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New kickball league thriving in North Carolina

Stonewall Sports expands, finds eager players in unlikely places

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LGBT sports, gay news, Washington Blade
LGBT sports, gay news, Washington Blade

Four commissioners of Stonewall Kickball in North Carolina (l-r), Frank Wolfgram, Jason Boone, Will Fisher and Jonathan Melton. (Photo courtesy of Boone)

With an estimated metropolitan area population of six million, D.C. is home to a large and thriving LGBT sports community. There are roughly 35 teams and clubs competing, playing and socializing together, usually outside of the traditional bar scene. It seems that every time a new league is formed, it is immediately filled to capacity. In 2015, Capital Pride Volleyball and Stonewall Billiards completed their first seasons and will have to consider expanding for their second seasons.

The success in D.C. of these leagues can be attributed in part to the sheer number of people here, the transient nature of the area and the progressive thinking of many residents. Many of the LGBT players are having their own sports renaissance, finding their way back to the sports they were bullied out of playing in their youth and trying new sports.

But what about the rural areas around the country where homophobia remains prevalent and where there are still no safe spaces for members of the LGBT community to play sports?

Is it possible for LGBT sports leagues to be formed that offer that safe space when the numbers aren’t there and the local community may not be ready for it?

In the smaller communities, it all begins at the grassroots level.

D.C.-based Stonewall Sports has created a prototype for LGBT sports leagues that has worked well for the five sports that it offers locally. The structure that Stonewall mandates includes organizational guidelines for the proposed sport, financial support to local charities and community outreach.

North Carolina became the target of the first Stonewall expansion effort and leagues are now in place in Raleigh, Charlotte, Greensboro and Wilmington.

Even with the Stonewall prototype, getting started and maintaining the momentum to keep the leagues running requires establishing a strong connection to the community. Raleigh and Charlotte were the first expansion cities in 2013 and the two smaller cities followed.

Stonewall Kickball-Greensboro started in the fall of 2014 with 70 players on five teams. There were some issues at the beginning with teams being too small and having to forfeit, but they expanded to 107 players in the second season this year.

With the Greensboro population at just over 250,000, to get those extra players, kickball commissioner Will Fisher started networking and going out and just talking to people. They are also competing to recruit players with a straight recreational kickball league in the area.

“There is not really a gay scene here,” says Fisher. “And we don’t have a lot of options recruiting from the colleges as most of them aren’t over 21.”

Greensboro ended up with a diverse group of kickball players — mostly gay, several straight players, some recovering from addictions and a mix of ages.

“This is a lot of people that didn’t hang out together that are playing a sport and getting along fine,” Fisher says.

Sponsorship for the teams in the league has come from varied sources such as an investment firm, a Cross Fit gym, a catering business and a straight bar that caters to gay clientele on Sunday nights. Even a dinnerware replacement company is on board. The players can be found helping out at their sponsor’s events, doing set-up and break-down and the financial benefactor of their efforts is the local LGBT community center, Guilford Green.

The Stonewall prototype is working so well for them, that they are considering taking over volleyball from an old parks and recreation league.

Fisher, who is from Sanford, N.C., didn’t play many sports growing up but was active in eventing, an equestrian sport.

“This is fun and I am really enjoying meeting people that I wouldn’t have met otherwise,” says Fisher. “Actually, I think I might know everyone in Greensboro now.”

The launch of Stonewall Kickball-Wilmington in the spring of 2015 proved to be an even tougher challenge as the population in Wilmington is just over 100,000 people.

“There is no gay community here and most of the LGBT people in town don’t want to go to the only gay bar,” says Frank Wolfgram, Wilmington Kickball commissioner. “It’s a small town and even though no one really knows each other, you still hear about everyone’s business.”

With no Pride events in the area, marketing was a key issue and word began to spread that a kickball league was forming. It was decided that it was necessary to have a few pick-up kickball games to see if everyone meshed. There were enough players to start a league — 60 players on five teams.

“When we were first getting ready to play, I was thinking to myself, ‘please let everyone be nice to each other,'” Wolfgram says. “And they were; it was mind-blowing. Everyone was clapping and being really supportive.”

Wolfgram is from Rochester, N.Y., and has been in Wilmington for five years. He played basketball and baseball growing up and says he has always been a sports fan. With the next season approaching, Wolfgram is already starting to wonder if they will come up with enough players to keep it going.

“I probably shouldn’t worry too much about it,” he says. “People enjoy getting muddy here.”

The lesson from starting these leagues in small cities was that the community plays an extra large part in the success of the venture. The typical game day is filled with kickball, cornhole, kids, dogs and food.

“You have to wonder if the community is ready for 60 gays and their allies to walk into a bar all wearing matching T-shirts,” says Martin Espinoza, co-founder of Stonewall Sports. “One thing to note is that the new leagues in North Carolina all have young leaders who are interested in helping the community.”

Another positive development is that despite the physical distance between the four cities, they are forging a new community together. They are playing games, holding events and offering support to one another. This weekend they will all come together to spend a day at the Wet n’ Wild water park in Greensboro. Ten people from Stonewall-D.C. will be there to join in the fun.

“It has been pretty amazing to watch this tight community form from four cities,” Espinoza says. “They are always trying to one up each other. Greensboro even had the straight female mayor come out for the first pitch.”

LGBT sports, gay news, Washington Blade

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Sports

Washington Mystics to hold annual Pride game

Team to play Dallas Wings on Saturday

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Washington Mystics will be having their upcoming Pride game on Saturday against the Dallas Wings.

The Mystics Pride game is one of the team’s theme nights they host every year, with Pride night being a recurring event. The team faced off against the Phoenix Mercury last June. Brittney Griner, who Russia released from a penal colony in December 2022 after a court convicted her of importing illegal drugs after customs officials at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage, attended the game. 

Unlike the NBA, where there are currently no openly LGBTQ players, there are multiple WNBA players who are out. Mystics players Emily Englster, Brittney Sykes, and Stefanie Dolson are all queer.

The Mystics on June 1 acknowledged Pride Month in a post to its X account.

“Celebrating Pride this month and every month,” reads the message.

The game is on Saturday at 3 p.m. at the Entertainment and Sports Arena (1100 Oak Drive, S.E.). Fans can purchase special Pride tickets that come with exclusive Mystics Pride-themed jerseys. 

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Sports

Lia Thomas breaks silence after losing case to compete in Olympics, other elite women’s sports

Riley Gaines calls ruling a ‘victory’

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Lia Thomas (YouTube screen capture)

Transgender All-American swimming champion Lia Thomas will not be allowed to compete at the Olympics in Paris this summer, or any elite women’s competition, after a worldwide ban on trans women athletes was upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. And for the first time since granting an interview to ESPN in May 2022, Thomas is speaking out, as is her fiercest critic, Riley Gaines

The University of Pennsylvania graduate commented on this week’s ruling in a statement issued through her attorney, saying that the decision should serve as a “call to action for trans women athletes.”

“The CAS decision is deeply disappointing,” Thomas said. “Blanket bans preventing trans women from competing are discriminatory and deprive us of valuable athletic opportunities that are central to our identities. The CAS decision should be seen as a call to action to all trans women athletes to continue to fight for our dignity and human rights.”

On Wednesday, three CAS judges dismissed the athlete’s request for arbitration with World Aquatics, the governing body for swimming organizations around the world, claiming rules regarding transgender competitors introduced two years ago were discriminatory.

Three months after Thomas became the first out trans Division I NCAA champion in March 2022, World Aquatics voted to prohibit trans women who had been through male puberty from competing in elite meets for cisgender women. Only trans women who had completed their medical transition by the age of 12 were allowed to compete with cisgender women. The organization introduced an “open category” in its 50-meter and 100-meter races across all strokes, which would allow athletes whose gender identity differs from the sex they were presumed to be at birth to compete with anyone else. But they would no longer be allowed to compete with other women who were not trans. 

In asking CAS to overturn the ruling last year, Thomas argued that the guidelines were discriminatory, “invalid and unlawful,” as the Los Angeles Blade reported. But the judges dismissed her claim, stating she had no standing and is not eligible to compete in elite competitions through World Aquatics or USA Swimming “for the time being,” so the policy does not apply to her.

“She is currently only entitled to compete in USA Swimming events that do not qualify as ‘Elite Events,'” according to the judges. “The panel concludes that she lacks standing to challenge the policy and the operational requirements in the framework of the present proceeding,” said the court in its ruling.

The judges said USA Swimming had no authority “to modify such scope of application” of the world governing body’s rules.

World Aquatics said it welcomed the CAS decision in a case “we believe is a major step forward in our efforts to protect women’s sport.” 

Even had the court ruled in her favor, Thomas is not named on the preliminary entry list for the U.S. Olympic swimming trials, which begin this weekend in Indianapolis ahead of the start of the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris next month.

To failed swimmer turned vocal anti-trans inclusion activist and Gaines, that is “great news.” “Great news! Lia Thomas won’t be able to compete in women’s category at the Olympics or any other elite competition. He has just lost his legal battle in Court of Arbitration for Sport ruling,” Gaines posted on her social media Wednesday, misgendering Thomas. “This is a victory for women and girls everywhere.”

But Gaines did not stop there. A few hours later, she shared an article about the ruling from the right-wing tabloid, the New York Post, and threw down a challenge to the NCAA: “Now the @ncaa needs to strip him of every award, title, and record he stole from a deserving female athlete.” 

Other conservative anti-trans media such as the Daily Mail and other outlets also hailed the decision. But above the fray, one voice has consistently stood out in support of Thomas: Her friend, Schuyler Bailar, who became the first trans athlete to compete on a NCAA Division I men’s team when he swam for Harvard. He called the CAS ruling, “devastating.” 

“This is not inclusion. This is textbook discrimination,” Bailar said in a post on Instagram. “And it is a result of the vicious, disgusting, anti-trans and misogynistic rhetoric that has infected this country and the world. Rhetoric that is not based in science but rather in hatred, fueled by power hungry people who do not care truly about women or women’s sports. I’m not sure what is next in this moment — but history will not look back favorably on this decision.” 

The Blade has reached out to Thomas through her representative for comment and did not receive a response as of press time. 

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Africa

Kenya seeks to ban intersex athletes from lowering hormone levels to compete in sports

Country’s human rights body has put forth measure

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(Bigstock photo)

Kenya’s state-funded human rights body does not want intersex athletes in the country to lower their hormone levels as a requirement to compete in any sport.

The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights in a proposal to the National Assembly notes it will ensure non-discrimination and fairness for intersex people in sports.  

The proposal in the Intersex Persons Bill, 2024, is among numerous amendments to existing laws that seek to grant intersex people equal rights after the government in 2019 officially recognized them as a third sex.

According to the bill that would amend Kenya’s Sports Act of 2013, this will require the Sports and Youth Affairs Ministry’s Cabinet secretary and the National Council for Intersex Persons, which the measure would create, to develop measures that ensure fairness for sporting intersex people when enacted.            

“The measures shall not require a person to alter their biological hormonal composition as a condition to participating in any sporting activity or program,” reads the bill. 

Although the measures would apply nationally, they would contradict the World Athletics Council’s 2018 regulations that similarly bar female transgender athletes from participating in international competitions, such as the Olympic Games. Intersex Kenyan athletes have to abide by these rules at the global level.       

The World Athletics through the regulations noted trans women who naturally have higher levels of testosterone compared to ordinary women have to undergo medication or surgery to lower their testosterone levels as a condition before competing in races of between 400 meters and a mile. Kenya’s National Olympic Committee supports these rules.

Some top female trans athletes barred from competing in the Olympic events from the World Athletics regulations due to their high natural testosterone levels include Margaret Wambui of Kenya, Caster Semenya of South Africa, Aminatou Seyni of Niger and and Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi.

The trans athletes opposed the World Athletics regulations with Semenya challenging them in court, but lost the case, even though the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2019 criticized the rules. UNHCR cautioned sports bodies not to “force, coerce or otherwise pressure women and girl athletes into undergoing unnecessary, humiliating and harmful medical procedures.” 

Kenya National Commission on Human Rights Deputy Director Veronica Mwangi, who spoke with the Washington Blade about the bill’s controversial proposal, said Kenya, which is the only African country to recognize intersex people as a third sex, has started the conversation with a “bigger picture” for the international sporting bodies to create an alternative competition for them to exploit their talents without reducing their hormonal levels or interfering with their biological characteristics as the condition before competing.      

“As KNCHR, we are very clear that we cannot afford to continue discriminating and marginalizing persons who are born as intersex, but rather we can promote conversations of inclusivity where the Semenya of South Africa, an equivalent of Semenya in Uganda and an equivalent in the U.S. or Kenya can have a special sporting event like the Paralympics for persons living with disabilities,” Mwangi said. 

She also questioned the fairness of World Athletics and other international sporting bodies in demanding “the Semenyas or talented intersex persons” to undergo hormonal therapy which then affects the athletes’ well-being after interfering with their biological anatomy.   

“These governing sporting bodies should not come back to us that it is the intersex persons to carry the blame,” Mwangi said. “It is not the responsibility of the intersex (person) but they are duty-bearers and should think of mechanisms to grow their talents and not find an easy way out of demanding to change who they are.” 

Mwangi disclosed the proposal is driven by KNCHR’s special task force report that found most intersex school children are talented and perform well in sports. 

Kenya’s Intersex Persons Implementation Coordination Committee is already identifying talented intersex people, including those in schools, to support their growth in sports. Kenya’s 2019 Census found there are 1,524 intersex people in the country.

Other amendments to the Intersex Persons Bill include an employment provision that would cap an intersex person’s monthly income tax at 25 percent of wages, compared to other Kenyans whose maximum taxable income stands at 35 percent, depending on one’s monthly total earnings.  

“Capping the income tax or wages for intersex persons at 25 percent is a tax consideration in the form of an affirmative action to uplift them in economic development and it is similar to that of persons living with disability who are tax exempted as marginalized groups,” Mwangi said.

The bill further seeks to amend the Health Act for any parent with an intersex child born at home to report the birth at the nearest government administration office or risk a fine of not more than $1,000 or a six-month prison term, or both, after being found guilty of concealing an intersex child’s identity.

The proposed law, moreover, seeks to create the National Council for Intersex Persons, whose mandates would include the creation of initiatives and programs to prevent discrimination against intersex people, creating a database for all intersex people and accrediting the group for employment purposes.  

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