The Transformative Power of Joining an LGBT Sports League by Ricky Mejia
Around three years ago, I strolled into a gay bar, sat, and asked the bartender for a drink – classic vodka cranberry. While scrolling through my phone and sipping, I overheard the bartender speaking with someone about volleyball. I had recently started playing volleyball at my local Y, and became infatuated with the sport, and eager to play more. I nudged into the conversation.
“Where is the league? I just started playing, and I would love to continue practicing,” I said to the bartender.
“It’s at the Kent County YMCA on Sundays from 3-6pm. It’s called the Ocean State Pride Volleyball League (OSPVL).”
An LGBT sports league!? It never occurred to me that a league like that would exist. Before that I’d seen gay people only in association with same-sex love, friends, and clubs or bars – never in a competitive sports environment. To be part of an LGBT team intrigued me beyond belief. I never had a true, substantial connection with the LGBT community. Everything felt superficial. I was struggling with where I fit in with the world, especially when it came to being gay.
I’ve always been an athlete, and being part of a team sparked my love for sports, but I haven’t felt like I had a community. Joining an LGBT sports league has made me feel part of something that is bigger than me. And that helps others who were like me, lost and confused. My confidence has grown by leaps and bounds, so much so that it has influenced my demeanor and other parts of my life. Being a part of the OSPVL has made me more comfortable in my own skin, and more able to express myself.
When I first participated in the volleyball league I was in awe, struck by how everyone seemed to physically move with confidence and grace. They communicated with empathy, strength, and a willingness to help. Everyone radiated light because they were their true authentic selves with so much freedom. I was shocked because I had never seen LGBT people that way before. There was an immediate shift in my thoughts about queer people and myself. It made me feel hopeful about discovering who I was and where I fit in.
My nervous energy took over when I first started playing. I had athletic ability, but I felt a barrier. My whole life I've conformed to what kept me safe, but now in that environment, the barrier didn’t have to exist. The walls built inside me were tough, and I was wary about whether I could break them. My innate protection was what I had to fight.
Don’t get me wrong, this article is not bashing straight leagues. I’m involved in multiple straight volleyball leagues that are amazingly competitive and funspirited. On the other hand, I’ve been involved in straight leagues where I was immediately written off because I was gay. For that reason I’ve always subdued my personality, as if in a cocoon, and focused purely on the sport itself. Of course, prejudices in sports are endured across all minorities, and intersect to include gender, sexual identities, race, etc.
Sarah Rich, a player in the Renaissance City Softball League, said “I had been playing in other co-ed ‘straight’ softball leagues around the state and wasn't having a good time. Many of the men, not all but enough, had no faith in the playing ability of women, and it made the game no fun.” There can be a sense of restriction in some straight leagues that isn’t present within their LGBT counterparts.
Matthew Katon had played in many “straight” sports leagues, and describes a change in mindset when he started attending LGBT leagues, including volleyball, basketball, and kickball. “You are subject to judgment and isolation, and you end up building walls in regards to both sports and life. These walls were allowed and encouraged to come down by the teammates and league.”
Slowly but surely, the OSPVL started to chip away at my wall. The openness and transparency of the group made me feel safe. It was a competitive environment, but we succeeded in lifting one another up. This quiet and self-conscious boy started to transform. I started engaging with my peers and speaking up. I attended not just to play volleyball, but to engage with wonderful people, who made me feel like myself.
Herson Silva, a player in the Providence Gay Flag Football League, had similar thoughts and stated, “It honestly doesn't feel like a league; it feels like a closeknit gay family. The commissioner had a vision of creating a safe place where you can play a sport and be accepted no matter how you identify, and he nailed it.” The most important thing I learned is that these LGBT leagues are based on acceptance and empowerment, and helping one another be our best selves.
Fast forward to January 5, 2020, the beginning of the new volleyball season and decade, and the OSPVL is still growing strong. The turnout is bigger than it’s been in years! Now I find I embody what I first saw in others when I joined the league. I’ve stepped up to be a mentor and leader. I feel passionate about helping new and returning players become knowledgeable about the sport, while also embracing the qualities of the league.
The New Year can be daunting. It’s an opportunity to start fresh. It can also be a time of anxiety, stress, and self-doubt. As I reflect upon 2019, I have to admit it was a bit gloomy for me. There have been some career ups and downs, family health issues, and mental stress. Looking at the glass as being half full, joining an LGBT sports league changed my life. It made me part of a community that’s connected through kindness and acceptance. It has also given me a stronger sense of self and confidence that has seeped into all sectors of my life. Whether you are LGBT or an ally, everyone can find meaning when they join, and make friends along the way!