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Friday, June 25, 2010
Softball: Homophobia and hypocrisy

By LZ Granderson
ESPN.com

So apparently, there's a mega-church in Memphis that recently kicked a team out of its softball league because the coach, Jana Jacobson, is gay.

According to reports, officials at Bellevue Baptist Church called Jacobson into a meeting and asked about her sexual orientation. In a Memphis Commercial-Appeal story about the meeting, Jacobson is quoted as saying, "I said that I am going to be clear. I am gay, and I find all of this to be absurd and against the word of God as I know it."

Bellevue officials are not returning calls about the matter. But the church's pastor, Steve Gaines, took the opportunity to talk about Bellevue's stance from the pulpit, saying "not everyone qualifies" to lead.

This is the same pastor who, along with other church staff members, knew for months that one of the church's ministers had allegedly sexually molested a child but opted not tell authorities or fire him until it became public in 2007.

Yep, leadership at its finest.

Anyway, I'm sure this whole experience has been upsetting for Jacobson and her team, and the cries of homophobia surrounding the situation in the conservative South are certainly justified. But red states don't own a patent on intolerance, a certainty currently being illustrated in the so-called progressive Northwest where rare -- but nonetheless accurate -- cries of heterophobia can be heard with regard to a similar incident.

I said that I am going to be clear. I am gay, and I find all of this to be absurd and against the word of God as I know it.

-- Softball coach Jana Jacobson

Allow me to explain.

Two years ago, a softball team named D2 from San Francisco beat the Atlanta Mudcats in the Gay Softball World Series, held in Seattle that year. Now, a little background: There are more than 10,000 members of the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance (NAGAAA), the organization that oversees the Gay World Series, and 37 leagues from the U.S. and Canada participate in this annual competition. The skill level of the players ranges from weekend warriors to former college and professional baseball players. And contrary to the name of the event, not everyone who plays is gay.

D2 eventually finished second in the tournament's top division, but was disqualified for -- get this -- having too many nongay players on the team. Oddly enough, the rules for the tournament state that a team can have only two players who are not gay. Five of D2's players were brought into a meeting shortly after their team defeated the Mudcats and asked questions about their sexual activity. Three of them were deemed to be not gay enough, and the team was disqualified and suspended for a year.

So Jacobson was kicked out of a softball league for being gay, and the three men were kicked out of a softball tournament for not being gay. Late this spring, with the help of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the D2 players filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Seattle accusing the governing body of the Gay Softball World Series of violating Washington state laws barring discrimination.

They are asking $75,000 each for emotional distress.

"Our hope is to have this worked out before we go to trial," says Melanie Rowen, the lawyer representing the three men. "The interrogation they went through was bad enough, but to be discriminated against because of your sexual orientation by gay people, well …"

She was at a loss for words to finish the sentence. But I've got one: hypocrites.

The nation is going through historic debates about marriage equality and the possibility of overturning the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy right now, and here is a 33-year-old nonprofit organization operating with a quota on the number of nongay people who can play softball in its leagues. How the NAGAAA made it this long without someone calling it out is beyond me.

The interrogation they went through was bad enough; but to be discriminated against because of your sexual orientation by gay people,
well …

-- Attorney Melanie Rowen

I've tried to contact the NAGAAA for comment, but no one there has responded. The organization is taking the lawsuit seriously, though. It hired Davis Wright Tremaine, one of the country's top law firms at defending against discrimination claims. I've yet to hear back from the firm; however, the client list for its lead lawyer on the case, Michael Reiss, includes Nike, Boeing, Home Depot and Bank of America, so he's no lightweight.

The NAGAAA did release a statement saying the group was "founded as a private organization with the mission of fostering a safe place for Gay/Lesbian softball players to play and compete in softball … It is not unlike other groups whom choose to organize around a commonality such as the African American Softball Assoc., or the Native American Indian Softball Assoc."

The hell it is.

I've been a part of a lot of professional organizations that are geared toward supporting the African-American community, but I have yet to come across a rule in any of them stating that only two white people per table are allowed at an event. Anyone who believes in the mission of these groups is welcome to join and serve. Obviously, if people board a plane and fly to Seattle to play in the Gay Softball World Series, they support the mission of the NAGAAA. Who they sleep with, are married to or "identify as" doesn't matter. And any NAGAAA member who believes straight players are brought into the softball tournament as ringers is probably playing in a division above his or her skill level, because no confident athlete believes sexual orientation defines athletic ability.

June is Gay Pride Month; but as far as I'm concerned, the NAGAAA has nothing to be proud of in this instance. The fact that this situation has reached the point at which a lawsuit is filed is astounding. On its website, the NAGAAA states that it was created to promote amateur sports competition "for all persons regardless of age, sexual orientation …" But then it turns around and inquires about the sexual orientation of its participants very much in the same manner that Jacobson was singled out in Memphis earlier this month.

Anyone who has a problem with what happened to her should have a problem with what happened to the three men, too.

The Atlanta Mudcats didn't lose their game against D2 back in 2008 because of the number of straight players involved. They lost because of the number of great players involved. If anyone should have been suspended for a year, it should have been the bigots who invoked a rule that should have never been instituted in the first place.

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at lzgranderson@yahoo.com.

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