Switch Hitter

Before swinging a bat in a lesbian softball league, pick a side. Gay or straight? Or something else?

"We were all shocked. We were small-town, really sheltered. But she was telling us how it could be, giving us a heads-up to make sure our preferences were known."

There were five openly gay girls on the team her freshman year of college; one of them, she's convinced, was "turned" gay by another player. On the field, she remembers, the players functioned as a unit. But off the field, they segregated into gay and nongay cliques. Eager to sway the balance toward heterosexuals, she says, some of the straight teammates pestered the coach to recruit "girly-girls" who would improve the team's " 'pretty' average."

Today, this woman is married to a man and the mother of two children; she coaches a softball team at a Broward County high school.

Liz, the Law Dawgs' fearless leader, says she loves softball so much that she'd even play the game in a straight league.
Michael McElroy
Liz, the Law Dawgs' fearless leader, says she loves softball so much that she'd even play the game in a straight league.

Vikki Krane, director of women's studies at Bowling Green University in Ohio, chuckles at the notion of young female athletes getting "turned" into lesbians. "Nobody is going to turn someone gay or lesbian. Clearly, if someone has feelings for someone of the same gender, they're going to choose whether or not to act on it. If they simply don't have those feelings, it's not going to happen.

"What do you do when a boy asks you out that you don't want to date?" she continues. "You say, thanks, nice idea, but I don't think it's going to work. It doesn't have to be anything more than that should someone of the same gender ask you out. If you're comfortable with yourself, what does it matter what other people do? Assuming that they aren't being inappropriate."

Krane has written a position paper for the National Association for Girls & Women in Sport outlining steps that coaches and athletic programs can take to eliminate sexual orientation-based prejudice. But ultimately, she believes, change will come at the grass-roots level. As acceptance of homosexuals spreads among the general population, so will acceptance of gays in the sporting ranks.

At every school, coaches set the atmosphere for the team. Some programs, though, have a reputation for being gay-friendly — or not.

The University of Florida's softball program came under major scrutiny in 2003 when a catcher accused coaches there of dropping her from the team for being a lesbian. The catcher, Andrea Zimbardi, alleged that Head Coach Karen Johns pushed Christian beliefs on the players and that Assistant Coach Heather Compton-Butler made disparaging comments about lesbians while simultaneously fishing for information on which players might like women.

Zimbardi sued with the help of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

The university agreed to send its athletic department to sensitivity training, and it added discrimination based on sexual orientation to its zero-tolerance list. The university opted against renewing Johns' contract for the 2005-06 school year. Johns became the head coach at the University of Virginia, and this August, she'll accompany the U.S. Olympics team to Beijing as an assistant coach.

The softball community still hasn't figured out how to deal with the L-word. On a recent rainy summer day, I ambushed a few college softball players at a local training camp. We were well out of earshot of the little girls attending the camp, several of whom were busying themselves trying to capture bugs.

I wanted to talk about the L-word. The college players wanted to disassociate that word from their sport. There's no reason to bring sexuality onto the field, they argued. These days, they said, lesbians are a minority in their sport.

That may well be true. The 1972 passage of Title IX, which required equal opportunities for women in school-sponsored activities, paved the way for millions of American women to adopt knee-scuffing endeavors like softball. The influx of women into athletics is widely thought to have diluted the lesbian ranks. It's commonly believed that just 10 percent of the general population is gay or lesbian, so some find it hard to rationalize that a majority of female athletes in any sport could be lesbian.

The college players I spoke with worried that an article about lesbians and softball might deter young girls from the sport. "If parents see something they don't like, then they're probably not going to let their kids play," one said. Another player equated homophobia to racism — both are ugly realities we have to live with.

There was that military injunction again. "In the college world, it's still like the military: Don't ask, don't tell," says Helen Carroll, director of the homophobia in sports project at the National Center for Lesbian Rights. "Every spring, we get calls from so many [lesbian] softball players that are asked not to come back. We try to solve the problem before it becomes a legal battle."

Coming out can still be a career blocker for lesbian softball players and coaches, Carroll says. But thankfully, dialogue and acceptance are increasing. It helps when respected women in the higher echelons of the sport take a stand. Carroll notes that, when Harvard's head coach, Jenny Allard, told her team in 1997 that she is a lesbian, Allard not only kept her job but also became a role model for coaches and players. In explaining the decision, Allard pointed to the importance of honesty in a team environment, saying that hiding her partner "behind the left-field fence" set a poor example.

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