A gay softball tournament comes to Salt Lake City for the weekend

The North American Gay Amateur Athletic Association’s tournament runs Saturday and Sunday.

(Courtesy Jeff Freedman) The Renegades, an LGBTQ softball team, celebrates winning the Salt Lake County Recreational League co-ed division championship in 1996 — a gay team in a straight league, and a symbol of empowerment for Utah's LGBTQ community.

The NCAA softball Super Regionals, thanks to the winning ways of the Utah Utes’ team, will be played this weekend in Salt Lake City for the first time ever — and it’s not the only softball tournament making its debut in Utah.

The North America Gay Amateur Athletic Association (NAGAAA) will stage its softball tournament Saturday and Sunday in Salt Lake City, with some 700 people from 35 teams playing for the NAGAAA Cup.

That’s a substantial turnout, said Mark Sakalares, the nonprofit sports organization’s athletic director — particularly because Salt Lake City isn’t a member city of the NAGAAA, which represents 54 city leagues and has some 19,000 members.

“We’re out there in the world, we’re here,” Sakalares said. “We don’t want to be treated differently. … One thing about our leagues, is our leagues are not strictly LGBT.”

The organization chose Salt Lake City to host the tournament after getting a proposal from Visit Salt Lake, which pitched the city’s sports and recreation facilities, Sakalares said. He also talked with Jeff Freedman, who has a historic tie to gay softball in Utah.

Freedman claims to have brought gay softball to Utah in the early 1990s — and bringing the NAGAAA Cup to Utah decades later is exciting.

Softball has been part of Freedman’s life for some 40 years, he said. He grew up in Pittsburgh, and played in a gay softball league there in his early 20s — which meant a lot back in the day.

“Back in the ‘80s,” he said, “we didn’t have a lot of options for the LGBTQ community out there, and especially with gay sports.” When Freedman moved from Pittsburgh to Minneapolis, he joined a league there.

When Freedman moved to Salt Lake City in 1990 for a job, he found there wasn’t a gay league he could join. Instead he started a gay softball team, with men and women playing, in a straight league in Salt Lake County. The team was called the Renegades. (He also started a bowling league.)

Though public support for lesbians and gay men doubled between 1977 and 2014, according to a 2014 report from UCLA’s law school, today LGBTQ+ acceptance has been under attack across the country — and in Utah.

In some ways, Freedman said, it does feel like deja vu. “This is 25 years ago … it was a sin, an abomination, we were told. We were all going to hell,” he said. “There weren’t the conversations we’re having today.”

Back then, he said firmly, it was worse.

“There were people that wouldn’t even come to the games to play, because they didn’t want to be there and play our team,” he said.

Once, he said, a team forfeited because they refused to play. When the Renegades started winning, a rival team’s outfielder once threw the ball over the backstop, Freedman said, and yelled, “I can’t believe we’re getting beat by a bunch of f---ing…” and ended the sentence with an anti-gay slur.

“When you’re asking about, ‘Do you think it’s worse now?’, imagine somebody not even letting you in because they don’t really want to look at you,” Freedman said.

Looking back at those moments, Freedman said he understands that having his team simply show up and exist was monumental.

“We get, from the other side, looks, saying, ‘Well, this is what a homosexual looks like,’” he said. “We broke down a lot of stereotypes that people might have heard about the LGBT community. [It] was extremely important for us to be visible.”

Playing softball was empowering, Freedman said, and shaped him into who he is today. It provided a social outlet, for him and for others in the community, to make connections and not feel so isolated.

“It just offers a safe environment for the LGBTQ community to be in,” he said. “Any organization that provides a safe space for the youth is essential. Because we didn’t have a lot of safe spaces growing up. Softball to me was one of those spaces.”

Freedman lived in Utah for a decade, but will be back this weekend to play in the cup with his team, The Diamond Divas, at the Millcreek Complex on Saturday from 8-9 a.m. and again at 12:30 p.m. (Games that will determine the seedings for the actual tournament, he said.)

Sakalares said games will be played on Saturday and Sunday at The Larry H. Miller Softball Complex in Millcreek and The Valley Regional Sports Complex in Taylorsville. Games start at 8 a.m. each day; they go into the evening on Saturday and mid-afternoon on Sunday.

“It’s softball, but it’s also a huge family,” Sakalares said. “We have so many people that have met their husbands and partners through softball. We like to continue to move forward and build community.”