LGBTQ sports teams adjust to pandemic playing field

The Philadelphia Gryphons rugby team delivered meals to Penn Presbyterian Hospital in May.

In 1976, the year PGN began publishing, we reported on an all-gay baseball team formed by a group of Gay Activists Alliance members. The team had just had a record membership drive which resulted in twenty-four total players. Over forty years later, Philadelphia’s LGBTQ sports community now has numerous teams of various sports, from softball to swimming to rugby, and the largest leagues have many hundreds of players. Some teams participate locally, regionally, and in international events like the Gay Games.

This year, the COVID-19 challenges faced by sports organizations — most of whom require close physical contact for play — have forced leagues and teams to get creative in how they keep members active and engaged. We caught up with several of them to see how they’re faring.

“Keeping our members connected through the league has been a challenge this year, said Jennifer Brown, commissioner of the City of Brotherly Love Softball League (CBLSL). “But our members are quite social with each other even in our off-season, so we have seen a lot of interaction between players and teams on social media.”

The CBLSL, which grew out of the all-gay basebal team formed in 1976, has their season from April to July, with teams participating in other tournaments throughout the year. Like many groups, they have had to cancel their spring and summer season, but are exploring the possibility of a longer fall season.

The Philadelphia Gryphons Rugby Team, founded in 2003, usually play two seasons, one from February to May and another from September to November. Despite cancelling the spring season, communications secretary Jason Angelo said both management and players have been supportive.

“Everyone has been incredibly understanding and on the same wavelength,” Angelo said, “players, coaches, the board, and supporters. The last thing we want to do is put any of our players or supporters at risk. So while of course we’re disappointed with the loss of our spring 2020 season, we’re very much looking forward to getting back on the pitch in the near future.”

Off the pitch, the Gryphons have helped contribute to those battling the very pandemic that has shut down their season. In May, they partnered with Los Camaradas restaurant and donated dinner to the overnight shift at the Penn Presbyterian Emergency room. And though there are no games being played, there is still team news happening. Last Sunday the Gryphons appointed a new head coach, Phill Calhoun, who is a former player and assistant coach. 

“We’re incredibly proud to promote one of our own to the Head Coach position — even more so since we believe Phill is one of the only (if not the only) Black and Indigenous Persons of Color queer head coaches in the sport of rugby.”

Another group of local amateur athletes are those of Stonewall Sports Philadelphia. Active in Philly since 2014, Stonewall Sports offers six sports over the year: billiards, bowling, dodgeball, kickball, volleyball, and yoga. According to operations director Mike Morris, the organization was set to see their spring membership increase based on the size of their winter season. Fortunately, the organization has found ways to keep new and old members united despite being socially distant.

“We have worked to keep the Stonewall community engaged through virtual programming over the past few months,” commissioner Matt Forrest said. “We have continued to offer Stonewall Yoga every Saturday morning at our regular time by working with our instructors to live stream classes over our Facebook page. Additionally, two members of the Stonewall Board have worked together to host several trivia nights and a trivia league that regularly drew over 100 participants.” 

Communications Director Jodie Eichel said that the organization has also made strides to keep its membership updated on everything pandemic related.

“Through our website, emails and social media accounts, we were able to create direct communication strictly related to COVID-19,” Eichel said. “There our members were able to get live updates related to the status of the league and respected seasons. We were also able to provide other resources to our members to help get them through this challenging period.”

Some sports teams, like the Gryphons, have used their off-season time to help out organizations in need, including the 200-member Philadelphia Falcons soccer team.

“Every year we celebrate Pride with a huge three-day weekend celebration, but this year we decided to celebrate in a different way,” said president Yunio Martinez. “We did a fundraising campaign called Our Pride Celebration which kicked-off Sunday with a picnic in the park at 12th and Catherine. We made a new design and special Jerseys, with all the proceeds going to the Morris Home, which supports the transgender community.”

In the past few weeks, the LGBTQ community has stood in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Several cities including Philly, New York, and Los Angeles hosted queer marches in support of Black lives. Tabu Lounge and Sports Bar, in the heart of the Gayborhood, intended to donate a portion of re-opening sales to local sports teams. But, they decided to go one step further. 

“We agreed to donate a portion of cocktails to go, as we started to reopen, to all the sports leagues,” said Jeffrey Sotland, a co-owner of Tabu. “But, [the teams] decided it was best that those funds go to another organization to support the community, and we recommended the Center for Black Equity. In conjunction with the City of Brotherly Love Softball League, Stonewall Sports Philadelphia, Falcons Soccer, and the Greater Philadelphia Flag Football League, Tabu is making a donation to the Center for Black Equity and Philly Black Pride. We raised $3000 and we were matched by Tito’s vodka for a total of $6000.”

Earl Fowlkes, Jr. the president and CEO of the Center for Black Equity, was moved by the gesture.

“I cannot express my gratitude enough,” Fowlkes said, “for the donations received from our friends and neighbors in my hometown of Philadelphia to support the Center for Black Equity and Philadelphia Black Pride. Your willingness to stand with us during these difficult times means a great deal to my community,” 

Le Thomas of Philly Black Pride had similar sentiments. 

“I know that they have some amazing things planned with the donation. Thank you for your support in the wellness of Black and Brown non-profit organizations.”

Ultimately, despite hope to resume sports play in the fall, the reality is that many people will be apprehensive about such close contact with others.

“This summer is going to be interesting, said Greater Philadelphia Flag Football League commissioner Chris Scott, Jr. “We sent out a survey to our league members asking their opinion on whether or not they would even consider playing in the fall. The city offices aren’t open, so we still haven’t secured a permit for a field. There’s just so much uncertainty, but we are moving forward. We are preparing to have precautions in place to ensure the safety of our players is a priority. We are considering starting it in August this year but no final decisions have been made yet. The pandemic has impacted us most financially. We were courting larger organizations for donations and really putting effort into recruiting for our league.”

Next week, PGN will look at how arts organizations and other non-profits in Philly are faring.

This series is produced in partnership with Visit Philadelphia.