Athletics in its purest sense provides a vehicle for recreation, teamwork, togetherness, friendships and family. These principles are exactly what the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance (NAGAAA) is all about. Founded in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, this organization and its flagship event, the Gay Softball World Series (GSWS) have grown significantly since its 1977 launch in San Francisco with just two teams.
Since then NAGAAA has grown steadily over its 40-year history, now boasting a record number of 46-member-cities across the U.S. and Canada that serve as local and regional hubs for those wanting to play gay softball. Those member-city leagues represent over 17,000 players, both LGBTQ and ally athletes who want to compete in safe, inclusive and fun environments.
Speaking of records, the most recent GSWS in August 2016 set a new mark for the number of participating teams at a whopping 187. Yes, 187 teams! The event brought in over 5,000 athletes, coaches and fans to Austin, Texas and the upcoming GSWS will be held in Portland, Oregon. This year’s trip to the Pacific Northwest will be the first GSWS held on the west coast since the 2008 tournament in Seattle, Washington.
The question has been asked many times; “Why is softball so popular in the LGBTQ community across North America?” If you ask a random group of people you will probably get a variety of answers. But one thing that every gay softball player can agree on is that it is truly about the relationships a person forms when playing with a gay team.
Camaraderie is a wonderful component of all team sports. Teammates become friends, some become family and others become life partners or spouses. But in my opinion, there is something special about softball, something that volleyball, basketball and flag football don’t have – that’s a larger number of participants since softball teams are generally larger than teams in those other sports. Up to 12 or more players can participate regularly during a game and, to me at least, that means that the feeling of family on local, national and international levels heightens the feeling of being included, of being connected to a large global family of athletes just like me. That’s a heady feeling!
When we look back at NAGAAA’s beginning, we have to appreciate the amount of strength and courage it took for those men and women to be “out” playing the sport they loved, to be openly gay in a time when that could destroy your life. For today’s younger generation it seems almost foreign to think that you couldn’t enjoy the sport you love because of who you love. But that was the reality in the late 1970s and for a good part of NAGAAA’s history. Social and civil rights struggles were the struggles of NAGAAA’s member-city leagues and their gay athletes. Fortunately, however, as the LGBTQ community has persevered over the years, so has NAGAAA.
NAGAAA member-cities are as diverse as its membership. You’ll find large city leagues like Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego as well as leagues in smaller or more conservative cities like Sacramento, Kansas City, Des Moines and Birmingham. At a time when softball’s popularity seems to be declining, the growth of this organization is staggering. NAGAAA has seen its number of member-cities nearly double from 1999 to 2017 and this growth doesn’t look to be slowing anytime soon. In fact, the organization is currently speaking with several metropolitan cities in the Northeast and Canada about joining the fold in the near future.
The bottom line is that if you’re not playing softball, you probably know someone who is. And if you don’t know someone who’s playing softball then you should get out and see what all the fuss is about. Hear the crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd, feel the excitement as someone hits a homer or steals a base and experience the fun of being part of a growing, supportive family. NAGAAA turns 40 this year and you only need to attend one practice, city league game or GSWS to discover why this organization is just getting started.
By Jeff Sloan
Photo: NAGAAA Archives
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