August 19, 2015 at 3:28 pm EST | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
MLB’s ‘Gay Night Out’ goes mainstream
Night Out, gay news, Washington Blade

D.C.’s Nats Night Out is MLB’s most successful and popular LGBT event. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The annual LGBT Night Out at Washington Nationals Stadium, which began in 2003, attracted more than 3,800 participants on June 17, continuing its status as the largest LGBT event hosted by a Major League Baseball team.

Since the Chicago Cubs hosted what’s believed to be the first Gay Night Out event by a Major League Baseball team in 2001 at Chicago’s historic Wrigley Field, LGBT groups have organized similar events with varying amounts of participants with a growing number of teams.

An informal Washington Blade survey of online promotional announcements of the ‘Gay Night’ events and local media reports about them found that at least 22 of the 30 MLB teams have hosted such events in recent years.

Larry Felzer, co-organizer of the first Gay Community Night with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2003, said the event was controversial at the time, drawing opposition from conservative groups and widespread media attention.

“There was a lot of flak in the first year,” he said. “Some of the conservative groups picketed the stadium.”

But in subsequent years, Felzer said, the event became routine, with the number of LGBT fans turning out in increasing numbers each year and officials with the Phillies providing a welcoming atmosphere.

He said the number of LGBT fans turning out for the event in the last few years has declined but most observers attribute that to an overall drop in attendance due to the Phillies losing far more games than they are winning.

For nearly all of the “gay night” events at baseball games, an LGBT organization, often an LGBT sports group, initiates the event and promotes it. In return, the team usually offers a special discounted group price for the tickets, allowing the group to sell them at the regular price and make a small profit to support its mission.

Many of the teams, including the Washington Nationals, arrange for members of the LGBT organization to participate in a pre-game ceremony on the field that includes an LGBT person being chosen to throw the ceremonial first pitch of the game.

In recent years, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington has sung the National Anthem at the LGBT Night Out games.

Brent Minor, president of Team D.C., a D.C.-area LGBT sports organization, and Les Johnson, a Team D.C. official, said the Nationals this year added a new feature to the LGBT Night Out event by including a newly designed rainbow colored Washington Nationals T-shirt to its inventory at the stadium store.

“I know that several of the clubs did that this year,” Johnson said. “I think there were at least eight of them that came out with merchandise where they took their logo and put the rainbow thing on it,” he said. “So now they’re getting into LGBT merchandizing.”

Cyd Zeigler, co-founder and editor of OutSports.com, a news website that reports on LGBT-related sports issues, said the welcoming by Major League Baseball teams of the LGBT Night events may be based more on the teams’ desire to push group ticket sales than an idealistic support for LGBT rights.

“There’s a reason that so many baseball teams do this and no NFL teams do it,” he said referring to the National Football League. “It’s because most baseball teams have a lot of tickets to sell. There are 81 home games,” he said, noting that baseball teams often struggle to draw fans to their stadiums 81 times.

“And baseball, frankly, in 2015 isn’t that popular,” Zeigler said. “Football teams, for example, have to sell out eight home games per year and it’s the biggest game in town. So NFL teams, for the most part, sell out every game without blinking an eye.”

Largely because of that, Zeigler and other sports observers have said, NFL teams have far fewer promotional nights for any constituency groups or causes.

Zeigler noted that the New York Yankees is among the few MLB teams that sell out most of their games. The Yankees is among the teams that has not had an LGBT Night event.

“At this point they’re not really a big deal,” Zeigler said of the baseball gay night events. “They have nights for Irish Catholics. They have nights for kids. They have nights for cancer awareness. They have nights for the Pakistani community,” he said.

“And the fact that we get so excited that a baseball team might have a gay night really tells me how low we have put the bar in sports for LGBT inclusion,” Zeigler told the Blade.

While the LGBT nights have become routine and welcomed at most of the stadiums where they’re held in recent years, LGBT fans of the Oakland Athletics were startled earlier this year by the negative response among some to the announcement in March that the Athletics would host their very first LGBT Pride Night on June 17.

Some season ticket holders, saying they strongly objected to a gay-themed baseball night, told Athletics officials they wanted to sell their tickets for the June 17 game. Others who had purchased tickets also complained that they would not have bought the tickets if they had known the game would be unsuitable for their children.

“Things got very ugly, and quickly,” the online publication San Francisco Bay reported.

The publication reported that “upon hearing of the negativity surrounding Pride Night,” Eireann Dolan, the girlfriend of Athletics relief pitcher Sean Doolittle, announced that she would buy the tickets of any fan upset about going to the Pride Night game and donate the tickets to the Bay Area Youth Center’s Our Space program, which provides services to LGBT youth.

In a message on her blog Dolan pointed out that she was raised by a lesbian mom and her mom’s partner and she understood the pressures and prejudices that LGBT people face in their everyday lives.

According to San Francisco Bay, in addition to buying tickets, Dolan and Doolittle created a GoFundMe account for the Our Space program that raised more than $36,000 in the two months leading up to the Pride Night game. It said a number of the LGBT youth affiliated with the program attended the Pride Night game.

“For every one negative comment about LGBT Pride Night from fans, there were hundreds of supportive and wonderful messages of acceptance and excitement from the rest of the fans,” Dolan wrote. “We all collectively said, okay, you don’t want to go to the game? Great, no problem, we’ll buy your tickets and give them to someone who could really benefit from being there with us.”

Although Major League Baseball’s corporate entity, MLB, Inc., has played no direct role in organizing or promoting the LGBT Night games, in 2013 then-Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig pushed through an official MLB policy banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. The following year Selig appointed gay former baseball player Billy Bean as the MLB’s Ambassador for Inclusion.

Among other things, Bean’s official duties include providing training for MLB teams in support of LGBT-related issues, Selig said.

Norman Kent, publisher of the Fort Lauderdale-based South Florida Gay News and the lead organizer of the Miami Marlins’ first LGBT Night event, said he proposed to the MLB diversity office that MLB select one night each year for all MLB teams to hold their LGBT Night so the events could be promoted and marketed nationally.

“But they were not receptive to it, saying it was something they could ‘work to’ but it would need planning and coordination,” Kent told the Blade.

Following is a list of MLB teams that have hosted LGBT Night events in recent years:

Baltimore Orioles

Boston Red Sox

Atlanta Braves

Chicago White Sox

Chicago Cubs

Detroit Tigers

Houston Astros

Los Angeles Dodgers

Kansas City Royals

Miami Marlins

Minnesota Twins

New York Mets

Philadelphia Phillies

Oakland Athletics

Seattle Mariners

San Diego Padres

Tampa Bay Rays

San Francisco Giants

Texas Rangers

St. Louis Cardinals

Toronto Blue Jays

Washington Nationals

 

Following are the teams for which no records could be found to show they have hosted an LGBT Night event:

Arizona Diamondbacks

Cleveland Indians

Cincinnati Reds

Colorado Rockies

Los Angeles Angels

Milwaukee Brewers

New York Yankees

Pittsburgh Pirates

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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