Ever since community sports nonprofit Stonewall Sports founded a chapter in Indianapolis, LGBTQ+ members and allies have joined the organization — seeking and finding different things.
Annie Nelson joined Stonewall Sports to seek another community outside of work. She found friends who helped her with her identity as a bisexual woman.
Chase Westby joined to try something new. He has learned about diversity in the LGBTQ+ community.
Austin Crawford followed a friend to the kickball league. He found a competitive environment that makes him excited to return each season.
Ernest Hanohano wanted to make deeper connections. He found a place that makes him feel like a kid again.
More:Gay Bars in Indianapolis: 7 Spaces Made for the LGBTQ+ Community
Sidney Phillips needed a reason to get out of her house. Since joining, she has adjusted her work hours to attend the games.
“Even if I had to make up hours,” she said, “I still made sure I was there.”
‘It makes us stronger’
Stonewall Sports is a national organization that coordinates sports leagues for members and allies of the LGBTQ+ community with more than 20 locations around the U.S. Approximately 1,300 members and allies of the LGBTQ+ community have participated in the three leagues currently offered by the Indianapolis chapter of which was created in 2020.
Andrew Merkley, president of the board of directors for Stonewall Sports Indianapolis, said the organization provides an athletic medium for a community that doesn’t have many designated safe spaces outside of the bar scene.
“Our community needs healthy competitive opportunities where different parts of the community can come together without fear for their safety or fear of belonging,” Merkley said.
Each of the Stonewall sports leagues is divided into two divisions: competitive, for people who are more aggressive, and recreational, for those who mostly want to socialize. There are members of Stonewall Sports who have played sports for years and some who never played before joining – some who swing for the fences and some who occasionally run across second base.
Some members sign up with fully formed teams, while others join as free agents or with a few friends and are then placed on a team by Stonewall Sports. The best part about joining as a free agent is meeting new people on the team, Merkley said.
“It’s building our community, it’s making us stronger,” Merkley said. “It’s showing that a trans person, a gay person of color and a cis white man, we can all participate together on the same team or play competitively against each other.”
Teams are not required to be separated by gender. Nelson said she likes it because it keeps everyone on the same competitive level and includes transgender and non-binary people.
More: ‘Deleted From Conversation’: Transgender, Nonbinary Hoosiers Frustrated By Abortion Bill
Each division of each league competes at the end of the season in a championship tournament. Winners of each division can choose a philanthropic organization and Stonewall will make a donation to each. Last season in kickball, the winners were the Friends of Frederick Douglass Park and GenderNexus.
‘Not quite right’
About two years ago, Nelson, 34, became involved with Stonewall Sports.
She joined the organization to play a sport, kickball, and to find another community outside of work. Now, Nelson is involved in all three leagues offered by the organization – softball, volleyball and kickball – and has made friends who not only enjoy competing, but are like-minded and have helped her feel accepted in the LGBTQ+ community.
Nelson has been involved in sports, mostly softball, since the age of 7. While she found camaraderie with her childhood teammates, Nelson said being teammates with people who have similar issues has helped her struggle with her identity.
“To be a part of things like this where you can grow your circle of friends and actually be able to talk about things and find that identity,” she said, “is very different.”
While Nelson enjoys competing and letting off steam hitting the ball, her favorite thing about being involved with Stonewall Sports is hanging out on the courts, drinking booze and watching, talking and sometimes making fun of the players on and off. her. the team.
Most days these side conversations center around trivia and stories about fun nights out. But she also knows that she is free to talk about her problems as well. She is free to talk about how church leaders at her college would say it was okay to be gay, but not to act on it. She is free to discuss how she always knew she was “not quite right” in a hometown where she felt wrong for being anything else.
“In high school, you made me play”
Westby, 28, didn’t like sports growing up.
“In high school you had to make me play,” he said. “I just hated them.”
Stonewall Sports, he said, has changed his mind. He said he enjoys catching pop flies while playing kickball for his spring team, the Shady Pitches. He likes to eat snacks and drink White Claws, and sometimes Jell-O shots, brought by the team’s supporters. Most of all, he enjoys meeting people in the LGBTQ+ community, especially those who are different from him as a white cisgender gay man.
Westby grew up in a small town in Georgia, where he had to hide who he was.
“In high school and even in college, I just had to keep it to myself,” he said. “You didn’t want to behave a certain way.”
Because he kept his identity a secret for most of his life, he didn’t know much about gay culture until he came out to his aunt in 2017 at the Indy Pride Parade. Joining groups such as the Indianapolis Men’s Chorus and Stonewall Sports has introduced him to experiences such as drag performances and important topics such as stigma in the LGBTQ+ community.
Westby said that through Stonewall Sports he has met people who have taught him about the trans community and how experiences for people of different races and ethnicities have changed in the queer community.
“It gave me a better perspective on how diverse the community is,” he said.
“Makes me want to come back every season”
Crawford, 32, said he likes Stonewall Sports more every season he plays.
Crawford was already involved in the Gay and Lesbian Tennis Alliance, an LGBTQ+ sports group that organizes international tennis tournaments, when one of the other members asked if Crawford would join the Stonewall Sports kickball league.
Crawford thought kickball, a game he played as a kid, would be easy. He soon discovered that it is much more complicated when people actually want to earn. But Crawford said he doesn’t mind because he loves the competitive nature of the league.
Sometimes it can get a little aggressive. During one game, one of his teammates dislocated his shoulder while running to reach a base. But Crawford said it was a freak accident that happened during tournament play. While players will tumble and slide to win, the league is primarily based on fun, he said.
“It’s just a fun atmosphere to be around,” he said. “It makes me want to come back every season.”
Crawford said he also enjoys the opportunity to connect with people outside of the gay bar scene. He said it allows people who don’t like to jump into the grass to find community.
“It gives everybody something to do,” he said. “It highlights people who want to try something new and aren’t stuck in a nightlife scene.”
More:Central Indiana shows what it means to represent hometowns on Friday night
“A Judgment Free Zone”
Phillips, 31, said she started participating in Stonewall Sports because she wanted to be more active. She said she’s not super competitive, so it’s more about having fun on the field, which she found her first season participating in kickball.
“Even when we lost, oh, we still had fun,” Phillips said of her team. “We’d joke around on the pitch and everything.”
Phillips said she struggles with the urge to leave home, especially since she began working from home in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the people she found at Stonewall Sports keep her coming back every week. As she joined to receive training, she found an organization where she has gained many friendships, one that she considers to be lifelong and a space where she feels carefree.
“It’s like a no-judgment zone,” she said.
Allies are part of creating this safe space, she said. As a black woman who presents as masculine, it’s nice to know a group of people who will go to her side.
“I have a lot of obstacles,” Phillips said. “So it’s good to have an ally standing by when you need it.”
‘Feel as a child again’
Hanohano, 30, said that since joining Stonewall Sports in 2020, he has been able to facilitate connections, make friends with whom he can have deep conversations and grow as a leader.
Every season that Hanohano has played, he has created a new team. He is not usually a captain, but he takes a leadership role in the team, usually as a mediator and trainer for the newbies, teaching them how to bat and hit.
While Hanohano may join a team with his best friends from Stonewall Sports, he said he wants to continue expanding his community by finding players to bring into the league. Plus, he knows he’ll see his closest friends on nights out and weekend getaways like birthday trips to Atlanta.
Hanohano said he is thankful for Stonewall Sports because he has been able to find friends he might never have met because of their different backgrounds or professions.
“I’m friends with these doctors and lawyers and I’m just a car salesman,” he said. “And yet we can sit at the same table and talk about random things.”
Playing sports again and making friends has brought Hanohano back to his childhood, he said.
“The league,” he said, “definitely helped me feel like a kid again.”
For more information on Stonewall Sports and how to join a league, go to https://stonewallindianapolis.leagueapps.com/
Contact IndyStar reporter Madison Smalstig at [email protected].