Like a lot of queer boys, Ben Rubinstein steered clear of the locker room in middle school, afraid that he would be teased for being an overweight kid. Whatever it means to be a “sports kid,” Rubinstein didn’t fit the prototype.
A turning point for the Michigan native, who now lives in Huntington Woods, was discovering a sports league specifically for queer players while living in Long Beach, California.
Today, Rubinstein likens playing kickball on a LGBTQ+ league to a religious experience — “my Sunday church,” he tells Pride Source.
“I love kickball,” said Rubinstein, who now serves as sports director for Stonewall Sports Detroit, a Michigan-based league for members of the LGBTQ+ community and allies. The non-profit organization, which is volunteer-led, offers a wide variety of sports, everything from billiards to volleyball and bowling. Rubinstein learned of the league from a friend in 2016 when he lived in California, and even though he was prepared not to like it, he took a chance and signed up. “I get to go and hang out with my friends in the afternoon and have a good time with my community,” he says.
Established in 2019, Stonewall Sports Detroit is one of 23 Stonewall Sports chapters nationwide.
While Covid slowed them down, Rubinstein says the organization is currently thriving, with more than 200 individuals now playing in the Detroit kickball chapter, about 90 percent of whom are LGBTQ+ members.
Since the league began, nearly 900 people have signed up to play at least one sport with the league. Recently, they’ve expanded their sports selection to include billiards and pickleball, a hybrid of ping pong and tennis played with paddles and wiffle balls. Registration fees are charged for each sport, but there is a fee waiver program for those who qualify. Area businesses and LGBTQ+ organizations act as sponsors, and any additional funds go back into the community via donations to organizations like the Ruth Ellis Center and Affirmations.
Lindsey Matson, who plays bowling and kickball, learned of Stonewall Sports Detroit when they served on the board of the Detroit Regional LGBT Chamber of Commerce. “Obviously, just having a queer league, I think, provides more safety and camaraderie,” Matson said. “And especially once you get out of high school and college and it's harder to meet friends.” The need to find queer community became even more important when Matson moved to Michigan from Portland, Oregon, “where it seems like everyone is gay,” they said.
Like Rubinstein, Matson wasn’t keen on locker rooms, but for a different reason. Matson played a number of sports — “basketball was my love,” they say — but growing up in rural Tennessee and Idaho made them feel like an outsider. As one of the only out students in their school, Matson faced pushback against changing with other students in the locker room, which they said was “pretty messed up.”
Jazalyn Williams, who wasn’t out when she was an athlete at her all-girls Catholic school, was looking to meet LGBTQ+ friends, too. Although many of her friends are great allies, Williams sought queer companionship.
After seeing an Instagram post from Stonewall Sports Detroit, Williams dipped her toes into Stonewall’s volleyball league. “I was definitely nervous, ’cause that's something out of my comfort zone,” Williams said. “I was like, ‘Do I want to put myself out there and meet more people?’”
Williams, who also plays kickball, has definitely met more people, including her girlfriend. Their meet-cute happened at the first kickball season this past summer (there are two kickball seasons each summer) when a group went to hang out and grab some food and drinks at the Detroit Shipping Company after some games. But queer-inclusive volleyball wasn’t Williams’ first go at a sport with LGBTQ+ members — she played lacrosse with out team members in college, when she came out.
“I just felt more comfortable, more confident in myself, and I think that helped me be a better player,” said Williams, who admitted that she was afraid of people finding out she was gay during high school, when she was still closeted.
“Now that I am out, I'm just a lot happier,” Williams continued. “I love sports more, and I'm just a lot more confident in what I'm doing.”
For Matson, sporting events that bring queer peers together serve another purpose: meaningful adult networking. When Congress of Communities, an organization in Southwest Detroit, was putting on a queer prom for students last fall, they had plenty of folks to call upon for help.
“A ton of people that I met through Stonewall came out to volunteer or donate food or donate dresses or suits for the youth,” Matson said. “They came and volunteered. Stonewall folks really understood what it was like to be a queer young person and not get the chance to fully be themselves at a prom.”
If Rubinstein’s experience running Stonewall is any indication, queer leagues, which he says are growing in popularity across the nation, are here to stay. Aside from playing on LGBTQ+ teams in California and Michigan, it’s also worth noting that Rubinstein expanded Stonewall Sports Detroit’s kickball offerings from two teams to 12, as of last year.
Now, Stonewall Detroit isn’t the only league of its kind locally — in 2022, the league GAAY Sports, an all-inclusive recreational sports league, began offering opportunities to play sports on queer teams in Lansing, Grand Rapids and Flint.
Like Rubinstein, Kye Campbell-Fox isn’t keen on what he describes as “the hyper-masculine male culture around sports,” he said. As someone who’s queer and trans, Campbell-Fox said being around a group of straight cis guys can be awkward. He finds that as an adult, he doesn’t care for split-gender leagues.
“The reason I joined a queer league was because I felt like I wouldn't have to spend my entire time trying to build a positive culture and that people would be coming from a place of more respect for people with different identities,” Campbell-Fox said.
Sexuality and gender aside, Alex Hines said the rules are the same for queer adult volleyball. There’s just one major difference: “We’re allowed to drink seltzers and play loud music.”
Queer teams also know a good team name when they hear one. Matson and their bowling teammates, for example, named themselves the Bowlerinas. Meanwhile, Williams’ team nickname was “Hit it baby one more time,” while her girlfriend's was “Set me up daddy.”
Once nervous about joining, Williams has found her queer tribe.
“A lot of them do a lot of work in social justice and activism,” Williams said of her new friends. As a Black queer woman, she appreciates “seeing more people like me in certain spaces.”
These ones just happens to involve kicks, blocks and White Claw.
Stonewall Detroit's Spring kickball registration is open March 24 to April 8. Visit stonewalldetroit.leagueapps.com/leagues/kickball-(outdoor) to sign up.