SAN FRANCISCO — The sports world has never been the most inclusive of the LGBTQ+ community, but that world is slowly beginning to change.
For the everyday athlete, who just wants to be in the game, embracing the game as an adult can be uncomfortable, especially if you identify as an LGBTQ+ person. But the game is what the Varsity Gay League is all about, creating joy and camaraderie in sports with the LGBTQ+ community.
Thao Le is a Varsity Gay League athlete. Her teammates call her “Mama Tao”, but don’t think this mom can’t throw her shot.
“You can ask anybody on my team because once you’re on that pitch they don’t even know where that person is from and I become this Godzilla type person and I yell a lot,” a- she explained.
An intense player on the pitch and a mama bear on the sidelines, Le can be whoever she wants to be here.
“It’s a sense of security, people back home, it’s your own community,” Le said. “This particular VGL community that I belong to is like the biggest family I’ve ever had.”
Like many adults moving to a new city, finding a community is necessary but not always easy. That’s how Le came across the San Francisco chapter of the Varsity Gay League dodgeball team in 2017.
“The last time I played it was in elementary school, like in 8th grade. I was like, ‘God, I hope I remember what to do'” , recalls Le.
But Le quickly found his footing and his place in the team, a team that gives him more than just a good sweat.
“They created such confidence, they gave me such confidence to be who I am,” Le said. “Giving and receiving love, counseling each other. It’s a camaraderie, this group I belong to, they give me that, something that I haven’t felt.”
On the court with Le is teammate Joel Garcia.
“I think it’s important to have activities that aren’t in an office space, that allow us to be playful and really get back to our childhood selves,” Garcia said.
Varsity Gay League has been a staple in Garcia’s life for the past decade. He played on the Los Angeles tennis team before moving to San Francisco, where he joined the Bay Area league.
“It’s been a long time since I felt isolated or adversified for being part of the LGBTQ community,” Garcia said. “And it’s nice to reap the benefits of all the hard work in the community that’s come before us to really lay the groundwork for being more free and more accepted and having in open communities where people can play sports , can engage in common interests and really have a good time with each other.”
The Monday night dodge ball manager for the Varsity Gay League is Ryann Madden.
“If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a bullet,” Madden laughed, referencing the Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn comedy. Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story.
Madden wants his players to have fun but above all to be true to who they are. It’s something he couldn’t always do on his own.
“I remember as a young man it was hard to be fully authentic in certain communities,” Madden explained. “Even though I loved the sport, I just didn’t feel like I clicked with different members and different athletes.”
Over the past 15 years, the Varsity Gay League has created 23 such safe spaces in cities across the country. Over 7,000 LGBTQ+ athletes have come together to find joy in sport and to elevate the individuality of everyone they bring to the game.
“The reason we have these spaces for someone to show up and be 100% who they are is because everyone has the right to be who they are as an individual in any way they identifies in his life,” Madden said.
Amidst the chaos on the pitch, between amazing plays or silly moves, it’s a space where everything is celebrated, no matter who a person is and what someone dodges in life.
“There’s a place where you can have fun and laugh and not take yourself too seriously,” Garcis said.
On this dodgeball field, it’s a place to spend an hour to embrace joy and let people like “Mama Thao” feel like a safe child again.
“Why not? I love it,” Le said.
San Francisco’s Varsity Gay League features dodgeball, soccer, and kickball. More information is available on the Varsity Gay League website.