SexIs (written as Cherry Trifle) - February 2011
Football is so Gay
Seth Greenleaf, 38, has been playing football his entire life. As a boy, he played in the Pee-Wee leagues. He played multiple sports in high school. He played two Division One sports in college. And now, he plays for the New York Gay Football League in the dual roles of captain and coach. He and his teams took home back-to-back championships over the past two seasons. He even plays for New York’s national gay team: the Warriors. He is a Gay Super Bowl veteran. Oh, one more thing: Seth Greenleaf is straight.
This, of course, is due in part to the league’s stringent “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
Calm down, people. I’m kidding.
Greenleaf, who actually is straight, came upon “gay football” by accident as he watched the Warriors practice in the park. “I’m a football freak, and I tortured them until they let me play,” he laughs. He was good, so they asked if he’d be comfortable playing in a gay league. “I work in musical theater,” Greenleaf says. “No one believes I’m straight, anyway, so, it was no problem for me.”
Greenleaf is a straight jock who wasn’t intimidated by homosexuality, but what about gay kids who are intimidated by jocks? All too often, say many league members, the beauty, family and life lessons that team sports embody are something they come of age having never experienced.
“In high school,” says Edmund Shockey, 45, “I concentrated on track and cross country despite being recruited to play football in 8th grade. My comfort level with other jocks was shaky. The individual sports were less distracting and safer as I wasn’t likely to get teased.”
Shockey hid in plain sight behind his performance. “In fact, my whole high school career was a camouflage in that earning the Colt Award (a scholarship based on leadership and athleticism) was a way to validate myself while warding off suspicion of being gay.”
The successful chiropractor has evolved into a league champion since joining in 2006—an MVP, in fact. He, too, plays at the national level, and make no mistake: It may be flag football, but this ain’t no disco. Injuries are common, even at the local stratum. There’s almost always a hospital run during the season. Torn ACLs are common, and punches occasionally are thrown.
Shockey, who sports the scar of a particularly bad gash over his left eye, has surprised a few patients by showing up for adjustments with a shiner. “It’s given me street cred,” he jokes. That said, most agree that a gay league makes for a kinder, gentler league in other ways.
“Gay men,” says Shockey, “are generally kinder than their straight counterparts. More sensitive. Many have been shunned from team sports in the past because they’re not conventionally tough. When focused, however, those hardened feelings of neglect and abuse can be transformed into a sort of personal vindication. I can do this. Straight guys don’t have a monopoly on toughness.”
Neither does the male gender as a whole. In fact, a woman has been the league’s commissioner—an elected post—for four years running. Molly Lenore, 46, runs her own technology design company, Moey Inc., participates in a myriad of other sports teams, and played an integral role in creating NYGFL’s relatively new Women’s Division (75 women, four teams; Lenore believes there will be six very soon).
That said, she plays with the men. She’s the only woman in the league who does.
Lenore is transgendered, and like Greenleaf, has been playing organized sports all her life. Football is her favorite. “I changed my sex,” she says, “but the bonds I have with the men haven’t changed. I love sports. It’s a big part of my life.” She, too, is a Super Bowl veteran.
Lenore, though thoughtful and soft-spoken, is a stalwart advocate of the game, the league and the positive things sports do for people. While proud of her national play, she stresses the value of the locals. “It’s really nice to see people in their thirties joining a team for the first time, making a touchdown for the first time,” she says. “It goes way beyond [finding one’s] inner-jock. It goes way beyond sports. Sports are low on the list. It’s about being human. Being able to express yourself. Being able to push yourself and do things and be part of something that you never were.”
(Shigeo) James Iwamiya, 36, is not a national-level player. He’s a comparative noob. Originally from Tokyo, Iwamiya moved to the states in 1994, and grew up in an altogether different atmosphere than his American teammates.
“American schools have things like dances and homecoming and hanging out at Taco Bell,” he says. “In Japan, it’s study, study and more study.” The sports programs are different, as well. More insular and far less celebrated. He readily admits his contact-sport comfort zone was near non-existent. “I almost went home before the tryouts even started,” he says. “I was really embarrassed. I didn’t know a thing about football.”
Iwamiya, Director of Residence Life at Rutgers University, had never played football. He only signed up to meet new people. “I’ve never been outgoing when it comes to being social or making friends in a bar setting,” he says, but he’d played on softball and volleyball teams and considered himself a decent player. “I figured I wouldn’t be a superstar, but I’d make new friends.”
At tryouts (a misnomer, really. Everyone who signs up is placed on a team; tryouts allow coaches and captains to assess players’ abilities and place them on teams accordingly), Iwamiya found the drills daunting. “I thought, What did I get myself into?!” But seeing the faces of some of his softball teammates made it a little less frightening. He stuck it out.
His first season, not much changed. “I may have felt worse about myself!” he says. “I wasn’t able to get my mind around everything and with the season being only eight games, before I knew it, the playoffs were starting … every game [my attitude was] I better not screw up.”
Third and Long
But alas, he did. And after an incident where the quarterback exiled him from the field, he was close to tears. He thought about not coming back, but pushed through it—and something magical happened. “My confidence grew tremendously and it transferred to my social life.” He describes the following season as life changing.
“I had an amazing team and quarterback (Greenleaf) who taught me how to do things and most importantly why a lot of things happened … week after week I gravitated toward playing my best … Seth began trusting me more and giving me bigger plays.”
Once that happened, he believes, the league began to see him as a significant part of the team. In the post-season, Iwamiya walked away from Awards Night with the title of Most Improved. “I credit my mentors and leaders in the NYGFL for giving me the opportunity to shine.”
Iwamiya calls the league a place where he belongs and can be himself, a place where people can grow and learn how to get more comfortable in their own skin. He calls it one of his proudest accomplishments. “It has certainly been a place for me to fall in love with sports and football …. It gives me an opportunity to help people who don’t feel comfortable playing sports find their way and to break down stereotypes by playing one of the most butch sports and showing that gay people can be masculine and competitive and physical.”
Although many are talented athletes, NYGFL’s membership is hardly made up of Chelsea models and personal trainers. They’re every shape and size, from former NFL players to those like Shigeo Iwamiya, who show up at tryouts to have their football cherries summarily popped. Some people join and learn the game and the beauty of teamwork. Others learn patience.
Edmund Shockey, generally a first-round pick with a leadership role in defense, is no exception. “I’ve had to learn to temper my instructions in order to motivate rather than insult the newbies.” He admits that can be a tricky balance, but he’s learned far more as a Captain than he ever did as a player. “Games aren’t won on talent alone … everyone has a key position that must be executed for a drive to be successful.” The real challenge, he says, is to find ways to have people play to their strengths.
Not surprisingly, NYGFL’s roughly 300 players are very strong when it comes to charity and organize various fundraisers to help a number of organizations, including God’s Love We Deliver, which provides and delivers meals to HIV-positive people unable to prepare their own, and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN; pronounced “glisten”), which strives to develop K-12 school climates in which every student can be valued and respected regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Most recently, they raised $7,000 for these organizations via a Bachelor/Bachelorette Auction.
Nicole Ryan, a 25-year-old facility rate analyst, was among the leaguers with a date on the block. She calls the experience one of the best of her rookie season, though she wanted to refuse when approached. “I knew I’d be nervous, but I heard that the last [auction] was a really great time and that all proceeds were going toward two charities, so I went for it!”
The event was held at a local bar, with a DJ spinning the participants’ chosen songs as they strutted their stuff on the catwalk. Ryan’s nerves—soothed by a quick drink beforehand—gave her no trouble. Each “lot” answered a question before the bidding started. Ryan was requested to reveal a sexy secret. She chose to play up a recent football-related hand injury.
“Don’t let the fractured finger fool you, Ladies,” she teased. “It’s never a problem when it matters!” She followed it up with some theatrical tear-away sports pants and the crowd—male and female—ate it up. One lucky bidder spent $400 for a date.
Molly Lenore is proud of the league’s community work and is hopeful they’ll accomplish more despite her full-time job and role in several other local leagues. “I’m learning how to involve more people, to delegate,” she jokes. “I don’t want to be a roadblock. A number of different leagues around the country have done ‘It Gets Better’ videos. We’d like to do something for that.”
Culture of Inclusion
Gridiron legend Joe Namath once called football “an honest game … a game about sharing.” Beautiful sentiment. And kinda “gay,” of course, but then he did have a profound fondness for fur coats and famously wore pantyhose. All jokes aside, to date only three NFL players in the sport’s history have ever come out publicly. And even then, only after they’d retired their jerseys. NYGFL is, in many ways, the anti-NFL.
That’s not to say they don’t have fun with it. Shockey cites grossing out straight allies with graphic descriptions of man-on-man sex as particularly amusing, and one year Greenleaf’s teammates roasted him during Awards Night with the “Top 10 Gayest Things” he’d said over the season (the list included phrases he’d used in football strategy, such as “running long and running deep” and “pounding the A-hole”). However at its core, says Lenore, the league was built around community and empowering the players. Simply put, the league has changed people’s lives.
“Something that’s become clear over the years,” says Lenore, “is that a lot of gay men never really played team sports before. Especially football.” She believes there are things people learn in the proverbial huddle they can’t learn elsewhere. “You have an incredible amount of support here,” she stresses. “It’s not about how good you are. All that matters is your team and how you play together.”
Go to the Videotape
Seth Greenleaf is among the changed. So much so, that’s he’s making a film about the league, Flag Football: The Movie. After a few attempts at a screenplay, he says, he realized no characters he’d invent could tell its story better than the players, so it became a documentary. He says this makes him feel more the project’s protector than its creator.
“I truly love this league,” he says. “It’s made me a more accepting, patient, compassionate man…. When I came in, I thought sports were about winning. The league taught me how much more important everything else was.” Even so, he thinks the fierce competition would be what surprises most people.
Having played in the straight football universe his entire life, it’s easy for him to note the differences. “In the sports I played growing up, there’s a lot of machismo, posturing and pecking orders…Most coaches are less interested in what makes someone tick than in beating them into line with everyone else. In some ways, it’s why straight men can work so well and so quickly together—but it’s also how they can work together for 10 years and know almost nothing about one another.”
For the Love of the Game
In the gay league, so many personalities can lead to strife and frustration—especially for leaders who need to keep it all together—but it also leads to very deep friendships. “You’re watching adults learning things like teamwork and trust that normally come through team sports when you’re young, but because many of these guys felt shunned, intimidated, even threatened by the sports culture, they didn’t have the opportunities that guys like me take for granted.”
To be around people experiencing this very primal, natural need for sports and team bonding, he says, is nothing less than extraordinary. “It’s like an adult re-education program disguised as a football league.” Greenleaf learned how to win growing up, but never how to enjoy it or live in the moment. NYGFL, he says, teaches both.
“[Gay men] can be every bit as tough, talented and masculine as any straight man, but they can also be loving, emotional and vulnerable in a way that straight men struggle with.” He hopes more straight allies sign on. “They could learn a ton from these guys.”
Shigeo Iwamiya is a poster boy for the movement. “This is someplace where I can belong and be myself,” he says, “I know at the end of the day it’s ‘just football,’ but to me it’s been so much more. It has changed me from shy and self-deprecating into a more outgoing, self-confident person.”
And so, with the spectacle of Super Bowl upon us—a television event whose audience is more than likely made up of 20 percent genuine fans and 80 percent beer-swilling commercial-watchers—it’s nice to know that genuine “love of game” still exists.
“The professionals get paid and are icons in our culture that border on freaks of nature,” says Shockey. “They presumably love the sport—or at least enjoy it—but grassroots is the act of creation. We form the league, elect leaders, spread the word, conduct the draft and design the plays.”
“Why a gay league?” so many people ask.
“Why not a gay league!” he fires back. And the idea has emerged from its chrysalis with wings.
“The vision for young gay people has widened to include football along with children, marriage and military service,” he says. “There’s something bigger afoot. Gay flag football is a good reflection of this cultural shift.”
The Gay Super Bowl
It has nothing to do with fashion, theater or home design, People. Can fairies get mean and dirty on the gridiron (in a manner entirely devoid of euphemism)? You bet your tight end they can.
The New York Warriors came up short in Phoenix this year, losing Gay Bowl X to the Los Angeles Motion by one gut-wrenching point. It was a crushing defeat for my newest local team (YOU’LL GET ’EM NEXT YEAR, WARRIORS!), but a profound victory for the National Gay Flag Football League (NGFFL) overall; a tenth season, a fast-growing roster of teams in cities across the nation—18 teams and counting.
The league assists new teams in their formation and encourages participation in locals all over North America. Upcoming events to watch for before Gay Bowl XI rolls into next year’s host city—Houston—include the Florida Sunshine Cup in Fort Lauderdale, the Desert Duel in Palm Springs and the Pride Bowl in Chicago. Visit NYGFFL.org for more information.
Photo courtesy of Dong Lee, All rights reserved Flag Football: The Movie