The sports field can be an uncomfortable place for many LGBTQI+ people.
But an obscure game is taking off in Australia among the gay and lesbian community.
Founded in Sydney during the first year of the COVID pandemic, the Emerald City Kickball League is now one of the fastest-growing community sporting leagues.
“Even the word competition is maybe a bit triggering,” says ECK co-founder, James Edward Shields III, better known as JES on the kickball field.
The toxic masculinity and over-emphasis on physical abilities associated with other sporting leagues means many participants have previously avoided organised sports.
“Many of our rainbow community don’t feel safe in that space. And one thing they really just desire is connection and activity and sun and the ability to meet and greet with people they haven’t met.”
With a low barrier to entry, either skill-wise or financially speaking, kickball fits the brief.
At a tournament in December at Rushcutters Bay in Sydney’s east, more than 100 players are warming up, organisers carry clipboards and team photos are taken. It’s like any other community sporting event, but with more tutus and wigs.
“Kickball is a place where you can come as you are,” JES says. “Some people come here to just play the sport, others don’t give two anythings about sport.”
Players are encouraged to push their boundaries, but there’s no pressure.
“The big red ball is a safe space” for all body shapes and abilities, JES says.
Baseball meets dodgeball
While popular in the United States as a social sport, kickball is largely unfamiliar to Australians.
Think baseball without the bats and a much bigger ball. There are four bases arranged in a diamond and a pitcher who rolls the ball towards a kicker instead of a batter.
Co-founder David Parsons, who first played in San Diego in 2018 when he was visiting his partner who is American, explains there’s also elements of dodgeball.
“If someone catches a ball, and then throws it at the person and hits them, then that person is also out, so it adds an element of fun and creativity to it,” he says.
Each game lasts about 30 minutes and the team with the most home runs wins.
In this tournament, David Nguyen is leading the Leave Britney Maroon team.
Nguyen, who has played other sports, notices the absence of hyper-competitiveness and the much less focus on athletic ability.
“For me, it’s really a unique sporting experience. It’s an LGBTQIA+ controlled space and so it’s really tailored to the experience of queer people,” he says.
“We don’t just emphasise athletic achievement, we emphasise values such as inclusivity, supportiveness, and spirit as well.”
During the pandemic, it was often the only chance to meet other people in real life. Now the parties are back and bars and clubs have reopened, it’s continued to grow as an alternative way to socialise.
“Every Sunday, I turn up, and I know that there’ll be 100 people here having a great time. I think playing a sport with a team is a really authentic and natural way to get to know people,” Nguyen says.
Overseeing the action is referee Malcolm Jull. Whistle round his neck and Akubra hat for protection, he takes a “tough, but fair” approach.
When he joined he didn’t know what kickball was, but soon became interested in how it works and the rules.
“I like to keep on the rules but not perfectly to the rules. I think it should be about fun first, and the rules … there’s a bit of flexibility to make sure that it is fair,” he says.
Without playing and refereeing kickball, he says the pandemic would have been much harder.
“It’s just meant that you get to build on a community and build on friendships, and get to know people outside of a screen and I think that’s really, really powerful.”
When it launched in September 2020, the league had four teams with 60 people. It’s now grown into 14 teams and expanded into Perth this year.
Canberra is next and organisers have dreams of creating a Southern Pacific league.
JES says there’s a gap in the sporting market for truly inclusive sports.
“I’ve played many other high and intense sports, and something was always missing from that relationship with the sporting community,” he says.
During WorldPride 2023, when thousands are expected to flock to Sydney, there will be a kickball tournament held over two days.
Parsons says it won’t be your average tournament.
“We’re ready to really welcome the world to Australia to celebrate what we’ve done here.”
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