By Emell Derra Adolphus
From the sidelines, the Michigan Panthers flag football players appear to be an identical group, indistinguishable in their fluorescent orange jerseys. But out on the turf, in the thick of game, the athletes are anchored to the sport by a shared competitive spirit and love for their teammates, as each of them, for varying reasons, call the league “home.”
For Otiz Porter, 37, a psychology professor at Wayne County Community College, it’s also “being a part of something larger than yourself, where there are vast types of gay men represented. Gay, straight, transsexual – whatever box you like to put yourself in, it’s represented (in the Metro Detroit Flag Football League). And you are considered an athlete.”
The Michigan Panthers, created in 2006, is the traveling team of the Metro Detroit Flag Football League – a local LGBT-friendly group started last year to create a similar welcoming environment for local football fans. As the group’s spring season begins on March 29, the members reflect on the changing atmosphere for the LGBT community in sports, and encourage even the minimal sports fan to join their league and continue its growing movement.
“I was always an athlete, but I grew up believing athletes weren’t gay,” Porter says, explaining the shared attitude among several of his teammates before finding the league. “It’s creating a sense of validity.”
Porter, a middle linebacker and sometimes receiver – “no pun intended,” he says, acknowledging the obvious joke – rediscovered his competitive edge and found his fiance, Chad Fisher, while in the league.
Both the Michigan Panthers and the MDFFL fall under Team Michigan, an organization formed in 2006 to represent Michigan athletes at the 2006 Chicago Gay Games – one of the largest sporting events for LGBT athletes.
“We try to ascend to the level of the people that we idolize and there wasn’t (any gay athlete) for me to look up to as an example growing up,” Porter explains. “And that is very important in sports. I think that’s where the stereotype, that gay men don’t play sports, comes from.”
Considering the recent coming out of defensive end Michael Sam as the first publicly gay football player in the NFL, Porter thinks the NFL could only benefit more from diversity.
“I think the NFL will learn that diversity among your players is only going to make your league stronger, because the more representation you have of minority factions of the world, the more those individuals will want to be involved in that,” says Porter. “I think this is a great time in history for gay people. Now that people are publicly acknowledging their sexuality, the impact is going to be enormous.”
For quarterback Leeron Kopelman, 50, MDFFL is a welcomed alternative to the bar.
“We wanted to have a league locally,” says Kopelman, who plays in the league and for the traveling team. “For me, I am not much of a bar person, so being able to play with a group of gay people who also love sports is refreshing.”
As for just how “macho” the competition gets compared to the contact leagues, it’s all about form, Kopelman says.
“I would say more of the finesse of football comes out in our league because it is more about passing than power,” he explains. “The competition can be fierce on the field, but five minutes later everyone is hugging. People take it all in stride. ”
For 28-year-old linebacker Jay Lubow, a student in microbiology at the University of Michigan, the league allows him to meet a wide range of people he normally wouldn’t.
“It’s a really great way to meet people from different walks of life,” says Lubow. “Ann Arbor can be like a bubble. You usually only meet middle-class white people, so it’s good to meet other people from different classes and backgrounds doing different things with their lives.”
Lubow adds: “(It’s) different from the network (of) other gay events and social networks like the bar or theater – both of which I love, let’s not discount some favorites. But gay football is definitely a different environment and draws in a different crowd. The league is a place for people to bring whatever aspect of their personality they want on the field and display it with a new group of friends.”
The league is currently taking team or individual registrations for its spring season. Anyone who’s interested can visit www.mdffl.org or contact the league by emailing email@example.com. This season’s games will be played on Saturday mornings at Hillcrest Park in Livonia. Registration is $50.
Love on the battlefield
“I like to tell people I was struck by Cupid’s arrow … because I was struck by a sharp pain in my knee out of no where and needed ice,” says Otiz Porter, 37, about meeting his fiance, Chad Fisher, 45.
The pair met in October 2010 while competing in the Gay Bowl Tournament in Phoenix. With Porter of the Houston Hurricanes facing off against Fisher of the Michigan Panthers, their love story seems like a gay take on “Romeo and Juliet.”
“I was sitting down icing my knee with my back to (Chad), and then someone asked what happened,” Porter explains. “I turned around and Chad really turned it on. He had these beautiful blue eyes. In my mind I was like, he’s kind of hot.”
Fisher tells the story of how they met slightly more direct, explaining he could barely see Porter’s face, he just knew he was very tall. And although he was attracted to him, he had no issue showing his competitive side.
“He likes to make it sound like I was the one flirting, but it was pretty mutual,” Fisher remembers, explaining it was all business when it came to competing on the field. “The game was really competitive. Then we ran out of time and (Houston Hurricanes) ended up winning.”
He adds: “It was a close one. And that was my first Gay Bowl, so it was cool that that was the first one for both of us, and that is where we met our life partner. ”
The couple maintained a long-distance relationship while Fisher lived in Michigan and Porter lived in Texas, eventually planning to move in together. On the anniversary of where they first met, in the same location at another Gay Bowl in Phoenix, they both proposed to each other at the same time.
“We both felt very strongly about proposing where we met,” says Fisher.
When asked about a flag football-themed wedding, Fisher laughs, “We haven’t thought that far into the future!”