It was in Los Angeles where Shawn Rae was first able to play a sport with a gay team, a new and liberating experience for the closeted kid from small-town Montana. Playing football, basketball and running track in high school were difficult because he was afraid people would discover he was gay. But his first gay flag football pickup game changed his life and made him a passionate supporter of the sport.
Talking to Shawn Rae now, former Phoenix Gay Flag Football League (PGFFL) commissioner, Hall of Famer and the person responsible for bringing gay flag football to Phoenix, it’s easy to see that today’s Phoenix league has come a long way in its official 10-year existence. The years have gone by quickly; it’s hard to conceive that this much time has passed since he moved here from Los Angeles in 2003.
Rae and his group of friends would play pickup games here and there in the Los Angeles area but nothing was official at that time. There was no National Gay Flag Football League (NGFFL) then: it was really due to the foresight and guidance of Jim Buzinski and Cyd Zeigler, co-founders of the Outsports website that the first Gay Bowl was played in Los Angeles in 2002, the national organization later forming as a result of the growing national interest in the game.
Talking about his first experience playing with other gay athletes, Rea says that “We were just a group of guys who bonded over playing football. We were family in a way that we were good friends and we weren’t hiding who we were because we were all gay. That alone made playing with these guys easy.”
Even though the Phoenix Gay Flag Football League (PGFFL) is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, it took Rae and the many other people who volunteered their blood, sweat, tackles and tears to grow it to a point where there were enough players to first make a traveling team and later, a local league. Using word of mouth, hitting all the bars, putting up fliers and creating a rudimentary website, they began recruiting others in the Phoenix metro area who wanted to join. It didn’t take long to gain the attention of other athletic-minded guys who were looking for the same thing and so the original Phoenix team, the Hellraisers, was officially formed.
The current Phoenix commissioner is Joel Horton, a transplant to the area a little over three years ago from New York City thanks to a job transfer. He first played flag football with the New York local team and like Rae, he fell in love with the game. When he arrived in Phoenix he was thrilled to find the PGFFL alive and well in his new hometown and immediately became a member.
Horton’s two-year term as commissioner will end on May 1 when the PGFFL elects a new board but he’s been actively involved in growing the Phoenix league during his tenure. They’ve acquired enough new members over the past two years to create two new teams, bringing the league number to four teams. And the continued goal is to add another two teams next year, raising the total PGFFL teams to eight.
While some sports teams report trouble recruiting millennials who don’t see much need for separate sports teams for the LGBTQ community, Horton hasn’t experienced that problem. Although he said that just as he arrived in Phoenix there were some people questioning if the Hellraisers should continue as a gay team. That discussion resulted in a name change that was made official two years ago – the members eliminated all doubt by choosing to become the Phoenix Gay Flag Football League. It reflects the fact that for many who have experienced terrible bullying, being disowned by family and friends and even considered suicide, a team that is specifically for LGBTQ individuals and yet ally-friendly is still an important lifeline for them.
The biggest problem the Phoenix league has encountered in recruiting new members is convincing ordinary people that they don’t have to be All-Star material to play flag football. Their games are set up so anyone who wants to play actually can play. Horton says that once people see that their players represent all shapes, sizes, colors and experience levels it cuts through the misconceptions. Friends who come to watch their friends play one season are often the newest players the next season so the league uses its open play games as a recruiting tool.
In terms of a tenth anniversary celebration, Horton says that plans are underway but not yet complete. It will take place in May at the end of the PFGGL season, probably in the second or third week, somewhere in downtown Phoenix. And since the league has grown significantly larger, it will probably be at one of the larger hotels. Stay tuned for updates.
Reflecting on the growth of the Phoenix league, Shawn Rae’s life has changed for the better over the last 10 years along with the fortunes of the PGFFL. Thanks to his ongoing involvement in flag football he is now comfortable in his own skin, all his close friends were and are fellow team members and he met the love of his while helping new leagues form. And thanks to marriage equality, they were able to marry and are now raising 16-month-old twins – all proving that it’s great to be alive and playing flag football in Phoenix!
By Harry Latto
Photo by Daniel Koenig, Power 10 Films