Throws Like the Girl She Is
Issue #35, November 1997
Although I was only twelve years old in 1972 -- too young to understand the significance of Title IX -- I am thankful that I am one of the first generations to benefit from a society in which women's sports are more the rule than the exception. To those who know me, it's no secret that sports have played a major role in my life ever since I was old enough to hold a baseball bat. Growing up as a tomboy certainly had its drawbacks, but playing any of a wide variety of sports on a daily basis was pretty routine, considering that I had three older brothers to toss a ball around with and an older sister who often quarterbacked the opposing street football team.
For many reasons, I was one of the fortunate girls who not only loved sports but was encouraged to play them. Never once do I remember, for instance, either of my parents wincing when I flew out the door to play ball, embarrassed that their youngest daughter seemed more interested in sports than dolls. The idea of girls not playing sports -- and not excelling at them -- was quite foreign to me. And since my brother David taught me how to throw at a very young age, even the popular phrase she/he "throws like a girl," intended in most circles as an insult, meant only one thing in my household: that person obviously had a strong and accurate arm!
As I grew older, sports began to have even greater significance in my life. Although I mastered kickball and tetherball in my playground days, and as a teenager I quickly learned tennis and bowling (two of my parents' favorite sports), softball was clearly my favorite game. I loved baseball passionately, but as a woman, softball represented the closest I would get to baseball. That was just fine with me, for looking back, I realize I really grew up on a softball field, tasted some divine successes there, learned about teamwork and a sense of community. My closest friends in junior high and high school played softball with me, and I came to know and understand myself through this game. I found refuge for seven innings from feelings I did not comprehend, found a place to belong. Even then, I knew the softball diamond represented a safe place for me and other lesbians, a place where we could be different (even if we didn't understand how or why we were different) and yet belong.
Certainly, I realize not all women who play softball are lesbians, and I indeed hope all women find in their teams and games even a fraction of the sense of community lesbians enjoy on the softball diamond. But for me, I have come to realize that I cannot separate the two: I experience the sense of community I do on a softball diamond because I am a lesbian -- not in spite of it. And for many lesbians my age (and older and younger ones, for that matter), the game of softball like no other has welcomed us with open arms, cradled us in our confusion and fear, and offered a home amidst the soft dirt and green grass. It helped us to no longer feel isolated in our youth and adulthood, providing us with a nurturing sense of community.
I'm not sure when I first became aware of the powerful connection between softball and my sexuality. Already by junior high, I was very much aware of feeling different, of not being interested in boys but having strong feelings for girls. Even in the mid-1970s, however, I knew better than to tell anyone about those feelings. As many gay teens still do, I kept my confusing feelings to myself for fear of somehow being discovered (and perhaps even reprimanded). That fear and caution stayed with me through high school, and though I had a few good friends and some special connections with some teachers, I hid my crushes on other girls and young women. It was difficult to feel safe with anyone in my young adult years, but I knew I felt the most comfortable hanging around the locker room and those memorable PE teachers, the women Meg Christian tributes in her classic song, "Ode to a Gym Teacher." No PE teacher who wanted to keep her job would ever acknowledge her lesbianism publicly, but I must admit that didn't matter to me at the time. I simply felt at ease with these strong, athletic women -- more at ease than I felt anywhere else on campus -- and I was drawn to them. And when the junior varsity softball coach asked me to come to softball tryouts after seeing me play the game during PE, and once I made the team, I knew I had found a home on the softball diamond and a new family and friends in my teammates.
As a loner throughout most of my pre-softball days in junior high and high school, imagine my elation at recognizing myself in the seemingly uninhibited athletes I met on my teams who unselfconsciously ran the bases and dove for line drives -- and were rewarded for such behavior! But that was only part of the connection I felt to these young women and consequently this sport. Since so much of what I saw in them I recognized in myself -- a love of the sport, a confidence on the diamond, even an independence from males (even at this young age) -- how could I not bond with my new sisters? And after finally finding a group to connect with, after finally finding a place where it seemed I, too, belonged, how could I not recognize this group of women as my family?
It is important to note that I did not seek (consciously or unconsciously) a new "family" because my biological family had deserted me. Quite the contrary, I have always felt blessed by the love I have come to count on from my four older siblings and two parents who encouraged me to seek and become whatever I wanted. Some of my fondest memories in high school, for instance, involve my father coming to watch me play softball. Whenever we played our arch rivals in the next town (where my father also worked), my dad would make a point to stop by the diamond and catch a couple of innings. He always stayed long enough to at least watch me bat once, and his hello and goodbye kisses were the envy of even the toughest girls on my team. Even my mom caught a game or two -- my mother who battled agoraphobia most of her adult life. No, I didn't long for a new family because I desired to trade in the one I had; I simply sought a connection with a group of people who I felt shared in my desire to belong -- to shed our otherness, our fears -- and seek comfort in a world in which we more often than not felt uncomfortable, sometimes unwelcomed. And on the softball field, we often found such a place.
A lifelong connection between softball, community, and my sexuality originated in junior high and high school, but the experience that provided the strongest sense of community I have ever experienced on a softball diamond happened a few years after high school when I moved from Antioch, California to Sacramento. In 1982, a group of lesbians who had long since graduated from high school and college but still had a tremendous love for fast pitch softball organized a league. Industrious and determined, they organized through the city parks and recreation department a Sunday softball league, complete with a single umpire and reserved field. Only four teams made up the Sunday fast-pitch women's softball league, but make no mistake about it: this wasn't just any league -- it was a lesbian softball league. There was no guessing about who was or who wasn't a dyke in this league; lesbians played every position on every team. Former high school and college fast pitch softball players not yet ready to join a recreational, slow pitch team eagerly found a home on one of the four teams which also welcomed newcomers to the game of fast-pitch softball.
Two games were scheduled each Sunday; one at 10 am, one at noon. Regardless of whether your team played the first or second game -- and even if you didn't even play the game of softball -- dozens of lesbians gathered for both games. It was simply the place to be. The sense of community was that strong. You came out to visit with your own teammates, players of other teams, girlfriends of everyone, and the fans (including family members) who seemed encaptured by the sense of community as much as the players were.
At Curtis Park, we could be ourselves like in no other place. We got to play the game we loved the most, and our efforts were celebrated by fans of our community as much as fans of our sport. It simply never crossed our minds to not hug our girlfriends, current and former, or hold hands or snuggle close together on a blanket in foul territory in this park we inhabited. Homophobia, which seemed to peak during this Reagan era, had no place in this city park, and we grew strong as a group and as individuals. The softball diamond provided us the environment to build and foster the community and family that some experienced nowhere else. Though Monday through Saturday many of us hid our otherness from our co-workers and so-called friends, dressed in our mainstream attire and comformist attitudes, in this lesbian softball league we proudly wore our stylish baseball pants and custom-made, tattered tees.
In this sacred park ("our park," as we came to call it), we felt free to be ourselves and protected this "comfort zone" with zeal. Because of this, we guardedly welcomed outsiders to pay us a visit. Heck, it was a risk for many to invite someone into our culture. After all, this was our place, our day, our few hours in the week when we knew we could be ourselves in an all-too-often homophobic world. We knew we had a haven here, and some were reluctant, even scared, to let outsiders in. But for many of us, we knew the additional support from straight friends and family members further enriched these moments when they came into our world -- not us into theirs -- and they, too, became a part of the magic.
I was one of the Sunday regulars who invited outsides to share in this experience, and I know my memories of this softball league are enriched because of the guests who accepted my invitations. How proudly did I introduce to my teammates my older brother, his wife, and his son, who all enthusiastically attended more than one game, regardless of the hour plus drive to Sacramento? My nephew considered me the best ballplayer he had ever seen, and he cheered for my team like we were the San Francisco Giants, not a group of softball-loving lesbians. For him, the sexuality -- even the gender of the players -- didn't matter. He just wanted to see a good ball game. But for those of us who had found a home and a kinship we knew no place else, our sexuality and gender mattered greatly. Because as lesbians living in the early 1980s, we didn't see our lives reflected in an Ellen sitcom or a Desert Hearts big screen movie. We found our lives mirrored in the other women in the batter's box, in the fans in the bleachers, and ultimately, in the extended families who confirmed that we belonged, that we mattered, that we were not "other" -- we simply were another.
The "lesbian league" has been defunct for several years now, and many of us long ago traded in our fast-pitch cleats and aggressive play for multipurpose shoes and the arch and pace of slow pitch softball. Today, I still play softball at least one night a week for a team that happens to also field all lesbians, some even from the old fast pitch league. We still play in a city park, though this league caters to any and all women interested in softball. We are clearly still a family, too, this group of aging lesbians who are not ready to hang up our gloves, but it is the sense of community that continues to bring us out each week, the safety of this family that motivates us to stretch our now loose muscles (ok, maybe that's not muscle there anymore) and get together on a softball field once a week. For on a softball team, especially for lesbians young and old, one can feel a part of a greater whole, a place to belong, a community just waiting to be fostered.
Chris Rubio teaches English at a community college in Sacramento, CA and is the proud sister of Bad Subjects editor Steven Rubio. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.