Recent Comments

    Bay Area LGBT Sports Trailblazers Sheryl Phipps and Barb Pershing of Inferno Softball

    By John Chen–

    Once upon a time, LGBT athletes had no safe place where we could play ball, no safe place to call home field, and no safe place to be our true selves. It took one of the darkest and most tragic times in history, the AIDS epidemic, for gay sports to rise to world-wide prominence. In 1980, San Francisco’s 15th Street Tennis Courts became ground zero for the LGBT sports movement where Les Balmain and The Gladiator held the first tennis clinic to teach gay men a healthy lifestyle. LGBT sports thereafter gained tremendous momentum. National governing bodies were formed, starting with gay tennis in 1980, soccer in 1992, rugby in 2000, football in 2002 and basketball in 2003.

    Since 1980, softball has been the most visible gay sport providing a safe, healthy and social haven for LGBT athletes. Here in San Francisco, a couple of trailblazing women, Sheryl Phipps and Barbara (Barb) Pershing, co-founded and anchor the largest LGBT softball group, the Inferno, with the mission of giving everyone a second chance regardless of their past.

    Phipps and Pershing met playing softball in Tucson, Arizona, in the early 1990s. Phipps started playing softball at a young age and has been playing, coaching and managing ever since. Pershing got involved with softball as an adult, mainly to meet gay women and feel a sense of belonging.

    Phipps is very much a people person, a front woman and an energetic visionary. Pershing, on the other hand, thrives behind the scenes, completing laborious logistics and managing projects. On a hot day, over 110 degrees, Phipps brought Pershing cold drinks and watermelon. On that same hot day, Phipps found out that Pershing is a big fan of Karen Carpenter, and that helped to seal the deal for her. The two immediately had a great connection and synergy, and they seemed destined to be together and to accomplish great things in softball.

    After graduating from law school in San Francisco, Phipps planted roots in the Bay Area and that plan, of course, included Pershing. Softball is a passion and a bond, and goes hand in hand with the two women wherever they go.

    In 2006, the couple joined the Inferno softball team competing in the D Division of the San Francisco Gay Softball League (SFGSL). With Phipps’ coaching and Pershing’s supportive guidance, their team won the division in 2007. Their success parlayed the Inferno team to grow quickly into two teams, and then four teams, and now a conglomerate of nine teams.

    Under their leadership, Inferno Softball aligned with a 501(c)3 nonprofit, flourished and created a mission to “provide adults with an opportunity to play softball in a safe non‐discriminatory, and supportive environment. Inferno Softball fosters self‐confidence in athletics for a population that may have experienced ridicule or discrimination while participating in sports in their youth.”

    Just as importantly, Inferno has given hundreds of LGBT members a second chance when no one else wanted them. Many Inferno athletes come from abandonment, hopelessness, solitude and even formerly destructive lifestyles. Phipps and Pershing welcome all, helping newcomers to build confidence through athletic success, and giving them a place where they feel a sense of belonging.

    At practices, Phipps teaches softball lessons and Pershing demonstrates the lessons. During games, Phipps coaches her players and manages the game while her partner scouts the opposing teams, takes copious notes and keeps score. In organizational strategic planning and fundraising, Phipps lays out the future and works out deals; Pershing carries out and implements the logistics. They work perfectly together and it’s a match made in heaven! This couple truly embody the adage, “Behind every great [wo]man there’s a great woman.”

    With Inferno Softball, there’s a team for anyone and everyone no matter the skills and/or background. And a first in San Francisco history: since 2013, Inferno sponsors an all transgender team, the T-Rex. Phipps and Pershing work tirelessly in getting business sponsorships, selling raffles and Jell-O-shots, and fundraising at major LGBT events such as Pride and Folsom Street Fair so that Inferno Softball can and will continue to support teams like T-Rex as well as the hundreds of players seeking social acceptance and a second chance in life.

    Thanks to selfless and dedicated local LGBT sports leaders like Phipps and Pershing, and the national LGBT sports movement that paved the way, today we can play a plethora of LGBT sports in the Bay Area on any given day—social tennis doubles in San Francisco on Fridays, outdoor grass volleyball in Mountain View on Tuesdays, softball in Silicon Valley on Thursdays, and just about every sport you can think of on the weekend.

    John Chen, a UCLA alumnus and an avid sports fan, has competed as well as coached tennis, volleyball, softball and football teams.