“Make sure you get my good side,” she says with a sly smile. With her flawless Polynesian complexion and glossy black hair, there is no bad side when I focus the camera on Maile Gorion. But I humor her anyway. She turns to her right and I wait until she takes that first relaxed breath, that fraction of a second when she forgets that I am watching, and I snap the picture. Looking down at the image of this 34-year-old athlete and Army veteran, I have a sly smile of my own.
Like most competitive athletes, Gorion first started playing sports as a child. But in her native Hawaii there were few girls’ teams when she was growing up. Rather than avoiding sports altogether, she spent her youth playing as the only girl on a boys’ team. Although being the only girl on a boys’ team, whether for baseball or basketball made her nervous at first, she said that ultimately it made her better and faster than the competition. “[My dad] said I was just as good as them and even better than most of them. It’s about how much you practice your skills and get better at everything you do. He said not to worry about them and just do me and play my game.” He was right. She repeatedly made All-Stars in both baseball and basketball, proving she could do so much more than just keep up with the boys.
But at the age of 13, Gorion left Honolulu for the U.S. mainland and the change required a multiple-year hiatus from sports while acclimating to her new environment – a life in Las Vegas. When asked what the hardest adjustment to make was, she said, “The cold. And the time change [referring to Daylight Savings Time]. Time is not supposed to change!”
By high school, however, Gorion was ready to re-enter the sports world. During a basics of softball class, her PE teacher was wowed by Gorion’s throwing arm. It was then that she was first introduced to softball. And the love she experienced for the game would later lead to appearances in seven ASANA (Amateur Sports Alliance of North America) World Series competitions across the nation, including our photo shoot on the steps of a vacant school in Atlanta, Georgia. But come September 2001, softball and basketball no longer mattered. The course of Maile’s life – along with the zeitgeist of the entire nation – was forever altered.
It was on September 11, 2001 that the Twin Towers came crashing down, planes collided with the Pentagon and a farm field in Pennsylvania, and nearly 3,000 innocent people lost their lives. Like many Americans, Maile Gorion’s life was irrevocably changed by witnessing the tragedy of 9/11. Within two months of that horrific day, at the age of 19 she enlisted in the Army Reserves to show her support for the nation that had given her so much freedom and opportunity as a child. She spent a total of 15 months in Kuwait and Iraq operating specialized military logistics vehicles to receive bulk ammunition supplies and distribute them to troops in the field.
It was not only 15 months of service to her country but also 15 months of hiding. Maile Gorion had just come out to her family the year before her enlistment. But in 2002 the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was still in full effect, meaning that any observance or disclosure of homosexual behavior could result in military discharge. Gorion knew this prior to entering the service but still felt it was worth the risk and personal sacrifice of hiding something she had only recently come to accept.
When coming out at the age of 18 Gorion was fortunate to have the immediate love and support of her family. She said her sister claimed she already knew. After all, Maile had been shopping in the boy’s section since she was a little kid. And when she confided to her mother, her mom shrugged and said with the brutal honesty that only one’s own mother can get away with, “You walk like a dyke, so I knew you were gay.” And that was that.
Although serving in the Army Reserves often meant restricting what she talked about and certainly meant never bringing a girlfriend around, Gorion said she was fortunate during her tour of duty that those with whom she was the closest knew the truth of her sexuality and simply accepted her for who she was. That unquestioning acceptance felt like family, a feeling she sought out again once returning to civilian life in the States.
After spending eight years in the Army Reserves, Maile Gorion returned to civilian life in 2009 and was living in Atlanta when a friend asked her to tag along to a team softball practice. Gorion offered to help out the girls by shagging balls from the outfield. Impressed by the distance and accuracy of her throws, the team asked if she could hit the ball as well as she could throw it. After sending several balls into the outfield, she was invited to join the team. And so began a nearly decade-long relationship with the Hotlanta Softball League (HSL).
Founded in 1981, HSL is Atlanta’s only LGBTQ-friendly softball league. It currently has over 550 members making up 35 teams, only three of which are currently all-female. “HSL is different because we play against guys too,” Gorion says. “It’s more competitive because there are only three all-girl teams. It makes us better because we are used to guys hitting the crap of the ball.” But for Gorion, the camaraderie off the field is just as important. “There’s no separation between gays and lesbians [in the league],” she says. “It’s just an extension of the gay community. It’s a family.”
But if HSL is Maile’s family, it is just an extended one. Her immediate family, her REAL family, is her team, the Night Riders. “We are all really close and support each other,” she says of the girls on the team. “We hang out with each other. We have each other’s back, which I love.” A member since the team’s inception in 2013, Gorion is preparing to compete in her fourth ASANA World Series with the Night Riders, her seventh since joining HSL. Now celebrating its ten-year anniversary, ASANA is comprised of women dedicated to promoting the participation of LGBTQ+ people in organized softball competition. Its premiere World Series event is played each year at one of ASANA’s 23 member cities and brings together women from across the nation for four days of competitive softball in multiple skill divisions.
This year Gorion and her Night Riders teammates are headed to Austin, Texas for the World Series that begins July 4th. She knows the Texas heat will be intense and the competition even hotter but the softball games are just part of the fun. The extracurricular activities are what make the series memorable. “The team always wants me to perform on someone [when we are] at the Series,” says Gorion with a laugh. She is well-known in HSL and the Atlanta drag king community for her dancing prowess. “Lap dances are my specialty!”
As Maile sits there on the steps of the vacant middle school in her combat boots and army fatigues, asking me to capture her good side, she isn’t in any position to show off her dance floor moves. Instead, as she cradles her bat and glove she eagerly asks me how that photo turned out. I look at my camera again. The image I see is more than just another girl who managed to outplay her male counterparts, more than just another member of Atlanta’s gay community, more than a military veteran, more than an athlete who intends to play until her heart gives out. I see the embodiment of all that I aspired to be when I came out late in life – strong, confident, loyal and completely accepting of all that she is. “Eh,” I tell Maile with a shrug, knowing she will never see in that photo what I see. “It came out OK.” Sometimes a person’s good side is the one that too few ever see.
By Kelli Kulick
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