Inclusive adult sports leagues provide a safe space for the LGBTQIA+ community to compete without discrimination, bullying and harassment. (Photo by Christoph Soeder/picture alliance via Getty Images)
PHOENIX – After the glory days of high school and collegiate sports come to an end, athletes seek out and join local adult sporting leagues to keep their love of the game alive, stay active and catch up with friends or meet new ones.
But what happens when the league they join has a lengthy history of discrimination based on identity, gender or sexual orientation?
For the LGBTQIA+ community, the lack of safe spaces has presented personal struggles and caused many players to leave teams because of bullying, judgment, exclusion and a feeling they couldn’t be their authentic selves. Inspired by personal experiences, leaders of LGBTQIA+ inclusive sports leagues are on a mission to change the dynamic of adult sports leagues.
In the Phoenix area, dozens of LGBTQIA+ inclusive leagues help queer-identifying folks participate in adult-organized sports, including hockey, football, rugby, running and walking, softball, volleyball and tennis. The leagues serve as an outlet for members of the community to fully immerse themselves in their passions without fear of repercussions.
“Getting immersed in the football world, there was a lot of (hypermasculinity and) a lot of toxicity there that kind of makes you feel like, ‘Oh, I have to be this certain kind of way to be in the sports world,’” said Guillermo Moreno, Phoenix Gay Flag Football League’s (PGFFL) commissioner. “(The feeling that) I have to be a ‘man’s man’ or what have you.”
Some queer members either did not know or did not yet have access to LGBTQIA+ inclusive sports leagues until after they faced discrimination. The earliest record of inclusive teams in Phoenix goes back to the late 1970s with the Gay Bowling Phoenix, and the 1990s through the Cactus Cities Softball League (CCSL), both rare outliers in the world of LGBTQIA+ athletics.
“It was right after I got kicked off a straight team for being gay (that I discovered them),” said Tyler Foerster, United States Gay Sports Network (USGSN) founder.
OutLoud Sports is a league that “welcomes everyone regardless of sexuality, gender, status, skill, shape, size or age.” Their seasonal leagues offer multiple sports centered on inclusivity.
“Just personally as a player, what draws me to it is the ability to be yourself and bring your full self to sports competition,” said Wes Scruggs, the Phoenix manager for OutLoud Sports. “Then zoom out even more, just being able to bring your full self to anything; I think that’s what these (leagues) offer athletes.”
LGBTQIA+ inclusive sports leagues prioritize making the experience about more than competition or what takes place on the field, court or mound by bonding away from the games.
“The individual teams will practice and perhaps gather for social activities on their own,” Foerster said. “It becomes a community and, for some, a home base where they feel comfortable to be themselves because they feel accepted.”
In addition to leagues that offer general sports, there are a handful of sports-specific inclusive leagues. This past spring season, the Phoenix Gay Flag Football League (PGFFL) fielded 10 teams around the Phoenix area with about 14 players per team. CCSL in Phoenix accounts for one of the larger leagues under the umbrella of the national organization and had 21 teams split into seven divisions and a total of 315 members. The Arizona Legacy Pride Hockey Association (ALPHA) had four teams and 48 members.
OutLoud Sports is home to several LGBTQIA+ inclusive sports, including the new widely-popular game of pickleball. Registration for their pickleball league typically sees all 60 spots fill up in a few days. The 2022 fall kickball season brought in the league’s largest numbers ever with 22 teams and 350 players. Phoenix Fray, another multi-sport operation in the Valley, offers 15 different sports including axe throwing, cornhole, skeeball, ultimate frisbee and spike ball.
Most LGBTQIA+ inclusive leagues operate as a 501(c)(3) organization – a federal tax-exemption option for charitable, educational or religious organizations that also provides eligibility for “tax-deductible charitable contributions.” Giving back not only comes in the form of reduced registration fees, but for a few lucky players, it provides the opportunity to earn full-ride scholarships for registration, equipment and uniforms.
Thea Maeve, a transgender woman who plays for ALPHA, took her skills and resources from ALPHA and traveled to play in the Team Trans Ice Hockey Tournament in Wisconsin. She raised money and created a GoFundMe, where players in and outside of the league helped fund the trip.
“There was something that was really special and (it) made me cry because I have never been in a room with just so many trans people before,” Maeve said. “It was just trans people in that room, and everybody was just having a great time. That is something that meant so much to me. It made me feel like I was a part of something a lot bigger than what I had previously thought.”
During interviews with 30 members of the LGBTQIA+ athletic communities in the Valley, 37% felt uncomfortable being their true self when playing in a non-LGBTQIA+ adult sports league. If a league was not labeled “all-inclusive” or identified as LGBTQIA+, 30% of people surveyed would not participate in organized athletics. Due to their identities, 50% of those surveyed say they experienced discrimination in an athletic environment.
Phoenix Storm Rugby Club (PHXSR) plays many of its games against non-queer-identifying teams, and vice president Marcus Tan has noticed the challenges that come with the territory.
“My trans friend struggles with people using the proper pronouns,” Tan said. “One person on another team did not understand that you could have multiple identities and just shut them down.”
Standard adult sports leagues lack the same ground rules and expectations as LGBTQIA+ inclusive leagues, creating fear of repercussions among the queer community and an environment where slurs are hurled around more freely, Moreno said. The lack of conversation and education on LGBTQIA+ issues within the larger sports community also causes some inadvertent discrimination toward the queer community through what may otherwise seem like harmless behavior.
“People are terrified of locker room behavior,” ALPHA commissioner Matt Spang-Marshall said. “They are being called names, made fun of or being harassed. Even if it is not directly, there’s an uneducated part of youth and even adults where they don’t know they are doing it.”
ALPHA does not let hate deter them from showing pride, however. Many players decorate their hockey sticks with rainbow tape despite facing negative comments as a result. “I play in another league where there was another team who saw the rainbow tape on our sticks and things were said about it,” John Valentine of ALPHA said.
LGBTQIA+ inclusive sports leagues take proactive steps to be openly inclusive of all identities and ensure that environments will be safe and welcoming for the queer community to participate in.
Leagues are accepting of LGBTQIA+ allyship through individuals who can be voices for the sometimes voiceless community. While allyship serves as a major source of support for these leagues, it never comes without struggles and errors. Education plays a major part in its success. As a result, many leagues are understanding of slip-ups with verbiage and allow everyone room to learn and grow from mistakes.
“A lot of this is educational for themselves, for people inside the communities (and is) becoming educational for them because, admittedly, some of us really don’t know how to do that (be allies),” Spang-Marshall said. “(As a cisgender gay man) I was not an ally for my own community. … I had to learn how to listen to trans people and take my opinions out of what I thought and basically learn to shut up and understand, and I am so glad that I did that.”
Inclusive leagues are not for the exclusively elite or experts of the sport. No level of talent is left out. Ranges vary between those who have played sports their whole lives, to those with limited experience or who have never participated in an organized sport.
“(We allow them to) open up to others, to create those relationships with other people that they may not have ever even come across because they were afraid to be joining an organization that maybe doesn’t support who they are or who they see themselves as,” said Ernie Jaramillo, CCSL commissioner.
Added Tan: “We have people from all walks of life. All different age groups, straight players, bi(sexual) players, trans players, and a lot of people who join looking for a safe environment, one that is not going to judge them based on their identity (or) skill, and we provide that for those people.”
Leagues are not labeled “female” or “male” only. They aim for true inclusiveness – including age, race, sexuality, skill level and identity – with a focus placed on alleviating the typical gender requirements.
“When you go in and select your gender, we have (the options of) man, woman or other,” said Brittany Rheault, Phoenix Fray’s chief operating officer. “Other is a list of about 30 different ways to identify so that our players do not feel isolated, and they can select any gender that they feel they are.”
While prioritizing those of the LGBTQIA+ community, leagues welcome straight-identifying people into their leagues. Spang-Marshall said that allies should not walk on eggshells around the queer community and that it is important to allow the room to make mistakes in order to learn and grow as a society.
There are many other ways to aid in the success of fellow queer-identifying participants as an ally of the LGBTQIA+ community. One way is through representation and celebration.
“Representation in some ways does matter,” Scruggs said. “The Diamondbacks had a pride night where they explicitly welcomed LGBT folks to hang out and have that opportunity.”
Other ways include visibility and giving the queer community an equal platform.
“I believe that the best way to help queer athletes is to be present and vocal,” Foerster said. “Using our platforms to show that there is a supportive community out there and encouraging them to be their true self.”
Allyship doesn’t start and stop at the ground level. It’s just as important for sports at the high school, college and professional level to take action if discriminatory behavior exists within their sport, no matter the level.
“When it comes to homophobic behavior or misogynistic behavior, it’s the responsibility of these leagues to stamp that out when they see it and make it known that behavior is not acceptable,” Scruggs said. “Any negative behavior you catch like that going on in a league, you stamp it out, make it clear it’s not appropriate, and actually make it a point to include everyone.”
Now more than ever, LGBTQIA+ rights are being constantly challenged with the passing of bills and laws to govern their liberties. Currently, 21 states in the U.S. have passed laws banning transgender students from participating in youth sports that align with their gender identity, including Arizona.
In Arizona, for example, there are no non-discrimination or anti-bullying laws and policies covering LGBTQIA+ students. Five states, including Arizona, have a law that requires parental approval and notification of “LGBTQ-inclusive curricula,” with the option to opt-out children if it is taught. Six states, including Arizona, strongly encourages the outing of transgender students to their families, without crossing the line of making it a requirement. The only state that currently does this is Alabama.
No stranger to the always-evolving anti-transgender standards is Robyn Leano, a transgender woman playing for ALPHA. Leano has credited her league in being able to overcome current shifts in transgender-rights and equality.
“I don’t think (that) I could have played in another adult league,” Leano said. “I would be really nervous (because of) the political climate right now around trans-women in sports and everyone is (saying) trans-women shouldn’t be playing sports.”
Transgender and queer discrimination does not just disappear after high school or college graduation – it can stick throughout future endeavors.
“I don’t think that I would have been able to continue sports and getting fit,” Leano said. “They shouldn’t be doing this; they shouldn’t be doing that. Even if it was a coed league, people would still say something.”
Senate Bill 1028 was passed in early 2023 in Arizona to prohibit public properties from hosting “adult cabaret performances.” Historically only categorized under strip shows, the term is now expanded to drag show performances. Senate Bill 1026 was also passed earlier this year, prohibiting state-funded money from being used for family-friendly drag shows, such as drag story hours.
Pat O’s Bunkhouse Saloon, Kobalt, Charlies and The Rock thrive off their eccentric drag performances and sponsor one or more of Phoenix’s LGBTQIA+-inclusive leagues. With Senate Bill 1026 hanging over the heads of these bars, the elimination of drag shows would result in major hits to their businesses.
The positive effect that these leagues have had on the LGBTQIA+ community can’t be understated, many participants said. They have created opportunities, friendships and a sense of belonging and provided reason for the queer community to persevere when they had nothing left.
“I’ve talked to people in our league whose family isn’t accepting of them,” Moreno said. “To be able to come to this league and meet people who love you for who you are regardless of anything, they love you. Unconditionally, they support you.”
Those afforded more privileges often do not realize others are not as easily welcomed into the environment of athletics. In the end, LGBTQIA+-inclusive leagues create an environment of acceptance for the unaccepted and an opportunity to find new meaning to life while combining two worlds into one.
“There’s a couple people (who) have told me they had reached a point in their life where they felt like they weren’t a part of it, they felt alone,” Moreno said. “They were considering suicide and they took this last attempt at trying to do something and trying to get out of their box and they decided to join the PGA Football League and they found a home and it saved their lives.”