Story and images by Matthew Gozzip
LONG BEACH, Calif. — “Right stuff,” “licorice,” “ball buster,” read the players’ jerseys as dirt and chalk waft across the baseball field at Marina Vista Park. But the athletes, covered in a warm sweat of competition, are unfazed by the dust.
A hulking man on the mound surveys the plate, searching for the perfect angle to pitch. Then, a powerful wind up, a graceful release, and at last —
Kickball may be most popular on elementary school playgrounds, but the Long Beach Varsity Gay Kickball League has evolved it from a small neighborhood competition among friends into a cultural phenomenon made up of more than 60 queer and hetero locals.
The players said it was much needed given the lack of healthier social outlets in gay Long Beach.
“A lot of gay people have to meet at bars and it is not ideal,” said Alex Mehlbrech-Savala, the founder of the Long Beach league. “Competitive sports, while mostly sober, is a much better way to meet people.”
The original Varsity Gay League began in West Hollywood in 2007 as a recreational alternative for members of the LGBT community to interact with each other through a variety of sports. The league now spans at least 10 major cities across the U.S.
Mehlbrech-Savala, a Long Beach resident and student at Cal State Long Beach, participated in the West Hollywood league but felt that his hometown had a large enough community to begin its own.
“It’s difficult to connect with younger and older members of the gay community and the league was meant to bring everyone together,” Mehlbrech-Savala said.
He began the Long Beach kickball competition last year with only four teams, working out the scheduling and organizational problems that come with establishing a new league. A year later, the tournament has expanded to six teams with more than 60 members.
“It was difficult at first to get people to play kickball,” Mehlbrech-Savala said. “This is a game that fifth graders usually play but slowly people are becoming interested in just the camaraderie.”
Allowing athletes of all sexualities to participate has bonded a community that at times felt disjointed. Carl Gene Phillips, a Long Beach resident and openly gay man, felt loosely connected to his LGBT neighbors until the league came around.
“Long Beach is super diverse, but most of my friends identified as heterosexual and cis-gender,” said Phillips, referring to a person who’s not transgender (or more descriptively, someone whose gender corresponds with the sex assigned at birth). “Kickball put me on a team with other people that I can identify with and now I have a large part of the gay community supporting me.”
Mike Lektorich, coach and player for the reigning team, Jessie’s Boy, never really played sports growing up. He was often seen as an outsider in the “aggressive, masculine” sports community. To this day, he finds there aren’t many avenues for gay youth to play sports.
“I think society tends to not understand that masculinity and sexuality have no correlation,” said Lektorich. “This Long Beach league lets us defy society’s stereotypes.”
Players regularly compete rain or shine, power-through injuries and have yet to cancel a game in their league’s two years. And despite winning or losing, the competition continues to nurture the goals of unity by emphasizing teamwork across different backgrounds.
“My boyfriend had a lot of cis-gender friends who joined last year and their mindsets changed,” Mehlbrech-Savala said. “The trophy doesn’t matter as much as the fun and learning.”
The league’s summer season starts June 5 but you can participate in a free scrimmage here.