As nation sees wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation, many find solace in sports
Nearly seven years after the Supreme Court affirmed protections for same-sex marriages in the United States, 2022 has seen a wave of legislation that the LGBTQ+ community believes is harmful.
In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey signed SB-1165 into law on March 30. The controversial legislation, dubbed the “Save Women’s Sports” bill, prohibits transgender athletes from competing on girls sports teams sponsored by public schools or on girls teams from private schools if they compete against public schools. At least 10 other states have enacted similar laws.
Despite the adversity, the LGBTQ+ community continues to rally around sports through events such as the Saguaro Cup Sports Festival.
The Saguaro Cup features LGBTQ+ softball and sand volleyball organizations from across the country in three days of tournament play. The Cactus Cities Softball League and the Arizona Gay Volleyball League represented Arizona at this year’s competition.
“There was a time if you were gay, you couldn’t play on teams,” said Terry Woodfield, a player and former manager in the CCSL. “What we’re always looking for is for people who’ve never had an opportunity to play. We have more and more straight players that are playing with us. They’re all playing together.”
The Cactus Cities Softball League was created 29 years ago to provide a safe space for LGBTQ+ individuals to play softball and is part of the National Association for Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance.
When they started playing for Cactus Cities teams, athletes from the league no longer had to worry about becoming the victim of a hate crime while just walking to their car. Fear was significantly reduced as straight athletes joined the league and became allies, supporting the league’s queer members.
The sense of community is important. Athletes who have come out as LGBTQ while competing in high school and college sports report more than a 95% acceptance rate from teammates, according to a 2021 study conducted by Outsports, the University of Winchester and the Sports Equality Foundation.
Steve Brokaski, assistant treasurer for the league and a player, said the league’s purpose drives his dedication to it.
“It’s important for us to stay on mission,” Brokaski said. “Our mission as a nonprofit is really centered around LGBT amateur athletics. Sometimes it’s a little box but there’s a lot we can do with it.”
One of the most impactful accomplishments that reaches beyond the “little box” is the feeling of family that the league said it embodies.
Cody Andregg and Marce Collie have been umpires in the league for nearly 15 years, and when they were asked what drew them to the league, they responded in unison: “community.”
As umpires, the two travel to different cities to work games and have made a connection with other players and league officials.
“It’s a family reunion,” Andregg said.
“You see somebody you haven’t seen in a year, and it’s like you didn’t miss a beat. You pick up right where you left off,” Collie said. “You see some of these players once or twice a year, but you know them so well.”
The Saguaro Cup had that family reunion feel. At Papago Park in east Phoenix, music played from each field as friends and family cheered on the teams and rang cowbells. Umpires chatted with players, and teams gathered under tents after their games to talk.
This tight-knit bond is something that is not exclusive to the CCSL. It is an important part of the LGBTQ+ community as a whole.
The phrase “chosen family” is vital to the group as it serves as a means of support for individuals who may not receive it in other areas of their lives.
“Much of the legislation we are seeing is harmful,” said activist Bobbi Lancaster, a Valley doctor and transgender golfer. “Support is so important and sports can often provide it.”
It’s something that is evident in LGBTQ+ amateur athletic clubs such as the Phoenix Storm Rugby Club.
The Storm didn’t participate in the Saguaro Cup this year but have in previous years, and its players still believe in the power of sports for the LGBTQ+ community.
Storm player and team secretary Marcus Tan played different sports as a youth but was attracted to rugby after seeing the sport on television. That led him to the Storm.
“It’s my chosen family, “ Tan said. “For a lot of people – me included – the Phoenix Storm was like their first involvement with the gay community. And we get a lot of people who have never been on a gay team before.
“It’s not that they’ve never met another gay person, but they’ve never belonged to another LGBTQ group where they could be themselves, where everyone is accepting and you don’t need to really explain who you are. Everyone just gets it. It’s definitely like a judgment-free zone where people are free to be themselves.”
The Storm is part of the International Gay Rugby Association, however the team tries to go beyond sexuality and gender and be all-inclusive.
“Rugby is for everyone,” Tan said. “But we also say that rugby is for everybody. And emphasis on the body. Because a person with any type of a body type is going to find a place on the rugby pitch. You have your forwards, you have your backs. So whether you’re fast or whether you’re stronger, no matter your body type, there’s a place for you in rugby.”
Despite its efforts to include everyone, the club said it still encounters intolerance from other rugby teams in Arizona.
It reflects an international problem. A 2021 study entitled “Out On The Fields” that surveyed nearly 9,500 people from six countries, including the United States, found that 82% of lesbian, gay and bisexual participants “said they have witnessed or experienced homophobia in sport.”
The intolerance hasn’t deterred the Arizona club from continuing to try to represent its community through sports.
And intolerance is not restricted to the fields of play. The LGBTQ+ community said it has moved to the legislative level in Arizona with SB-1165. While legislation focuses on school sports, many believe it prevents individuals from playing for teams that make them most comfortable.
“This is something that affects kindergarteners wanting to play soccer with their friends,” said Jeanne Woodbury, policy and communications director for Equality Arizona. “It’s not fair to say to some girls, ‘Well, you don’t get to play with your friends.’ That’s really what the issue is here.”
The idea of being uncomfortable in a sports environment is not new to the LGBTQ+ community. Some older members of the CCSL did not have the opportunity to participate in team sports.
Woodfield said he considers that when he puts together teams.
“When I build a team, I always look for those people that just haven’t had that opportunity and they get it in softball,” he said. “Folks who, if they were athletes, played individual sports. This is a whole new world for tennis players and swimmers.”
Woodfield said players have to acclimate to playing on a team, which is something that activists worry young athletes will lose under the new laws. If children lose the ability to play on teams, does this affect their skill sets?
“The reality is that we don’t separate sports in schools by gender because that’s some kind of inherent indicator of competitiveness,” Woodbury said. “We do it for social reasons.
“That’s really the issue here, not anything to do with trophies or scholarships. It’s all about, do you get to have these opportunities to learn teamwork and self confidence on a team with your peers and your friends?”
While the future impact of the legislation is unknown, associations such as NAGAA and LGBTQ+ leagues and teams will continue to provide a safe space for those who want to compete while pursuing the larger goal of inclusion in sports.
“If people felt comfortable just playing sports with whoever, that would be awesome,” Tan said. “I wouldn’t say that would be the ultimate goal. … I would say it would be to spread the word of inclusivity.”