As visibility for the queer community increases, the ways its members hang out recreationally change as well.
Photo courtesy of Varsity Gay League
by Danny McCarthy
LONG BEACH — The breeze plays off Alamitos Bay at noon on Sunday in Marina Vista Park. It softens the hot sun and mutes the sounds of Alaska Thunderfuck, a drag queen whose music seems to inevitably fill any queer space, as two teams gear up to face off.
It's a game of kickball, and it's the Varsity Gay League.
On one side, there's The Runs ("As in, 'We've got the runs,'" says team member John Adams), populated by people wearing light brown jersey with horrifically apropos nicknames across their backs — such as Brownnoser, Skidmark and Colon Cobra — above a large number 2.
(When the inevitable question is posed — "Doesn't having everyone with the same number get confusing?" — Adams, "The Shit," pauses for a millisecond as if the question never occurred to him: "Nope!")
Will Hackner on the first moment he realized he hit an untapped market.
On the other are the Freeballers, with names such as Jockstrap, T-Bagger and Strap-On, all previous free agents who formed a team the month before.
The game commences. The ball bounces on the uneven field, sending up small puffs of dirt. For a while it's just a game of adult kickball; while waiting to bat, team members sip from to-go cups of beer and wine, wipe the sweat off their brows, and stretch to keep their muscles warm. Team captains with clipboards yell out batting orders and send people to their field positions.
But it's also a queer oasis — there's RuPaul, Beyoncé and Kesha playing over a loudspeaker; on deck, players switch between talking about tense family relationships and the Serena Williams-Naomi Osaka drama at the U.S. Open; everyone is referred to as "she" and "her."
Queer Leagues Across the Country
Varsity Gay League locations are in yellow. Stonewall Sports League, which began in a similar timeline on the East Coast, is in blue. They're two of several LGBTQ+ adult leagues in the U.S.
Varsity Gay League is the largest LGBTQ+ recreational sports league in California, and one of the largest in the country. Long Beach, which began two years ago, is one of VGL's 14 branches. Most are centered on the West Coast with some geographic outliers, like Boston, Buffalo and Fort Lauderdale.
Will Hackner started the initial league as a side passion project in 2007. The league is one of the few non-nightlife queer public spaces, a need that Hackner recognized as something the community was lacking.
"For the longest time, the only opportunities for queer people to meet was at bars," said Hackner. "And as we gained acceptance and some comfortability, we are demanding more. We're demanding the equal opportunities that everyone else has, whether we know we're demanding it or not."
So the league started in a park, much like Marina Vista, with a few friends. Every year, the league got bigger. In 2012, when Hackner was laid off from his job, he put all of his energy into making VGL a business. "I never saw the vision for it, and I didn't understand that there was a vision for it," said Hackner. "Because it was so new, to not only this community in Los Angeles, but the queer community in general, that it had never been done." According to his estimates, VGL has almost 4,000 players per season and sees a growth of between 30-50 percent every year.
The individual sports offered in each branch vary; most cities offer some combination of kickball, tennis, soccer, beach volleyball, dodgeball and bowling. The prices vary based on the season and the sport, from $40 to $200. The four-week Long Beach kickball league is $60 per person.
Will Hackner thinks the increase in sports leagues is in part to an increasing comfortability of the queer community, and a desire for equality in all spheres.
The league is not franchised, meaning that every new branch was started by someone already in the league. Alexander Mehlbrech, the captain of The Runs, was a player in West Hollywood before starting Long Beach. A Long Beach player moved to Buffalo and began the branch there.
It's in part to keep the brand as accountable as possible, but, Hackner says, it also keeps VGL faithful to the original ethos. "We are a product that fills a niche and a need in a lot of people's lives. Even if it's just for a season or two, it fills something. We want to continue that mission of encouragement." With each new city's manager, Hackner and his team work on building up that local community not as a transplant but as an authentic representation of the host city.
Photo courtesy of Varsity Gay League
Mehlbrech, a.k.a. "Hershey Squirt," grew up playing soccer and baseball. He joined VGL's West Hollywood kickball league at 21.
He's the part-time general manager of the Long Beach branch and the captain of The Runs. Mehlbrech formed Long Beach in October, 2016 with four teams. Since then, it has quadrupled in size — 16 teams and nearly 300 people. He was commuting up to West Hollywood, Los Angeles, to play in one of the VGL teams up there, when he realized there were probably enough people in his hometown of Long Beach to constitute a separate location.
Some of the players are serial intramural participants: before this, Rodger Questin, "Ballsy AF," played flag football, softball and tennis. Adams met Mehlbrech in a straight dodgeball league.
But there are as many people for whom the league is purely social: Mehlbrech leaned on his family and friends to populate the league in its nascence. His friends became captains, pulling in their own social circles. His sister, mother and cousin all play on his team, and his grandfather watches from the sidelines. The majority of Long Beach's participants are queer and a majority of those queer are gay men. For most of Long Beach's players, Mehlbrech estimates, the games are the least important part.
That lines up with the research of Gregory Place, an associate professor of recreation and sports at West Virginia's Shepherd University, who found that social connectivity was a primary factor driving adult participation in queer sports.
He published two research studies, one in 2011 and one in 2018, that examined the motivation behind adult participation in queer sports leagues.
In 2006, the Chicago Gay Games organizers sought to hold a rowing competition in a suburban community. They were met with resistance from community members who had concerns over the possibility of "lewd behavior." Knowing that to be incorrect but intrigued, Place conducted studies over the years that examined the factors that did push adult to participate.
"Most of the people were there for two reasons; one was to experience sports, perhaps for the first time," said Place in a phone call. "One is the social connecting." In his articles, Place broke down the motivation factors to include stress relief and the thrill of new activities as well.
Back at Marina Vista, The Runs win. "Don't feel too bad," Mehlbrech quips of the Freeballers later. "Losing teams get a free pitcher of beer at the Silver Fox."
Hackner wants to continue his "mission of encouragement."
The Silver Fox is a local bar in Long Beach that's partnered with the league, helping them with fees and providing an after-game hangout. In turn, the league keeps its trophy in the bar and populates it socially. At the beginning of the summer, the Silver Fox hosted a charity drag show put on by the league in support of QEdu, a nonprofit focused on increasing queer education in California schools.
John Barnes, manager of the Silver Fox and a longtime resident of Long Beach since the 1970s, thinks that the kickball league is partially responsible for the resurgence of the local queer community.
"It's kind of a new breath" of life," says Barnes. The Long Beach league, he continues, increased community awareness and appreciation, particularly of queer spaces and bars. The Silver Fox recently appeared as a location in FX's "The Assassination of Gianni Versace."
Since VGL started its online management system five years ago, they've had 15,000 people registered to play with them. Hackner doesn't know why exactly there's been a hunger for institutions like Varsity Gay League. But there is.
"Is it because adults want to get out of the house and get off their cell phones? It is because they're not meeting anyone online? Is it because they hate bars? It is because everyone else is doing it? It is because they want to be the jocks they never were?" Hackner wonders. "The answer is yes to all of them."
In Long Beach, Mehlbrech reflects back on how the league changed him. "Sometimes the stress and the people can overshadow the good working I'm doing," he says.
"It's to enjoy the recreation and being together," offers Brett Hawkins, "Dalgaytion" on the team Pitches in Heat, who only knew five people when he joined the draft league in February of this past year.
"Why else give up your Sunday?"
Adult Recreational Intramural Sports Leagues
Hackner said that he largely relied on native advertising, like utilizing social media, to spread awareness of the Varsity Gay League in its early days.
VGL on the West Coast, Stonewall Sports on the East and the NAGAAA in the Midwest constitute some of the largest organizations of queer adult intramurals.