I was two minutes away from my second interview for the Book Project when my interview subject – a talking, dragging Southern woman named DA Starkey – stopped me.
“You know we were all homosexual, right?” She exploded in my ear.
I laughed in response. “Well,” I replied, “I didn’t mean to assume. But now that you’ve mentioned it, let’s talk about it.
This book, Hail Mary: the rise and fall of the National Women’s Football League, concerned the National Women’s Football League, the first professional women’s football league in US history. The league existed from 1974 to 1988, started during the women’s liberation movement and shortly after the enactment of Title IX in 1972. It also existed in the post-Stonewall era, but most cities where teams played were in less liberal areas of the country across Texas, Oklahoma, and Rust Belt states like Ohio. As a result, my co-author Lyndsey D’Arcangelo and I weren’t sure if the book would end up being explicitly queer.
We assumed that a good number of gamers would be gay, not because we are the stereotypical type, but because we had seen their photos and read a bit about the athletes and as queer people we- We ourselves tend to have a sixth sense about this sort of thing when we see it. What we didn’t know was if any of the women would tell us about being gay, if they saw it as important or related to their time in the league, or if it was something they would like to discuss publicly. . I had reported queer women playing in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League two decades ago, and it was impossible to get any of them talked about. They usually changed the subject with a brief, “We haven’t talked about any of this. “ I wasn’t sure it would be the same.
So when Starkey let me know very quickly that she was and always had been, in her own words, “gay gay gay,” I was relieved. Because, of course, while we can write a book about a women’s football league without ever mentioning whether any of the women are lesbian, or making it a footnote instead of a central theme, this book can never be the whole story. By telling a story that includes who these women were — who they really were – you can actually get a better idea of what that league was and what it meant to the women playing. Because the story of the NWFL is a story of sports history, and it’s a story of women’s history, but it’s also a story of queer history.
Let’s put one thing aside: not all women in the NWFL were gay. But player estimates range from 50 to 75 percent of their squad being gay. “I already knew a lot of players because we hung out in gay bars together,” Starkey told me. “I came out to my parents when I was 14. My dad said, “Well, sister, it’s a hard life, good luck,” and we never talked about it again. But I never changed, I was just a dyke. And that was okay at the time! You know, people weren’t – we weren’t ridiculed for being gay! I have never been.”
As soon as Starkey told me she was gay and heard about the Dallas Bluebonnets at her local lesbian bar, there was no doubt in my mind that this bar scene and the lesbian culture of it. Central America in the 1970s, being at the heart of the story we were trying to tell. For Starkey and many other players, their odd character wasn’t just a footnote, it was the axis on which their participation in the league revolved.
“Going to bars was not going to bars,” said Bluebonnet player Betty Young. “It was our community. It was our home. The Bluebonnets were like that too.
Writing this book also showed me in a very tangible way, as a queer person who grew up in an era of relative acceptance, that people like me have always been there. Gay people have always been around whether you see them or not. If you know where to look, you can find them – that’s how I found AAGPBL’s queer gamers by reading their obituaries. We were hiding in plain sight or, like many women in the NWFL, not really at all. But these narratives are often erased from history, making us invisible in larger cultural narratives.
I once interviewed an author about his book about an amazing athlete who performed in the Victorian era. He wrote of his close friendship with another woman, of the trips they took together, of the fact that they never separated. There is no confirmation that these women were ever more than friends, but reading their relationship, I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe they were. I asked the author if that had crossed his mind, and he said yes, but he didn’t want to speculate on this sort of thing because if he was wrong it would be disrespectful.
I bristled at this characterization, but it’s a common feature. It is considered bad taste to speculate on the sexuality of people in history, especially if there is no evidence of their homosexuality. But this fear of speculation implies that being gay is something someone should be ashamed of and that wrongly accusing someone of being gay would be a great offense. Likewise, leaving out the very explicit gay history of a league like the NWFL implies that homosexuality should be a source of shame, or that it diminishes what women in the league have been able to accomplish during their time on the league. grill.
When I spoke to these players, I found that many of them were ready to talk straight away about their homosexuality or that of their teammates. Lesbian bars of the 1970s had been their homes, and NWFL teams performed similar functions to bars – safe community spaces. If a player came to me, I would often come back to let them know that I was one of them and hopefully reassure them that their story would be treated with care, by someone who l ‘has “understood” and has no intention of sensationalizing it.
But there was one thing I didn’t share: that I was married to a cishet. My interview with Starkey was in June 2019 and I was sitting in the TV room of the house I shared with my husband. I remember trying very hard not to mention my partner’s gender, wanting to feel an affinity with one of my elders, wanting to be seen for the person I knew I was, the person I feared would be invisible when I was was using a pronoun or the word “husband”. It was an omission I found myself making a lot more often, and not just conducting interviews for the book. At social events where I knew no one would ever meet my husband, I referred to my “spouse”. At events we were to attend together, I would be embarrassed for people to know he was with me.
Every progressive phone call I made to Bluebonnets players was another exercise in really trying not to talk about myself and hoping no one asked, while desperately hoping they would see me as a soul mate. I felt like an impostor, not because a homosexual person cannot be in a relationship with a shisket man, but because I knew that, for me, I was not being true to my own feelings while doing so. I felt guilty for cheating on these women I was bonding with and who were telling me their stories.
I started to resent my husband, to feel suffocated. I was like that frog in boiling water that hadn’t felt the heat gradually rise until it was so hot it was boiling hot. The pot I was sitting in was spinning all around me and I couldn’t take the heat any longer. Being married to a man no longer felt that my strangeness could exist within me; being married to a man now sounded like a lie.
About a month after you started reporting I salute you marie, I filed for divorce from my husband. I wrote the book while the rest of my life was in the air, telling the stories of my elders as an anchoring force and a guiding light.
These women inspired me, as openly gay people at a time when it was incredibly dangerous to live this way. I realized I was ready to live in a way that was also genuine to who I was. What a gift it is to be able to bring their stories to the world while I continue to write mine.
Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer who focuses on the intersection of sport and gender. They are co-author of Hail Mary: the rise and fall of the National Women’s Football League.