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By Dan Woog
As a youth, Henry Belanger didn’t play on many teams. But in his 20s he realized he loved softball – the camaraderie, the competition, the intricacies of the game.
Now – after six years in Boston’s Beantown Softball, the largest gay softball league in New England – it is an integral part of his life. “I wish we could practice three times a week,” he says.
It’s a typical gay-man-and-gay-sports story.
Except Belanger is straight.
His day jobs are associate editor of the Good Men Project and owner of a contracting company. His path there included an all-boys Catholic high school (where he “never heard of anyone being out”), and New College of Florida, a small, liberal institution that was “as opposite to my high school as possible.” Belanger lived with a gay housemate and had plenty of gay friends.
But until 2004, when a friend asked if he wanted to play softball, Belanger had no exposure to gay sports.
The friend later mentioned it was a gay team. That was fine; the key for Belanger was that tryouts were not required. In college he’d played on a recreational squad “behind my 60-something philosophy professor,” so the chance to be on a team – at his favorite spot, first base, no less – trumped the fact that he’d be in a minority, sexuality-wise. (League rules permit three straight players per team.)
At first, Belanger was reluctant to tell his straight friends that he played gay softball. (His father was the last to know.) But it didn’t take long to get over the fear that they’d think he was actually gay. They saw how much fun he was having. (And when he got married, that settled that.)
Besides, he was adding to his roster of buddies. His teammates became good friends – and because, each season, some players left for new teams while new ones arrived, within a few years Belanger knew nearly everyone in the league. The three diamonds behind Harvard Stadium became like another Boston sports institution: Sam Malone’s Cheers bar.
Belanger grew to appreciate gay softball so much that in 2006 he decided his contracting company should sponsor his team. When the squad split in two (some players wanted to move to a higher division), he sponsored both. (One team vetoed his suggestion for a carpentry-related name: The Hammerin’ Homos.)
Belanger’s firm specializes in high-end finishes. The stereotype of gay men flocking to remodel their homes did not hold – but he made enough through the couple of jobs his sponsorship brought in to break even on the cost.
But making money off gay men was not the reason Belanger sprung for jerseys. He genuinely liked the sport, the league and the team. And the competition.
“The better teams in the gay league would absolutely wipe the floor with the straight teams I’ve played on and against,” Belanger says. “They can really hit the ball. And they’ve got crisp infields.”
(There is also, he notes, “a lot more grab-ass and crotch-adjustment in straight softball.”)
Some players were a bit too competitive for his taste – one team is coached by “a chain-smoking lesbian who takes gay softball really seriously (and) runs a tight…profanity-laced ship” – but overall, Belanger revels in what he sees as the league’s proper balance between playing to win and playing to have fun.
Most teams “aren’t out to prove their toughness or to pretend like they’re playing major league baseball,” he wrote in a story for the Good Men Project. “When someone bounces into a fielder’s choice with the bases loaded, or runs into an out, they don’t give the guy dirty looks. And they don’t relegate the guy to the end of the bench.”
Belanger calls that “a healthier attitude” than he’s seen in straight softball leagues. “When you get all these ex-college players together, it can be really intimidating,” he says.
Belanger describes gay softball as “one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I’ve gotten together with good people – and had fun.”
Still, he is not above casting a straight man’s eye on his gay sport.
“I loathe Broadway musicals, and theater generally, and my wardrobe consists almost exclusively of jeans and T-shirts,” he wrote on the Good Men Project website.
“Nonetheless, next weekend I will get together with a few dozen gay men for a few hours of hot, sweaty action. It will probably be in the 90s, but we’ll all be wearing leather.
“When I get home at the end of the day, I’ll be filthy and so exhausted I’ll be unable to perform for my wife. I might even phone a buddy or two and brag about my exploits.
“I am a straight man. A straight man who loves gay softball.”
And wants the entire world to know all about his love.