When Kelsey Rene first joined Eno River Rugby (ERR) in 2018, they commuted from Greensboro to Durham—a 45-minute drive, on a good day—for practices.

Friends were confused why Rene gave so much time to a sports team so far away. But ERR was different.

“With Eno River Rugby, for the first time, I just got to be Kelsey Rene,” Rene says. “That was a beautiful thing.”

ERR, the oldest women’s rugby club in the state, prides itself on being openly queer and inclusive. As a proud Black lesbian, those values are important to Rene.

Rene had long been involved in sports; during their undergraduate years, they played women’s soccer for Loyola University. But even as they felt accepted, they still bore the weight of being one of the few out queer players, much less one of the few queer people of color on the team.

“When I stepped onto that field, I felt othered,” Rene says. “[With ERR], you go out there on the field for 80 minutes, and just play, and that’s all that matters.”

That’s stuck with Rene. Four years later, they’re now the president of the club, a space they once never imagined holding as a queer person of color. But that’s what Rene says makes ERR truly unique.

“People talk about teams being a family, and I’ve been on every type of team from so young to now,” Rene says. “I’ve never felt the idea of family until I joined Eno River.”

Searching for space

Sports have long occupied a complicated space for LGBTQ people. In women’s sports, stereotypes about queerness and masculinity abound. For trans athletes, there is intense scrutiny of their every move as terms such as “fairness” and “biological advantages” are levied against them.

Sports can be a hostile place across all ages and leagues; according to the Trevor Project, less than one-third of LGBTQ youth participate in sports, with many saying they don’t participate out of fear. In 2015, the international study Out on the Fields found that 80 percent of gay and straight athletes said they had witnessed some form of homophobia in sports.

LGBTQ folks who do hold a notable space in sports, like University of Pennsylvania diver Lia Thomas or U.S. women’s soccer captain Megan Rapinoe, are often subject to relentless criticism. Since Thomas’s win for the 500-yard freestyle in the Division I national championship in March, she’s faced an onslaught of public and media criticism, from personal attacks by right-wing pundits to reactionary anti-trans legislation citing Thomas’s win that seeks to ban trans participants from playing in teams corresponding with their gender.

The nonprofit Freedom for All Americans reports that 64 anti-trans sports bills are currently active across 29 state legislatures, including the North Carolina “Save Women’s Sports Act,” which has been stalled in the house since last spring. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 2022 is the “worst year on record” for anti-LGBTQ legislation across the country.

As politicians and members of the public try to draw lines in the sand of who sports are for, the importance of LGBTQ-affirming teams and leagues is more important than ever.

Two years ago, Marty Rogers’s friend Garrett Holt asked them to join his new baseball team, the Carolina Crawfish. At first, Rogers demurred.

“I was like, ‘Garrett, I’m fat.’” Rogers says. “He said, ‘Who cares? Come play baseball.’

“Then I was like, ‘OK, but I don’t run,’ and he was like, ‘I don’t run either! You run like 10 feet at a time, tops, in baseball.’

“I said, ‘Fine, I’ll come out and play.’ I’ve been in love with it since.”

Carolina Crawfish is not your average baseball team. It’s part of the Dock Ellis League, a self-described “punk rock” baseball league named after the late Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher who “famously pitched a no-hitter on LSD.” Its model, in other words, goes against the grain, with a spirit of inclusivity, queerness, and communal structure, as upheld by the central rule, “no umpires, no managers.”

Prior to Carolina Crawfish, Rogers’s primary experience with sports was a “traumatic” experience with softball growing up. They had long counted themselves out.

But the Crawfish do things differently.

“We always like to joke that we ‘fucking suck,’ but at the same time, we don’t suck, because we’re all just here, having fun and trying to improve,” Rogers says.

Rogers says their time with the Crawfish has been critical in dismantling their internalized beliefs that sports are solely for able-bodied, athletically elite, and predominantly straight and cisgender athletes.

“​​I think it’s extremely important that we are visible and that we’re loud about how we’re having a good time and taking up space in sports,” Rogers says. “I think our team is the least white, and the least skinny, and the least male out of any of the teams in the league.”

Yet the Crawfish have also made Rogers aware of how many traditional sports can be a toxic space even for cisgender males.

“They will bring their stories of like, ‘Yeah, I’m a straight dude, but I didn’t fit the mold enough. I was too nerdy, or I was too skinny, or I was too weird,’” Rogers says. “We all share this narrative of not being welcomed. So we’re kind of like the Island of Misfit Toys.”

Affirming spaces for youth

Ailen Marie and Asher Weyhrauch don’t have much in common. There’s their hair, for starters—Marie’s is a rich blue in a traditional crew cut, while Weyhrauch’s is a soft cherry red swooping across his face—and they’re also several grades apart, attend different schools, and differ widely in personal interests.

Yet when they both came to Raleigh Junior Rollers (RJR), a gender-inclusive roller derby league in Raleigh that’s expressly queer-affirming, one question let them both know they were in the right place: “Welcome! What are your pronouns?”

For the two boys and their parents, who had felt uncomfortable on certain teams, in locker rooms, and on fields over the years, that question was like a sigh of relief.

Roller derby—a roller-skating contact sport with longtime ties to the LGBTQ community—has provided a space for Marie and Weyhrauch to express themselves and build confidence in an affirming league. In skating with people from across the Triangle of all gender expressions and backgrounds—and learning to be rough and assertive while also respectful and kind—the two say they’ve both grown tremendously.

Marie says he loves the theatricality of derby; while on the rink, he and others don a “ring name,” like in wrestling.

“It’s been a really nice means for a lot of people questioning their gender, and not yet comfortable transitioning, just being like, ‘Well, you can call me this,’” Marie says. “It offers up a lot of space to learn about performing as a person, and how that’s not exactly a linear thing, but it’s definitely something to be optimistic about and search for improvement within.”

Weyhrauch, who’s currently in seventh grade, says that while RJR serves a wide age range (ages 8–17), he thinks it’s most impactful for the younger participants.

“It’s really cool, but I think I see a big difference in the children that play, more than the teenagers,” Weyhrauch says.

Charity Weyhrauch, Asher’s mom, says RJR has been an important part of Asher’s growth in confidence, especially since “coming out” during the pandemic.

“This was really the first thing, after he came out, where he could see people like him in person,” Charity Weyhrauch says. “And it’s just been amazing to see how happy he was from that.”

Marie says one of his favorite things about derby is that while it encourages physical development and competition like other sports it’s also based on a foundation of respect and understanding.

“Even though you could frame what we’re doing as violent, by hitting each other, we’re also very respectful of the fact that inside a body is a person, and they have feelings,” Marie says.

Community beyond college

Rugby was the first space where Ash Davison saw queer people like themself.

“I grew up in Waxhaw, which is a pretty conservative area, and didn’t really understand or know my sexuality at the time,” Davison says. “When I joined my rugby team [at NC State University], I had finally been in a space that was predominantly queer.”

Yet as Davison graduated, they worried that the queer space they’d grown used to in college would cease to exist. Then, they found Eno River Rugby.

“When I joined Eno, I realized, ‘They’re not just in college, they’re not just having fun,’ like these identities, they’re real,” Davison says. “It was really cool to see that out in the world, and see these people continue to take up space.”

At ERR, teammates often repeat the mantra “everybody is a rugby body.” That affirmation that rugby belongs to everyone—and beyond a college time frame—means a lot to Davison.

“It’s just that level of comfort and protection in that you know you’re with people like yourself, and no one’s gonna question it,” Davison says.

Davison believes that Eno River Rugby is a closer community than most teams, and thinks that’s largely because of how meaningful it is for queer and diverse groups to have communities like the club.

“Our teammates, they’re not just our teammates. They’re also our friends,” Davison says. “We do a really good job of welcoming people and being a friendly queer space for people in the area.”

While many on queer and gender-affirming teams are grateful for the spaces they provide and the progress that’s been made, they hope over time to become less of an outlier.

Cas, another member of Carolina Crawfish, says while he loves how “homemade” the team is, he wishes they had more support from the local community.

“We don’t get much turnout at our games, aside from the family and friends of the actual players, but we really do have a good time,” Cas says. “A lot of these leagues are often overlooked still, because they’re not the professional leagues, or they’re not comprised of people you expect to see playing these sports.”

Rene, from ERR, says they hope for more visibility in all sports—not just smaller, expressly affirming teams.

“I think there’s value in having a predominantly queer space for people to enter, but that does not mean that sport at a high level should be prohibitive to how you identify,” Rene says. “You should be able to play in whatever league that you feel represents you best.” 

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