or bisexual) athletes don’t want to join our league to disrupt it; but to support it, to support us.
Shouldn’t we encourage that?
We have made great progress in 33 years. We’ve broken through all kinds of walls that would have kept us from fully achieving our part of the American Dream. There’s much more to do, more walls to conquer.
But for every wall of social progress we break through, it’s time we start tearing down the walls we’ve built around ourselves that would impede inclusion and perpetuate discrimination.
Roman Jimenez is the sports columnist for SDGLN. He is an award-winning journalist who spent most of his career covering crime and politics. After burning out, he became a media consultant for high profile science and technology companies as the founder of The Media Prose. Belying his massive frame, Roman's skills as an athlete are well known, playing tennis and softball regularly with all the quickness and agility of a pregnant rhinoceros. As a result, Roman has covered sports in our community for various outlets off and on for 10 years.