Meet the Sports Leagues Bringing LGBTQ People Together Around the US

· Updated on May 28, 2018

There is a moment of universality experienced by everyone in their early twenties where they suddenly look around and go: “How the hell do I make friends as an adult?”
The unifying institutions which were so prevalent in young adult life whether they be traditional school settings or local communities begin to shift. You move, your friends move, graduation, jobs, dating, break-ups, the list is endless, but all levy the same end result: waking up one morning and feeling like the last person alive.

That is especially true for folks in the LGBTQ community, many of whom don’t begin to find a queer community until their late teens and early twenties. Queer friendships are incredibly powerful and, honestly, essential for my overall wellbeing. So it can be doubly difficult for LGBTQ twenty-somethings to find a community with which to hunker down in anticipation of their quarter-life crisis.

One answer to the question of forging adult friendships has been the proliferation of adult recreational sports leagues. Sports, however, have not always been an incredibly accessible space for queer people, even those who are athletic.

They are frequently hetero-cis-male centric spaces that hold traditional masculinity as a pinnacle achievement. A sentiment that was shared by Martin Espinosa when he first arrived in Washington D.C. and started playing in an adult recreational kickball league.
As a gay man himself, Espinosa did not feel particularly welcome in the league so he decided he would carve out a space for himself and other members of the LGBTQ community, and so Stonewall Sports was created.

And it has quickly become one of the largest LGBTQ sports leagues in the world that also gives back to charity.

We sat down with Espinosa to talk about the creation of Stonewall Sports, the trials and triumphs of being the co-founder and President of an LGBTQ & Ally serving organization, and where he hopes they will be in the next few years.

INTO: When was the first season of Stonewall sports?

Martin Espinosa: So, September 2010 was the first kickball season at Stead Park in DC. We had about 120 players, six teams. Some of those teams are still there today. Fast forward to now, we’re over 10,000 participants, 14 cities, and more than nine different activities.

INTO: It seems like 120 people is a pretty large number for a first season?

ME: Yeah, it was definitely bigger than we thought. When we finally figured out a registration system and opened it, one of our original teams, Hot Mess Kickers, was an entire team of beauty stylists. They had like 20 people, gay, straight, but all were beauticians in DC.

INTO: So it seems like people were pretty excited when you got started. Did you experience any pushback?

ME:Not from inside the community. After season one, we doubled [participants] Eventually, we had a team of all lesbians, and we had a team of all deaf students from Gallaudet.

On the city side, we dealt with more pushback from the city, and when I say city, I mean neighbors. They’ve always had this quiet field that had not been utilized. Always dark, not a lot of traffic. They were like, “Woah, what is all this activity happening in the evening?” So we really had to adapt and show the neighbors we’re not just a bunch of gay players getting drunk on the weekend, we’re actually doing good for the community.

INTO: So, DC’s changed a lot over the last seven to 10 years, life for a lot of gay people has changed a lot, and not that things are perfect by any means, what else do you think Stonewall can do for the LGBTQ community moving forward?

ME: In July of this year, the board and all of Stonewall Sports leadership, we’ve all agreed that what’s next is education. Education, training, and awareness are big pieces of our next five years.

Education on suicide awareness, education on safe sex, getting tested, you name it. Also diversity, what are the right terms when we talk about our trans community, our diverse black community.

INTO: So, looking at Stonewall DC now, it appears to be mostly cisgender gay men. Are there plans to reach out to other members of the community?

ME: So, [looking at the demographics] it used to be a great pie chart, but we’ve noticed over time it’s not so great. This year is really a wakeup call. It’s a big issue in all of our cities. This mission is not to be a club, not to be exclusive, and not to be the same people, same thing and it’s supposed to change, it’s supposed to be diverse.

Being very frank, I always tell people that start to get in a territorial position where they feel like they’re entitled to be a continuing participant, it’s like no. You had a great time, you made friendships, you networked, you learned some things along the way, but it’s like, maybe now it’s time for you to step out and do something else, and give an opportunity for someone else to come in who just moved to the area who is looking for an outlet.

INTO: Like if you just want to be with your friends, just go play with your friends.

ME: Philadelphia just did a remix [with kickball] where it’s all free agents, they saw, if they had 600 registrants before, they saw about a 100-person drop-off, but they saw a 200-new-person increase.

INTO: So, started in 2010, seven years, 15 seasons in DC. What has been the greatest challenge, and the greatest success?

ME: I think the challenge will always be, for newer generations, educating them on [LGBTQ] history. Getting people to remember why they’re a part of it.

Successes are, I think highlight moments are always going to be participants and captains stepping up saying, I love that it’s a non-profit, I love that there is a charity component.

What can I do? How can I help? When we see communities that have been able to do big volunteerism and write big checks I think about communities like Raleigh, where they’re writing a $25,000 check to their local charity.

INTO: Looking forward, you’ve done seven years. What’s the dream for the next seven?

ME: Well, the dream in the next seven is that I retire. But, by 2020, the hope is we celebrate our ten-year mark, and hopefully be in 20 cities by then.

INTO: So, 20 cities by 2020?

ME: 20 cities by 2020, but also a reimagination and new vision of what Stonewall is. We’re not a sports organization, we’re not about the game, it’s such a small piece of what we’re doing.

Eventually, it’s dropping the word ‘sports.’ We create experiences, we create a lifestyle for people, it’s more about the experience. We just had a group go camping, we had a group go hiking. Eventually, I want to see us travel the world.

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