Playing with Pride

08
Sep

Stuart Dunlop

I was asked to write a blog talking about my place on the newly-formed LGTBQI+ Panel and how it fits in with the future of BSUK.  Please understand that I’m not writing on behalf of a community, just my opinion.

To those going through tough times, facing adversity, ‘coming out’, feeling lost and judged for who you are or want to become, I can only repeat the mantra and hope “it gets better” for you.

Box me under G in LGTBQI+ if you must, but the categories I tick on my privileged existence include British, Male, White.  Now batting into my 40s, I’ve seen the world change.  My early years had trials not always radiant with rainbows, but being a Northerner means that reveling in hard times is practically welcomed.

I’ve been lucky enough to play softball for London Raiders, an openly gay team, since 1998.  I've coached beginners, captained, and served on the committee, so I stepped up to be a part of this panel to listen to the people that I will inevitably meet and hopefully learn what’s needed to improve not just our club but our sport as a whole.

Unless you hid in a closet all summer you’ll know July was the month our queer collective was encouraged to pin our colours of identity to the flag with Pride.  This year marking history (50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality), our team visibly represented softball on the march and in the Soho pubs, striking out in blue and yellow as only Raiders can.

We often chat about whether Pride is still relevant and necessary.  My answer is always YES! -- even with it becoming largely commercial in ideology.  Partying up the pink pound with Master-Card and Absolut Vodka sometimes feels more prevalent than a march for visibility and for serious issues in addressing rights and equality, but at least support is out there now and hopefully we don't take our freedom for granted when so many others in the world are yet to have it even acknowledged. 

Pride is also a parade for placards and opinions as well as an encouraged party and it can also be very intimidating for individuals who don’t do GaGa, who don’t blow whistles in hotpants, who don’t burn bras, are not a dyke on a bike, but are inwardly struggling with their own difference.  It can feel a burden to stand out or fade away.

I know that pressure of being ‘OUT’, but I remember the self-acceptance I felt wash over me in 1996 when, intimidated but excited, I took the train from Bournemouth to the big city, supported by my straight friend, to attend my first Pride Festival on Clapham Common.

To finally see gay by numbers, the wild “in your face” outfits, to witness that campy defiant “attitude”, as hordes of people formed a rainbow river from the tube to Two Brewers. 

My first Pride beverage I had in The Alexandra in Clapham.  For anyone not familiar with it, it’s a bit of a dive, straight up spit and sawdust, three floors of football, but that day it dragged up just enough to be a welcoming gay space (it’s amazing what a few balloons can do).

It was a good base hit for the pub, like a Dad forced to do drag for a holiday show, looking minging and pretending not to be a bit disappointed he’s not Beyonce.  It made the effort and it made a world of difference to me as a place to pluck up some courage.

Little did I know that four years later I’d be back at Pride joining Rainbow Raiders Softball Club on the march – yes, that was our name way back when.

Although I’m a self-proclaimed mediocre player now, I started off TERRIBLE!  Sports at my very Catholic secondary school in Darlington was a weekly seven-inning session of bully avoidance.  In my 20s I was giving sport a chance to redeem itself, but it wasn’t very forthcoming.  Glove off hand I had a permanent purple bruise on the fleshy base of my left thumb, and trying to hit that pesky the ball past the pitcher was proving a problem.  But I’d found my team and was determined not to stay in the hidden in the dugout -- and as you might have guessed I was great at running.

Being such a small squad back then, there was no hiding, we were THAT GAY TEAM.  My team-mates were incredible role models, great players, and as the youngest newest member the team took me under their wing, gave me all their unfounded confidence and friendship, and didn’t shout about me being ‘out’ (I mean in softball terms … I just couldn’t get on base!).

For a decade I was pretty nervous to turn up to matches and tournaments.  This time public embarrassment WAS MY CHOICE.  What if the opposition was a bunch of homophobic a*******s?  Luckily, in both the Publishers League and the GLMSL I never saw it or felt it with any of the competition.  I heard whispers, caught looks, but we travelled in a fun-loving pack and I didn't realise how intimidating we appeared as a group.  And the skills of our girls set the benchmark.

For our guys, if you’re old school, you might remember the hits on Pete Harrison and Billy Griffin, the skills of Geof Ellingham, the wheels on Clayton, the bionic arm on Rob Pulver.  The Raiders 99% were a force you put your money on and when the club divided into Rec and Comp our elite won the Nationals.

Despite being incredibly crap at softball, I dug my cleats in and it has since taken me all over the world: Amsterdam, Montréal, Copenhagen, Barcelona, Florida, California, Paris, Edinburgh, Southampton and even Slough.

I met my partner at the Sydney Gay Games in 2002, him rostered as a catcher with San Francisco Aftershock.  Humour is the first base of all relationships, and the way I could turn a strikeout into a comedy show sealed the deal.

After time, with coaching and muscle memory, “I got better.”

Nothing can take you out of yourself, allow you to split-second achieve or fail in a public arena, quite like this sport.  Make a mistake, learn what went wrong and move on.

The Raiders spirit we project into the world has seen our ranks grow rapidly.  Currently our five league teams are a constant presence in parks all over the capital.  I think we may have the largest independent softball club for members in the world and our reach also extends to all the players who have progressed on to other teams, taking that ethos into wider circles globally.

So you’re probably thinking, if everything's dandy in softball gayville, why the need for a panel?

As the summer wraps up, many of the rainbow flags that have coloured our city are taken down and our real world LGBTQI+ visibility becomes a little cloudy again.

Social media proved a useful tool in allowing Pride emojis to appear on profiles giving us a snap-shot of our community and our allies, but you don’t have to look deep into the black mirror to find there’s trouble brewing if we are to pay attention to the stream of regurgitated “news” reports.

Sadly, along with injustices in race, religion and disability, LGBT and gender equality issues are making headlines.  The bile spewing from the US bastion of hatred is swamping our feeds, with Trump gleefully telling Twitter he’s reinstating the US military ban on transgender people.  Theresa May is front page fodder saying Tories wont ‘go backwards’ on gay rights, but the fact she has to even state this is alarming.  This is 2017!

It does feel like we are witnessing the wearing down of well-fought-for human rights and freedoms.  Swing and a miss.  So more than ever sport needs to keep communities congregating and keep telling them it’s OK.  If 16-year-old me lived a life inside a bedroom bombarded with this toxic stream of opinion I’m not sure how long I’d have made it.

Sport really does help open the door, whether the proverbial closet or your actual real front one.

Softball has found the balance.  It’s so open, and I’m very proud of all the straight-identifying players that put on the Raiders shirt and play for us, all the opposition who befriend us and invite us to party with them, all the coaches from BSUK who’ve supported us and trained us.  And all the umpires and event organisers who help create a safe environment where anyone can to take to the field, and for all the LGBTQ+ players on other teams and around the country out of the bubble of London and Brighton.

Everyone who has involved themselves in the sport of mixed softball knows what a terrific leveller it is.  Stereotypes can be seen, challenged and addressed. 

Although there are a few differences in rules regarding gender and making this sport even more accessible, we as a community can show intent and start the change discussion, encouraging a safe space for the next generation of players who don’t identify as straight, lesbian, bisexual, and gay but as trans, intersex and non-binary.  To share what life is like for them as individuals is key.

As part of the Panel, I’ve been lucky enough to have canvassed opinions already on LGBT issues within the GLMSL and am not surprised by the positivity and encouragement out there shared by all who put on a glove.

We, the softball community, have helped to make sport a human right for all to find, and a place to overcome fears of not being accepted.  Let's encourage a healthy environment where a player can find the team they’ll be asked to write about in 20 years and do it with Pride!

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About Stuart Dunlop

Stuart Dunlop

Stuart has been a member of London Raiders Softball Club since 1998, back when it was Rainbow Raiders.  During the past 19 years he has served on the club’s Committee for five years and has seen the club grow from 16 members to over 100 and from one team to five.  In 2002 he helped organise the Raiders’ Sydney Games teams and in 2006 he headed the organisation of 50 members attending the Montreal Outgames.  He has been a trained coach at the club for eight years and has been the club’s main development trainer for newcomers to the sport for the past 15 years.  Outside of softball, he runs his own production company, and directed and edited the UK’s first lesbian and bi-sexual web-series “She’s in London”.

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