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by Jessica Carreras
For Leeron Kopelman, the best thing about being part of a gay sports organization is obvious: “Never before could I admit to my teammates that I wanted to sack the quarterback – and not have to let go.”
Kopelman is part of the Michigan Panthers flag football team – one of the many sporting groups in Michigan specifically run by and for the LGBT community. Some, like the various Front Runners running and walking groups around the state, are part of national organizations that began as early as the ’70s. Others, like Lezhike, a group for lesbian hikers, are just a group of friends who share a similar fitness passion.
Whatever the case, there is a Michigan-based LGBT group for just about every sport imaginable – from queer aquatics to lesbian bowlers.
Not surprisingly, the reasons for joining are just as diverse. For many, it’s about being part of a sporting team without having to hide their sexual orientation. “One of the great things with gay athletics is the openness and camaraderie,” explains Kopelman. “While the stereotypical gay sports story centers on the boy who was picked last or dreaded if the ball every came his way, most of the gay ‘jocks’ were closeted and often led double lives.
“These two worlds can converge, and we can have fun with it,” he says of gay sporting groups.
In other groups, the focus is on health, as is the case with Front Runners. “Most new members come to us with a pre-existing interest in fitness,” says Grand Rapids Front Runners secretary Tim Straayer, “though for some it’s a New Year’s resolution sort of thing; a first effort to get back in shape.”
Still, Straayer adds, many of the group’s 37 members and 20 associates come to make friends and meet new people.
“One of the things we hear most often from new members is that they wanted to meet new people in the LGBT community but that they were tired of or just not into the bar/club scene,” he elaborates. “They appreciate the opportunity and encouragement of likeminded people to get out and do something specifically healthy.”
Getting healthy, he clarifies, also includes finding support for a healthy and happy lifestyle, both for body and mind. Many of the regulars are good friends, and the group often goes out to brunch and dinner together after their runs and walks. Moreover, Straayer says, Front Runners has often provided a safe social atmosphere for newcomers to the LGBT community. “For people who are just coming out,” he says, “it’s one of the safest and most support sorts of organizations they could hope to find.”
That supportive, friendly atmosphere often brings many of the teams to national tournaments, the largest of which is the Gay Games. Started in 1982, the tournament happens every four years in a different location. The next one will take place in 2010 in Cologne, Germany.
“At the Gay Games, you could feel the love at every venue,” says Kopelman, who has participated in the past. “The competition can be intense, but even on the field it’s like we’re all one family, cheering each other on.”
For both Straayer and Kopelman, the other aspects of being involved in sports are just as important as fitness. Front Runners of Grand Rapids, for example, sponsors the Pride 5K that kicks off the West Michigan Pride celebration every year. The proceeds are donated to charity, adding the elements of community involvement and personal satisfaction to their endeavors.
“Getting involved in athletics is good for anyone’s physical health,” Kopelman says, “but I think that getting involved with gay clubs also contributes to our mental health, to our overall well-being.” And as these men know, being healthy is more than just being physically fit – especially when it means tackling beefy men in spandex pants.