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How to tell if a sports league will welcome your queerness

Some questions to ask before committing to the season

The queer community can have a complex relationship with athletics. Credit: Manuel-F-O/iStock/Thinkstock

The days are warmer, the evenings are longer and you might be thinking about playing some sports. Joining a league is a great way to get exercise, socialize and maybe even meet a potential partner, but with so many leagues out there, how do you choose the right one?

Finding a good fit can require looking at a lot of variables beyond just the sport being played. For starters, leagues will vary in intensity, from the strictly competitive to the more recreational that that place a greater emphasis on having fun with friends. There’s also the choice between co-ed and single-sex leagues.

“You want to choose a league that has similar values to yourself,” suggests Steev Letts, communications director for the Vancouver Gay Volleyball Association (VGVA). Letts adds that a good place to start is asking organizers about the events they host and the charities they support.

“Learning what causes the league supports is a great way to figure out if they’re in line with your own values,” Letts says.

“For VGVA, any event that we have always has a charitable component to it,” he continues. “Even something as simple as a 50/50 draw goes to a local food bank or, for our Christmas party, we raised money this year to bring a queer Syrian refugee over.”

VGVA is part of Greater Vancouver Allied Athletics (GVAA). Letts recommends reaching out to anyone involved with the GVAA — or a similar organization — before committing yourself to one league.

“A lot of our managing directors know and speak to each other,” Letts says. “They may very well know of someone out there able to point you in the right direction.”

Michael DiPietro, communications co-ordinator for the English Bay Swim Club (EBSC) — which is also part of the GVAA — recommends looking for keywords on league websites.

“They tend to be, ‘inclusive,’ friendly,’ ‘welcoming,’ the standard ‘LGBTQ’ and ‘allies.’” DiPietro says. “It can be difficult in non-major metropolitan areas to find teams or leagues that are geared specifically to the LGBTQ demographic. So if that is the case, it helps to seek out like-minded individuals and ask around. Be it on Facebook, at clubs, or in other social settings in your life.”

Some sports organizations like VGVA offer multiple divisions that cater to different skill levels, while other leagues offer a single mixed division.

“A single mixed skill division can be a little bit more intimidating for first timers,” Letts says. “But it’s actually great for socializing because everyone faces off against everyone at some point so you get a better introduction to the whole league.”

If you’re a competitive player trying to improve, a single mixed division might not be the challenge you’re looking for.

Accessibility to changing facilities can also play an important role and may require additional research. For genderqueer or non-binary folks, DiPietro suggests looking for policies specifically outlined on league websites.

Some leagues, like the EBSC, “expressly encourage trans and gender variant swimmers to join,” DiPietro says.

The Vancouver parks board, which runs the city’s parks and  facilities, including those used by the EBSC, established a Trans* and Gender Variant Inclusion Working Group in 2013 to help identify barriers people face in accessing parks and recreation services.

The working group recommended five key areas for review: signage and literature, public spaces (including washrooms and change rooms), staff training, policy and working with the community. The parks board approved the recommendations in 2014 and launched a trans-inclusive campaign the following year to begin implementing  the recommendations.

Whether or not you want to come out to your teammates is a matter of personal choice and comfort level.

“If you want to play in a league that’s not specifically gay or queer-centric, then go ahead and do so,” Letts says. “I personally do play in straight leagues as well, and I just give myself a little time to see other people’s language and the way they communicate and interact. That sort of determines whether or not it’s friendly or if I need to mention anything to alter their language or behaviour.”

Letts adds that he’s never had a serious or direct incident of homophobia outside of the occasional off-colour language in the changing room, but says it’s certainly something to watch out for.

You can talk to coaches, organizers or players, and some leagues let you start with a trial before committing yourself to a team. However, Letts warns that leagues typically fill up very quickly, so it’s a never too early to start asking your questions and scouting potential teams.