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Out, proud--and a big jock to boot

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Many hope gay sports leagues will be crucial in encouraging professional athletes to come out during their professional careers. (Courtesy of Jeff Kagan)

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Skill levels range for players in the New York City Gay Hockey Association. While some played at the college level, others are are learning to play for the first time. (Courtesy of NYC Gay Hockey Association)

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The FLAG Flag Football League in Boston holds league-wide dinners, karaoke nights, and family days to encourage socializing among the players. (Courtesy of John Vidrih/FLAG Flag Football League)

On a crisp Saturday afternoon, a group of men takes notes as rookie football players run receiving drills. The onlookers judge them on speed, strength and hand-eye coordination. One player runs 10 yards deep, makes a sharp cut to the inside and nabs a whistling spiral with ease, causing the crowd to clap. “Nice catch,” one observer says. “She’s still got it,” says another, referring to the rocket arm of the quarterback.

The opening practice of the New York Gay Football League is not much different from a practice in any other amateur football league. Sure, some of the guys greet each other with kisses instead of handshakes, and the quarterback is a transgender woman. But when it comes to the fundamentals, it’s still just football.

Leagues like this allow gay athletes to socialize while playing football, basketball, softball, hockey and other sports. Once most common in areas like San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles, these leagues are gaining ground in places like Chicago; Memphis, Tenn.; and Birmingham, Ala. And they’re not just popular with gay athletes. An increasing number of straight players are joining the leagues because they are well-organized, open to athletes at all skill levels and highly focused on the social aspect of sports.

“Anyone can play as long as they’re not jerks,” said Jeff Kagan. Kagan helped start both a gay basketball and hockey league in New York City and co-founded Out of Bounds, a nonprofit organization that supports gay athletics. He shied away from sports when he was younger, he said, because of his size and the entrenched macho mentality of many sports programs. Through gay sports leagues, Kagan has helped spread the message that anyone can participate.

Gay sports leagues have helped bridge the long-existing gap between gays and athletics, said Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of the gay sports Web site OutSports.com and a player in the New York Gay Football League.

“For a long time our culture has said these things should be separate: sports and gay people,” Zeigler said. “Sports have always been viewed as the most masculine arena in society, and gays have always been painted as the most feminine.”

It was a common view, even among gays.

“Ten years ago when I told gay friends I liked sports, they looked at me like I must be mistaken,” Zeigler said. “They thought you must like Broadway and be liberal and all those other stereotypes.”

That view is obviously changing. When the New York Gay Football League started in 2005, it had 70 players and six teams, Zeigler said. Already, it has expanded to 168 players on 14 teams with a waiting list nearing 100. In last year's annual Gay Softball World Series held in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., more than 2,000 athletes and 134 teams participated, according to Ellie Schafer, the San Francisco representative for the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance.

Middle America is where gay sports are really taking off, Schafer said. In Chicago, for instance, the Chicago Metropolitan Sports Association offers gay leagues in badminton, bowling, flag football, softball, soccer, tennis and volleyball. Chicago also recently held the 2006 Gay Games, also known as the Gay Olympics. The event drew 12,000 participants from across the world.

And part of the increased interest in gay sports leagues is coming from straight players.

Vinny Cericola is a straight player on the New York Lions gay hockey team, which is now almost 50 percent straight. He started playing after seeing a newspaper article about a team that went to the Gay Olympics.

“I thought, 'I’d love to skate in the Olympics,'” Cericola said. “It doesn’t matter if they’re gay or straight.”

Cericola, who joined the team in 2001, said he was still participating in the league because of the friends he had made.

“It’s just a great group of people,” Cericola said, describing his teammates as “really nice and open-minded.”

The camaraderie certainly helps come game time. The Lions have won two out of the last three league championships, victories Cericola attributed to the team’s closeness. Players go on camping and white-water rafting trips together, hold barbecues and celebrate each other’s birthdays.

“We’re like family,” Cericola said.

Marc Davino has met most of his friends through gay sports leagues in the Boston area. He has played in a gay softball league and gay basketball league for 13 years, and is in his eighth year in the FLAG (Friends Lesbians and Gays) Flag Football League, where he serves as the director of communications.

Davino says people join the football league because it’s well-organized, fun and a great way to meet people. The culmination of the season is the “Super Fabulous Bowl” in which two teams battle for the league title. Each team has to derive a name from the colors of their jerseys. Last year's winner was The Broke Black Mountains.

But while competition is a critical part of gay sports leagues, being part of a caring community is just as important.

“You can challenge yourself to do better,” Schafer said. “No one is going to make fun of you. No one’s going to care. Everybody’s just more supportive.”

E-mail: cjs2137@columbia.edu