They can call tonight’s game what they want: LGBT History Night, Stonewall Commemoration Night, etc. Tonight’s game, though, is being held to celebrate queer people—a term I’ll use in this post to mean anyone who identifies under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella—and I can’t help but feel conflicted about the whole thing.
I’ve been kicking this post around in my head for the better part of a year, ever since the Yankees announced their version of a Pride Night last August. They are the last team in baseball to incorporate a queer-friendly night into their calendar, but they’re my favorite team and at least they’re doing SOMETHING, right?
The biggest fantasy I was ever sold as a young, queer man was that coming out would be this singular, momentous occasion. You’d take a deep breath, release your truth into the world, and that was it. You were out.
In reality, coming out is a thousand smaller, often independent, events scattered through your lifetime. When you start a new job or start a new school—the way that I will in a couple of months—you have to evaluate how and when you’ll come out, or even if it’s safe to at all. Will simply saying “I dated a guy who worked there” in reference to a local restaurant suffice?
When you go to a ballgame, you come out again. Do you bring a date? Do you hold their hand? How do you present your appearance, voice, body language? All of these are serious questions queer people have to ask themselves. In the most serious of cases, the answers can shield you from or expose you to ridicule, harassment, and violence the type that cishet, a heterosexual person who identifies with their assigned gender at birth, people just don’t ever have to deal with. In all environments, the queer people you know, and especially the ones you don’t, are coming out again and again and again, or deciding it’s safer not to.
One of the reasons why I’ve always loved sports, playing or watching them, is that for the three hours when the ball is in play, my gender identity or sexual orientation doesn’t matter. You’re one of several thousand people hoping the ball carries over the fence, or you’re the goalie at the end of the ice tasked with holding a late lead. There’s a certain anonymity granted during the height of action in sports, but even that anonymity is a fantasy.
Sports have not historically been the friendliest of happenings for those of unusual identities. Whether it’s with respect to historical segregation around racial lines, or the fact that women still struggle with breaking into the coaching staffs, front offices, and team reporting beats, sports—and especially baseball—have not been for everyone. And I speak from a relative position of privilege. I’m a cis, white man, who happens to be queer. I even present as mostly masculine. While I admire and am fiercely supportive of the queer men who wear makeup or more traditionally feminine clothing, my hands just aren’t steady enough for a good blend.
Whatever questions I have about the thousandth coming out I’ll go through when I go to a ballgame, the tensions and the consequences of the answers are ratcheted higher for trans and non-binary folks, queer people of color, or anyone else who presents in a less conventional manner than I do.
On the one hand, tonight represents something that queer people from a generation ago wouldn’t have thought possible. On the other, it’s likely a corporate, whitewashed attempt to escape criticism for the fact that one of the most prominent symbols of New York City, one of the most diverse and queer-friendly cities in the world, has dodged the celebration of queer people so far.
One of the central conflicts at the heart of Pride is just how corporate we allow it to be. Go to a Pride Parade and you’re more likely to see a bank or retail giant’s float than a student activist group or queer-friendly house of worship. The slow and difficult acceptance of queer people in normal life has been a boon to a lot of queer people—it’s made our lives safer, more prosperous, and opened doors of opportunity that never existed before.
But like so much other progress, the benefits have not been spread equally. Certain queer people benefit far more from the rapid normalization of queer existence, and others find themselves murdered at rates quadruple the national average, attempting suicide at rates eight times the national average, earning less, at greater risk of preventable and treatable disease, and facing poorer health outcomes overall.
Allyship has come a long way. Just thirty years ago, still within the lifetimes of many readers, the AIDS crisis saw thousands upon thousands of queer men and trans women die, while in many cases their best allies were lesbian women. A lot of people approaching retirement today could tell you where they were when man landed on the moon, but couldn’t tell you what they did to help a generation of queer people at their most vulnerable. Now, Target and the New York Yankees dedicate their valuable exposure to queer initiatives, some of the time.
The best way to be a corporate ally is the same way allies of greater privilege should all behave: use their privilege, influence and might to center the voices of those who don’t enjoy any of it. That’s why I’m obligated, as a relatively privileged queer man, to remind you that no matter what they call the Stonewall Riot tonight, it was a riot. Dr. King once said that a riot is “the language of the unheard,” and that’s what it was at Stonewall a half-century ago. A spontaneous, yet foreseen, emotional, yet direct, response to generations of institutional harassment.
And it was started by trans women of color.
Bricks were thrown and a fire was set, it was the kind of insurrection that forced the complacent to face the realities of systemic oppression. Stonewall wasn’t a happy rainbow flag stuck on a coffee cup, and it wasn’t something that the average, cishet citizen was on board with.
Systemic change is only possible through making the prevailing powers uncomfortable. Any attempt to reduce Stonewall to something other than that is an insult to the legions of queer people, disproportionately queer people of color or non-traditional gender identities, that have suffered and continue to suffer under structural oppression.
Now, I don’t expect the Yankees to be quite that nuanced in their discussion of queer history tonight. You can’t usually count on the beneficiaries of structural oppression to call it out in public, especially when decorum holds that they don’t need to. I don’t know what to expect from them tonight, but I know what I want, and what I think is reasonable.
I want the Yankees to direct their sizable influence where it should be; I want them to highlight and center the voices of historical and modern marginalized queer people. They’ll award scholarships to local students tonight, and they better do their best to ensure that the honorees reflect all elements of the queer spectrum.
More than anything, I want the Yankees to understand the thousands of comings out that queer people go through every single day, and the questions they have to ask themselves before coming to Yankee Stadium. I want cishet fans to be cognizant of that too; there are days where coming out again and again leaves me exhausted, and I’m a beneficiary of a lot of privilege when I do come out.
These kind of nights should be an opportunity to reflect on how historically baseball has segregated itself along various lines. Color segregation is one way, and deserves to be remembered with regularity, but I worry that baseball does a great job commemorating the breaking of the color barrier while brushing over how much gate-keeping still exists within the game.
Not only are gate-keeping and exclusionary practices disrespectful to a sizable chunk of the population, they hurt the growth of the game and how it’s perceived in an increasingly dynamic and diverse entertainment market. Why should I give my time, energy, attention or money to an organization that doesn’t consider me and my community important enough to recognize and include just one night out of 81? There are too many other entertainment options. And as the Yankees are the last team in baseball without a dedicated Pride Night, there are 29 other organizations within MLB itself that have made that kind of inclusion a priority.
I want the game to understand the difference between tolerance and inclusion. Tolerance is inviting the wallflower to your party; inclusion is picking them for your flip cup team. The Yankees have trumpeted tolerance in their policy towards fans, but until tonight, they have failed to be inclusive towards a portion of them.
As for the players themselves, I want them to embrace this fully. I can’t say I wasn’t a little disappointed in the game on June 6, Toronto’s Pride Night, where the greatest city in the world to be queer put on a tremendous presentation to celebrate LGBT people. The players responded by not outwardly supporting the event once the game started. There were no jersey patches or rainbow socks, but turning on a game over the Father’s Day weekend, every single player in baseball was issued special, commemorative uniforms.
I’m not asking that we get rid of Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, Jackie Robinson Day, or any of the other nights where players wear specialized uniforms. I’m merely pointing out the discrepancy between asking players to wholesale recognize one community and not the other. We watch baseball for the players; I don’t particularly care if the Yankees’ Associate Vice President of Fan Engagement has a Pride pin on.
I know that it’s unrealistic to expect every player to be like Sean Doolittle. Still, athletes are expected to embrace a lot of different nights, and for the most part they acquiesce to the expectations of the team and fanbase. But if a team like Toronto doesn’t ask this kind of thing of their players, it gives a club like the Yankees the precedent to do the same. When you combine that precedent with the fact that the team has already dragged their feet for years on a Pride Night, I’m extremely skeptical that we’ll see much if anything in the way of player recognition.
I’ve already been let down in some ways by the Yankees. They refused to call tonight’s game a Pride Night, and they have been extremely vague about whether the event will continue going forward. A team spokesman, on background, cited how non-Irish fans would feel about an Irish Pride night as a reason against the Yankees embracing a Pride game fully. To this I remind the New York Yankees that there is no state in the union where you can be fired for being Irish. There are currently 39 states that carry some kind of legislation making it legal to be fired for being queer. These are the kinds of issues that make Pride relevant, and discounting them is nothing less than condescending and arrogant.
Tonight marks an historic occasion in New York sports. I don’t want to take away from the legitimate excitement that fellow queer Yankee fans and their allies feel about their team including our community expressly for the first time. I just hope that the Yankees understand the historical significance of what they’re doing. Nobody honors baseball history like the Yankees do, and their nights honoring the military, public service, and Hope Week are second to none. I hope that they take that same approach tonight, rather than the performative corporate Pride events we’re so used to seeing.