Some of my earliest memories are of sports. In particular, team sports. And in that regard, as a boy I was typical. By the age of five I was playing pee-wee league baseball. At seven I started Pop Warner. Around nine or ten there was a failed experiment with basketball. As it turns out, the skill set one acquires playing football doesn’t necessarily translate to the basketball court. So, the basketball thing didn’t exactly pan out. But, the point is I got the chance to play.
In high school I became friends with a kid that lived on the other side of town. One day we were at his house. His parents suggested we matriculate out of their hair and to the City pool. We did, and there beside the pool, in a fenced area, was my first encounter with what was to become my favorite competitive sport to play.
I started with the basics. I started with “pepper,” and worked until I could keep the ball going for a while. Mostly, I learned by losing to more experienced players. Eventually, my skills were such that I could win a few games, here and there, on the challenge court. For three consecutive summers I went to the park nearly every single day and played until the lifeguards shut out the lights, and told us to leave.
As all good things eventually must, summer ended. And with it our trips to the pool also came to an end. But, I was hooked. So, I decided I would try my hand at indoor volleyball. I learned the nuances between the two games as quickly as I could: the five step approach, quick sets, 4’s and 5’s, 32’s, guns, quick sets (I never had that club in my bag, but to quote the inimitable Prince Akeem, “I have seen it done.”), back-sets, jump serves, sprawls, the ten foot line, and every other thing I could pick up. We played in churches, random gyms, civic centers, Club Texas and everywhere in between. And by the end of my junior year of high school I think it fair to say I had become a pretty solid player. I loved the game, and I worked hard at it.
Now, volleyball is generally not considered among the “mainstream” sports. Despite the moderate success of the AVP, the sport simply hasn’t been able to break through. So, for the most part, once you’re out of Club and/or high school/college ball the only volleyball you see is at the beach or your family picnic.
And then there is this: I don’t know why, but it seems largely that indoor volleyball is a gay sport.
Not gay as in lighthearted and carefree.
Gay as in gay.
I’ll confess, my opinion is less informed than a non-scientific straw poll. Still, that’s been my observation. And there’s nothing wrong with it. It just seems more gay people play indoor volleyball these days than straight people.
To be honest, I could not give less of a shit. At its core, the game is the game. All I need are five teammates, six competitors, an inflated ball, a net, a good set, and enough air space between the blockers and the antennae to pound the line.
Well, over the course of next few days, phrases such as “pound the line,” and a host of others that had always seemed so completely innocuous would take on entirely new meaning.
The Y was among the gyms where I was able to find pick-up games. One day a guy I knew from there asked if I wanted to play in a league-sponsored tournament. They had filled just about every spot. But, they needed an “opposite.” He invited me to join their team.
“Sure,” I said. “When?”
“This weekend,” he said.
I made it to the gym on time wearing freshly laundered gym shorts and a can-do attitude. I parked and surveyed the site. From the outside it was just a normal gym. Boxy and prefabricated. Familiar cars in the parking lot. Nothing out of the ordinary.
I walked inside.
A banner floated above the sign-in tables: DIVA Welcomes you to the 2004 Fall Tournament.
Quickly, I found the guy who’d invited me and asked, “What does DIVA stand for?”
“Dallas Independent Volleyball Association.” he said.
I looked around and suddenly felt naked. I had felt the same way once before while traveling in Europe. I’m white. Most of the Europeans I saw were white, too. But, I wasn’t one of them. They were dressed different. There was something about the way they carried themselves that was different. They knew it. I knew it. My Americanism felt like a scarlet letter. I wasn’t embarrassed being a stranger in a strange land. Rather, I’m simply a person who values his anonymity. I’m a person who wants to be talked about, but not noticed.
Inside that gym, suddenly I felt the same feelings I had felt when I had been in Europe. I wasn’t one of them. I was an outsider. Some of the furtive glances were wondering. Some were wandering. Some were judgmental. Some, territorial. There was an almost immediate and instinctual recognition that this was, and would be, different.
“Wait…” I began. “What kind of league is this?”
“Oh,” he said. “It’s a gay volleyball league.”
“Gay, as in all gay?”
I was the only straight person in the gym. Until that moment, it hadn’t even occurred to me that the guy I was talking to was gay.
I went and stood in front of the sign-in table. The guy behind the desk winked and asked for my team name. I didn’t know. I turned and asked the only person I knew. He pointed to our name.
“Houston Backdoor Hitters,” he said.
I mouthed the words silently.
I turned back to the table and scanned the other team names. There were the “Pudding Pops,” and the “Hostess Ho Ho’s,” and who can forget the “Sweet Tarts.” They were not to be outdone by the team that promised to let “That Aces Show,” nor those who travelled all the way from the “Dallas Deep Throat,” or “Up The Chute,” or “All The Way Down.”
There were others. Mostly, I have tried to forget.
Largely, I have been unsuccessful.
Like an old penny, some memories just tend to stick with you. That day is one of them for me.I signed in and went away to find my team.
Now, I am no Adonis. But, the looks of lust I received that day could only be rivaled by the likes of Kate Upton. Admittedly, the looks might not have been lusty. Maybe that’s the face they make when they’re looking at a bug. Maybe I misinterpreted them. Maybe I’m projecting. But, if I’m right about that, I think I might also be right about this: I think many of them saw me as some kind of challenge.
Two hundred gay men.
I think the groupthink, if there was one, was something like two hundred gay men can’t be wrong, and their intention was to convert me or die trying. In saying that, I don’t intend to suggest any one of them wanted to hook up with me. Rather, it was the simple and mutual observation that I didn’t fit their culture. That much was obvious. And, there was a palpable groundswell of pride and comraderie in the gym that couldn’t be ignored. I got a sense that they were joined in defiance of the expectation that I would be hostile or disapproving. I got a sense that they were comfortable and normal and protective of the idea that they ought not have to hide anything about themselves while they were in that place. There, it seemed to me they felt free. Initially, I think I must have seemed like a threat to that.
Fortunately, that didn’t last long.
Soon, my teammates christened me “Straight Boy.” And before long it seemed every person on every team knew me by that name, and only that name. In fact, I cannot remember a single person ever asking my actual name.
Rituals of preparation were underway as the teams readied themselves for the first match. Some guys played pepper. Some practiced their serve. Some hit a ball against the wall to loosen their arm muscles. Then, a whistle blew. And a funny thing happened. Almost in unison, my teammates stopped what they had been doing and began to tight-roll their shorts. Up and up the rolls went, until more than mere secrets were laid bare.
A smiling teammate nodded in my direction.
Politely, I shook my head.
Two pale half-moons were not the only marks of distinction between me and my teammates. Their outfits were nicely coordinated; all of them wore knee-high white socks (except one who donned throw-back tube socks with dual-stripes). They wore broad sweat bands with matching and colorful arm bands. I didn’t have any bands and my low-cut ankle socks and covered ass tended to stand out.
Every single one of them, even while peppering, made an effeminate grunt when they hit the ball. I didn’t do that either. But, whatever their clothes or the noises they made, they played volleyball, just like me and everyone else I had ever played with.
It’s just, well…they were gay.
I learned a very important lesson that day about culture. When a single gay person is surrounded by straight people, he may act different than when he’s surrounded by one hundred and ninety-nine other gay people. Until then I hadn’t realized the possibility that gay people felt the need to repress anything beyond their sexual preference. That day, I realized their culture encompassed much more than simply their inclination.
And, if I’m being honest, it was a privilege and an absolute blast.
Being the only straight person in a gym with two hundred gay men made me feel like a fly on the wall inside a Justin Bieber concert. It was:
Loud. Lude. Lispy.
The 3 L’s of gay love (and Beliebers, I guess).
After one particular match, I remember sitting idly on the floor and reading a book. Two soft hands encircled my right bicep.
I looked up.
Behind a sheepish smile and with a lispy and coquettish voice, he said “I hope you don’t mind. It’s just that….you’re arms are so beautiful. I had to touch them.”
And then he walked away. Well…swished or sashayed away.
For the record. My arms are not beautiful. They’re arms. But, by the end of that day I, too, was convinced of their splendor.
I was whistled at when I jumped or even just walked by. I was complimented on my legs. My ass. My shoulders and back. And every other body part that was visible.
Fortunately, everyone I met was as respectful of my life choices as I was of theirs. The tournament ended with the “Houston Backdoor Hitters” in second place. Overall, I had a great time. After all, it was volleyball. And it was a tournament. And though I don’t swing that way, they were still nice people.
Really, really nice. Seriously. Nice.
I declined the invitation to attend the evening award ceremony. Attendees were to be dressed in drag. No exceptions. I apologized with the explanation that my dress must have somehow been lost at the cleaners.
I also declined the free shirt with “DIVA: Largest Gay and Lesbian Volleyball League in Texas,” displayed prominently on the back.
Like I said, I liked those people and I had fun playing in their tournament. But destiny proved I would never return to the court to play for the “Houston Backdoor Hitters.”
I guess I’m just a front door kind of guy.
Written by Richard Kaye.