More than 30 years ago, in cities with large gay populations, LGBT sports teams and clubs began popping up. By playing sports with members of their own community, LGBT athletes were able to compete in a safe space with no fear of bullying or homophobia.
Over time, straight athletes began participating in the LGBT sports community. At first, it was relatives of the LGBT athletes showing up to compete at events as a show of support; a mother, a brother, a sister. About 10 years ago, a few bold straight athletes began joining the LGBT sports teams with no fears about any suspicions or backlash from their friends and family. Those people, such as husband and wife John and Ellyn Vail of the District of Columbia Aquatics Club became the first of a wave of straight sports allies.
Just in the past few years alone, the number of straight people joining LGBT teams and leagues is clearly noticeable. Pick any one of the more than 30 LGBT sports offered in the D.C. area and you will find straight players. The reasons for joining are probably different for each of them but it is safe to say that it is a glimpse of things to come.
Robbie Ladd is active duty military and he and his wife Jeanie Baker Ladd work as Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists. He has always played organized sports in civilian leagues and in the military. Earlier this year, he was at a party and heard about the DC Gay Flag Football League.
“I went out for the spring season and was drafted into the league and found it to be the most organized intramural community league I have ever competed in,” says Ladd. “The players are down to earth and show up ready to play flag football.”
Ladd, along with his teammates, won the spring season championships. He was disappointed that he did not travel to Pride Bowl in Chicago where the D.C. players took the tournament title.
“I thought I wasn’t allowed to go because I am straight,” says Ladd. “I found out that I was welcome too late to join the travel team in Chicago.”
He did travel to Beach Bowl in Rehoboth Beach this summer where he and his teammates finished in second place.
“I have been very impressed with the incredible fellowship among the flag football players,” says Ladd. “One of the players lost a lot of his belongings in a house fire this year and all the players showed up with items to help him get back on his feet.”
Ladd and his wife are relocating to Fort Lauderdale soon where he just might look up the local LGBT flag football team.
Katie Lancos began playing water polo in Montreal when she was 12 years old and continued to play on her college team at Notre Dame. Right after college, she moved to D.C. and discovered the Washington Wetskins.
“I did a Google search and found about four teams, but the Wetskins came up first in the search,” says Lancos. “One of the frequently asked questions was: I am straight. Can I still play?”
Lancos joined the team and went on to compete at the International Gay and Lesbian Aquatic Championships when they were held in D.C. and again last year when they were held in Seattle. Last week, she competed at her first Gay Games and was joined in the pool by her brother Matt who is also straight.
“My friends are pretty open and I have never been challenged by anyone as to why I compete on an LGBT-based team,” says Lancos.
According to Lancos, the Wetskins are a very team-oriented group and she thrives in that atmosphere.
“The Wetskins are a wildly different group of people who have formed a family through the commonality of sports,” says Lancos. “We all have a shared goal of wanting to win, train and be better.”
Kevin Donlon grew up in California and played lacrosse at St. Mary’s College of California. After college, he switched over to U.S. Masters Swimming and began competing in triathlons. In 2012, he went with a friend to Darwin, Australia for the Asia Pacific Outgames and last week competed at his first Gay Games.
“My best friend is gay and I welcome any opportunity to spend time and compete with my friend,” says Donlon.
Donlon trains in California and was a popular addition to the District of Columbia Aquatics Club contingent at the Games. He says he found the LGBT swimmers to be kind, welcoming, happy and an easy group to integrate into.
“People struck up conversations with me more often than what I have experienced at straight meets,” says Donlon. “And for an unexpected added bonus, the friendliness of the swimmers offered me the opportunity to strike up conversations, which is not something I usually do.”
Donlon won a bronze medal in open water swimming and a gold medal in the 1500 freestyle at the pool.
An unexpected twist to the intermingling of straight and LGBT athletes is that the flip side of the trend is also happening. Gay athletes are switching to straight leagues.
Kyle Suib started his rowing career at the University of Delaware and still wanting to compete beyond college, he joined the DC Strokes Rowing Club. He loved his time on the team and made several new friends but realized his competitive spark wasn’t satisfied.
“We were one unit in college and I just couldn’t identify as a gay rower,” says Suib. “I live and die by the sport and I just happen to be gay.”
Suib decided to leave the Strokes and had one of his college coaches give him the needed recommendation to join Potomac Boat Club rowing. He says his new teammates don’t focus on gay or straight. It’s all about the team. There are now four gay men on the Potomac Boat Club team and the four have been joined at Nellie’s and Town by their straight teammates.
“We are a family and now we are a more diverse family,” says Suib.