Take me out to the ball game (Originally published in Diva Magazine)

8
Jan
2018

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Katie Margaret Hall discovers why softball is one of the most accessible sports around in this piece originally published in Diva Magazine in January 2018.

Hear terms like “making it to third base”, “striking out” or “double play” and you might be forgiven for thinking we were talking about a night out on the pull in Soho. But there’s somewhere else LGBTQ women are scoring home runs, and that’s on the softball diamond.

Often described as a mix between baseball and rounders, and accompanied by the revelation that the ball is not soft at all, slow-pitch softball has had somewhat of a recent and rapid birth in the UK. Historically, the sport has been played sporadically, and dominated by cis-male players. It wasn’t until corporate teams filled with ex-pats boomed in the 80s and 90s that softball became something of a phenomenon here, now played by over 18,000 people on a regular basis. 
Elsewhere, and the States in particular, softball has an anecdotal association as a popular game amongst LGBTQ women.

Now, slowpitch softball in the UK is predominantly co-ed (mixed gender teams to us Brits) and played recreationally and competitively on white line painted diamonds in parks up and down the country, during the summer months. Single gender variations do exist but are less common, and are usually made up of players from the mixed gender teams. There are even elite level GB teams who represent at international competitions.

So what makes softball so appealing for our demographic?

Unlike our counterparts in countries such as the USA, Canada, Australia, Japan or South Africa, softball is not a traditional school P.E. sport here in the UK, cue many newbie, or “rookie”, British players hitting the pitch for the first time in their twenties and thirties.

"It's easy to pick up as a new player, plenty of development level opportunities, and slightly lower emphasis on athleticism compared to some other sports also help, says John Boyd, CEO of BaseballSoftballUK (BSUK), the sport’s development agency.

This, along with a healthy reputation for the social aspect of the game, are often cited as reasons women get involved, according to Kat Macann, Director of the Greater London Softball Mixed League (GLSML) and player of eight years.

Perhaps because of its commitment to gender equality, softball in the UK has a reputation of a “significant inclusive spirit”, and a recent equalities monitoring study from BSUK reports that the sport delivers where it comes to the numbers: 49.2% of players self define as female and 12.8% as LGBT. The strictly enforced rules - such as a 50/50 male/female line up - promote a "level playing field, meaning that teams welcome female players with open arms, and there are plenty of opportunities to play at all levels from recreational to competitive", says Macann.

Additionally, openly LGB women hold some of the top leadership positions in the sport, including the President of the British Softball Federation (BSF) and Director of the Greater London Softball Mixed League.

According to Jenny Fromer, BSF President, and player for twenty-five years, the success of softball to be inclusive is to do with the fact softball already is a “less traditional sport” and therefore attracts players who are not necessarily interested in “traditional sporting values”. There is not a significant culture of homophobia that may be experienced in other sports. A national review by the National LGBT Partnership exploring LGBT people’s experience of sport revealed that levels of experienced homophobia are high - at 62% and that half of the LGBT population feel alienated from and unable to be out in mainstream sports clubs. The findings from the BSUK equalities monitoring study evidence that softball bucks this trend.

Slowpitch softball is also home to one of the largest LGBTQI sports clubs in the UK. The London Raiders, who, says Co-Manager Wendy, a player of five years, have five active teams and around 100 members, provide a “safe space” for players to enjoy the sport and “be themselves” to create a “unique and priceless opportunity to bring members of our community together to be active and social”.

All this regardless of age, in Raiders there are players aged between 18 and 50+, playing experience, class, profession, location or gender. It’s off the pitch that London Raiders makes a difference too, often one of the largest walking groups at Pride in London and taking over LGBTQI venues around London for legendary parties. And softball goes beyond London of course, with leagues, tournaments and games all over the UK and even globally. The London Raiders have taken medal winning teams to the Gay Games and Outgames all over the world in the last 20 years.

And the reception of London Raiders by the softball community, with a reputation as the “fun” team that can compete too has inspired other LGBTQI initiatives. The annual Manchester LGBT tournament, developed by Luis Arrevillagas of BSUK, with support from Pride in Sport, shows that the sport welcomes the positive spirit of diversity.

It sounds so wonderful, what could be made even better within the sport?

A dedicated lay panel comprising LGBTQI players and allies, hosted by BSUK, has been set up to ensure that softball has a positive impact for LGBTQI players and is a safe and welcoming space for all. The panel is currently exploring a more inclusive version of softball to support an adaptation of rules and language that are trans and non-binary inclusive.

“Let the girls play”

If you fancy a different way to spend your summer evenings, slow pitch softball is a very accessible game to join.

There are multiple ways to get involved in the UK - via local leagues, corporate teams or university clubs. The simplest way to find what’s right for you is to use the British Softball Federation website, which lists opportunities and leagues around the country, and some guidance for those new to softball. There is also a team finder tool here.

Players based in London wanting to join an LGBTQI+ team, London Raiders is open to new members all year around (although training and team selection takes place in the spring) - get in touch here.

If you are interested or want to get involved in the work of the LGBTQI+ panel for inclusion in softball, more information is available through the national sport development agency BaseballSoftballUK here.

tagged under: softball, lgbt+

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