Sports like dodgeball and kickball may bring to mind grade-school recesses and PE classes, but they're now bringing together communities of adults across the country, especially in the LGBTQ community.
"They're everybody's type of sports," says Keith London of Dallas, the founder and CEO of the National Gay Dodgeball League. "Like softball, for example. If you're not athletic and get hit with a ball, I've seen a lot of injuries that can happen from that. With football, it may not be tackle, but you could still get tackled and get hurt. Kickball is just kicking a rubber ball. It's just a super fun sport that a majority of people can do."
For some, it's more than just a schoolyard sport. It's a welcome mat.
"It's a place to be accepted regardless of your sexuality, race, creed or color," says Varsity Gay League national founder Will Hackner from Los Angeles. "We just want people to come and play."
Dallas' Gay Dodgeball league and the Varsity Gay League kick off (no pun intended) their seasons on Saturday. Gay Dodgeball will hold a 2 p.m. pickup game at Reverchon Park, and the Varsity Gay League will start its spring kickball league in Dallas at 11 a.m. at the Grauwyler Recreation Center.
The leagues started as an alternative place for LGBTQ people to meet outside of the usual social spots.
"I played sports all of my life, and there was just not a gay league that was like me and what I wanted in a sport, so I made it," London says. "I actually started with Gay Kickball in April of 2017 and later that year, I added dodgeball because it's something people can do indoors when the summer's too hot and the winter is too cold."
Hackner launched his league in Los Angeles in 2007 and experimented with all sorts of obscure sports like trampoline dodgeball, Quidditch and beer olympics before kickball and dodgeball proved to be the most popular and accessible.
"The gay scene was always based on bars — going to bars, getting laid, going to parties, getting drunk and repeating over and over again — and I really felt there had to be more than that," Hackner says. "I grew up in the suburbs in Chicago, and knowing my neighbors and the community meant a great deal to me. I really wanted to believe there was something more."
These and other recreational leagues are about welcoming anyone who wants to play, whether they can kick a ball like Pele or dodge one like Neo in The Matrix.
"We welcome everybody," London says. "You have to be between 20 and 80 years of age and accepting of the LGBTQ community. There are no other requirements except be welcoming of everybody because for some, it's a steppingstone for coming out of the closet, and we want to make sure they feel comfortable. As we say, gay, straight or anywhere in between can come and play and enjoy the experience."
Hackner says the league can be competitive, but it's about something bigger than just winning.
"We've worked with people who are not athletes at all," Hackner says. "We had a player who could not catch a pop fly to save his soul. He went to every practice but could not catch a kickball and he just kept showing up every week with no judgment. One night in the middle of the summer, the ball was kicked to him and he caught it and the most remarkable thing about this was everybody cheered and clapped for it and that solidifies what a community needs.
"We're all individuals and all looking for our own experiences, but it's great to step outside yourself and give support and love to others and that can have just as much value sometimes."
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London says the groups are about bonding with people and feeling comfortable to be who you are no matter what sport you're playing.
"It's hard to meet people in any community, but in our community, it's tough to meet somebody at a bar if you're quiet or shy, and having a sport or having that common thing is really, really powerful," London says. "It's great. The stories range from people who were thinking about committing suicide and didn't know what to do until they found the league and joined and now they are having the time of their life."
London says it's not the game that changes and affects people. It's knowing that you have teammates who accept you for who you are regardless of how good they are when they step to the throw line or stand behind home plate.
"It saves lives," London says. "It's kickball but I've had people come up to me crying and thanking me."