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LGBTQ-Sports Group Says Representation Key to Inclusivity

team rawr cheers
Dylan Jones, here with team #Rawr, says she and others she knows would not have joined the league if it weren’t queer-centered. “I can come out and have a rainbow fan, and scream ‘yaas queen’ on a Sunday and have a good time and not be worried about my safety. [...] And I think for a lot of us, especially non-white queer folks, the experience of having something directly and intentionally for you is not something that we get very often.” (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Five years ago, a group of friends in Richmond went to an LGBTQ-centered kickball tournament in  Washington, D.C. The event, organized by the founding chapter of Stonewall Sports, inspired them to bring the idea home. 

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Tommy Otterbine is one of the founding members of the Richmond Stonewall Sports Chapter. He is currently the Vice President of Stonewall Sports for the National Board, and also serves as Richmond’s representative. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

One of those friends, Tommy Otterbine, says they played teams from smaller cities, like Wilmington, North Carolina, and slightly larger cities, like Greensboro, North Carolina. After the tournament, Otterbine questioned why these cities had gay leagues but Richmond didn’t.

With support from the D.C. league, the friends started a Richmond-based chapter in 2017. Otterbine, who now serves as vice president of the national Stonewall Sports executive board and also represents Richmond on the board of directors, said the process showed him there was so much more to the league than sports.

“Sports is just the vehicle that brings people together. It’s not what keeps people together,” Otterbine said. Stonewall Sports is a unique social sports league in that it not only caters to a queer audience, but is also a non-profit organization that gives back to the LGBTQ community. 

The first chapter, founded in 2010, took its name from the Stonewall Uprising of 1969. After a June 28 police raid targeted the Stonewall Inn, a bar known for serving the gay, lesbian, and trans community in New York City, the LGBTQ community organized a series of demonstrations that sparked LGBTQ activism and led to the recognition of June as Pride Month.

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Mapp (left, with Dylan Jones, the DEI director) says when he moved to Richmond he struggled to connect with the gay community, so he joined Stonewall Sports as a way to meet new queer people and be outside and active. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

In that tradition of activism, the group has raised over $50,000 for community partners, including Side by Side, Diversity Richmond, Nationz Foundation and the Health Brigade, since its inception. This year, the Richmond chapter is sponsoring Black Pride RVA.

Marquis Mapp, the community director of Stonewall Sports Richmond, is in charge of partnerships. He says they had over one hundred volunteers work in food banks and drives during the pandemic. And he’s also worked with LGBTQ leaders across the state to ensure Richmond city government is “using a lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion, especially when it comes to our trans brothers and sisters.”

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Eli Coston, pitching for The Rusty Anchors, in their game against #RAWR. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Players appreciate being in a league where the spectrum of gender identities are embraced. Eli Coston, an assistant professor in Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, says playing in a queer-centric league is a relief, comparing it to their CrossFit experience, where they often found themselves forced to participate in tournaments based on the sex they were assigned at birth. 

At Stonewall, “It doesn’t matter what gender identity you are. We’ve all got our name and pronouns on our shirt, and people get it, and they try really hard to get it right,” Coston said.

Although Stonewall Sports has a strong DEI focus now, that wasn’t always the case. The risk management director of Stonewall Sports, Becca Kohn, recalled her first impression.

“I remember seeing their print-out-flyers at Babes before they started and I picked it up,” Kohn said. “And it was all white, cis, men. Like that was on the poster.”

kickball game
Richmond will be the fourth city to host the National Kickball tournament in September of this year. The tournament was initially scheduled for 2020 but was delayed due to the pandemic. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

When Kohn was asked to join a mostly female-identifying team she jumped on the opportunity, but notes they were an outlier at the time: “We were probably the only team that had more than, I don’t know, three non-men on the team.” 

Oswaldo Salinas is another player who didn’t have the best first impression. “I actually saw it online for the first season, but I didn’t think that it was for me based on the members at that point,” he said.

A change at the top made a big difference, says Mapp.

“Previously we only had like one or two people of color, very few women, and now, we are very split,” Mapp said, with a board that’s almost 50% composed of people of color. He says it’s “great to see,” adding, “And that was very intentional.“

kickball players
The Queen Titans and the Freeballers play a scrimmage match to practice before their Sunday game. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)
people playing kickball
The Queen Titans and the Freeballers play a scrimmage match to practice before their Sunday game. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)
people playing kickball
The Queen Titans and the Freeballers play a scrimmage match to practice before their Sunday game. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)
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Dylan Jones says her initial expectations of the league was, “that it was going to be a lot of just super sporty white men that were good at athletics.” She now sits on the board as the diversity, equity, inclusion director. She says the primary way the league has changed are the voices in the room.

“We have voices in the room with different lived experiences now, which I think has created a lot of really positive -thinking changes,” Jones said. “And the cultural changes have highlighted where we needed to do work and as such have been able to do the work.”

Making membership financially inclusive is one of Jones’ proudest accomplishments. She introduced a fee waiver program that’s voluntarily funded by members.

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Stonewall Sports offers a variety of leagues, tournaments, and social opportunities throughout the year. This includes kickball, dodgeball, bowling, indoor and sand volleyball, tennis, cornhole, yoga, adventure club, and more. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

“We realized that we could add a roundup feature on the app so that players, when they register for their season, could add a little bit, or hold a spot for a player,” Jones said. She said the response was “amazing,” and the voluntary payments have been enough to support every person who needed a fee waiver.

The league has implemented a number of other initiatives targeted at making it a more diverse, equitable, and accessible space. Currently they have affinity groups for players of color, women players, 50+ players, trans & non-binary players, and sober players and players in recovery. Aside from bringing people together, these affinity groups are also intended to help local businesses associated with the affinity group.

social outing
Tuesday nights are Stonewall Happy Hour at Starr Hill Beer Hall and Rooftop. Some members of the Queen Titans sit with other members of Stonewall Sports to hang out and socialize. Though many social gatherings are hosted at sponsor bars, many players also meet outside of the bars for dinners, and hang-outs. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

“I really wanted to have them at businesses owned by someone in the affinity group,” Jones said,  “so that we could be spreading our funds out, even past our beneficiaries for the leagues.“ COVID-19 delayed those plans, but Jones says she hopes to resume when it’s possible.

Accessibility and ADA guidelines are another of the major initiatives being taken on by the league. They want to make sure that rules, initially put in place to be inclusive, weren’t accidentally excluding some. As such they have created a new rule for kickball that allows players who can’t run for whatever reason to have a running stand-in. They still have to kick the ball, but can have their stand-in run in their place. The league hopes to look at their other sports and see where ADA improvements can be made.

Kohn hopes to continue building on the changes they’ve brought to the league. “Our league is so much more diverse than it was then. So many more women and non-binary transgender folks have felt comfortable joining the league,” she said.

This kickball season, COVID-19 restrictions only let 360 players register. Of those players, 31% self-identify as female, and roughly 5% as non-binary or trans.

Some of the Richmond chapter DEI initiatives, like the fee waiver and names and pronouns on shirts, are a first in the national league, and organizers hope to spread them to other cities. Current players, like Salinas, say the DEI work brought them into the league. He now considers Stonewall a great way to make new friends and meet people for some fresh air on the weekends.

kickball players
The Pitches Be Crazy team socializing at Babe’s of Carytown after their game. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Jones says DEI work is often misconstrued as a surface level fix, and Stonewall Sports is committed to going deeper.

”It’s not about bringing people into the space that you’ve already created and expecting them to  fit into the space,” she said. “We have to deconstruct the space and start from ground one.“