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    Anatomy of an LGBTQ Sports Fan

    By Gary Virginia–

    Anyone who knew me as a kid or teen growing up in Pittsburgh, PA—tall, lanky, buck teeth with braces, big ears, and non-athletic—would never think I’d end up being a huge sports fan. What most people outside of that blue collar city may not know is that everyone from Pittsburgh is a sports fan. Newborns’ first photos often have infants sporting yellow and black knit hats with the logo of the Steelers, Pirates, or Penguins professional sports teams on them. It’s in our blood. 

    In the late 70s and 80s I was lucky to be in college and living downtown during the heyday of Pittsburgh championship teams in baseball and football. After I moved to San Francisco in 1987, I still rooted for my hometown teams but quickly got familiar with the Bay Area teams, their players, and coaches. 

    Lucky the fan who cheers for Bay Area teams who have won numerous championships with the Golden State Warriors, San Francisco Giants, and San Francisco 49ers. To have a winning season is one thing (more wins than losses); to make it to any playoff games is what we live for as fans. And if your team wins a national championship, well, let’s just say the bragging rights for a year are priceless.

    As I write this article, I’m coming off a high after watching the 49ers beat the Dallas Cowboys 19–12 in the NFC Divisional playoff game, and now our team moves on to our second, consecutive NFC championship game in Philadelphia at noon on January 29. (I apologize to any neighbors who may have heard me yelling at my TV during this close game.)

    It’s been a dramatic yet dream year for Niners fans. The season started September 11 with high hopes as the new starting quarterback Trey Lance took the field. He was drafted third overall in the 2021 NFL draft. After his season-ending broken ankle minutes into his second game on September 18, former Niners starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo led the team for the next 10 games.  

    Backed by arguably the best defense in the NFL, Garoppolo got the team to a 7–4 record until he injured his foot on December 4. Cue the third quarterback, Brock Purdy, who was the Niners’ last player secured in the 2022 draft among 262 contenders, a pick annually nicknamed “Mr. Irrelevant.” Against all odds, the 23-year-old rookie is the talk of the NFL having led the Niners to eight consecutive wins and poised to make it to the Super Bowl if the stars align and the Niners beat the Eagles in Philly.

    There’s a stereotype that LGBTQ+ people aren’t into sports. Perhaps that misperception is due to lack of visibility. It wasn’t safe to be “out” as kids, teens, or in college, so others didn’t notice us on teams, or involved with the band, cheerleading, drill teams, pep clubs, etc. The same is true to this day where an LGBTQ+ athlete has to navigate what’s best for their goals, safety, scholarships, careers, and more in the homophobic sports arena.

    I find it odd when friends question my love of sports when they view my prolific Facebook posts, whether it’s professional sports, the Olympics, college games, or personal success stories. I enjoy the concepts of healthy competition, personal bests, team spirit, good sportsmanship and sportswomanship. And who doesn’t love being a voyeur of the conditioned physiques in revealing uniforms no matter what sport or which “team” you’re on with your sexual preference?

    Sports can grow on you as well at any age. I was never much into basketball until the local Golden State Warriors started winning with their style of play, much like the Harlem Globetrotters. Only diehard fans stick through the losing seasons, but it was easy to become addicted to the winning ways of the Warriors with four NBA Championships in the last eight years. And sometimes you’re really lucky to have a future Hall of Fame player in your backyard who breaks record after record, like Warriors’ forward Stephen Curry.

    Newer in the modern era of professional sports is the growing relationship between the LGBTQ community and teams. In 2019, the 49ers unveiled the creation of 49ers PRIDE, believed to be the first-ever fan community started by an NFL franchise to directly engage and support LGBTQ+ fans and allies. Anyone can sign-up to join fellow members for watch parties and other unique opportunities like marching with the team’s front office in the San Francisco Pride parade.

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    At the time, 49ers President Al Guido stated, “The 49ers organization is proud to welcome 49ers PRIDE—the official community of 49ers fans who identify as LGBTQ+ and their allies—to our network of fan groups that connect members of the Faithful with our brand and create unique engagement opportunities. We want every fan to feel like a part of the 49ers family and we look forward to furthering our presence in the LGBTQ+ community through this initiative.” 

    The team hosts town hall meetings and forums specific to the LGBTQ+ community and often features prominent out athletes. The Niners were also the first professional sports team to create unisex, team-branded fan merchandise in 2021.

    49ers PRIDE is an extension of the franchise’s long-standing support of the LGBTQ+ community and allies, including donations since 2005 to local nonprofits such as GLAAD and the San Francisco LGBTQ Center. In 2015 the organization hosted a special screening of Out to Win, a documentary chronicling the lives of LGBTQ athletes, in partnership with the LGBT Film Festival in conjunction with Super Bowl 50. The team also has sponsored and hosted the GLAAD Awards at Levi’s Stadium.

    If you’re not an extravert who enjoys watching sports at the games or in large crowds, there are a number of LGBTQ bars that show games regularly including Hi Tops, the Mix, Pilsner Inn, and The Detour SF. Some show the games with the volume on, especially during big playoff or championship games.

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    There are also a number of LGBTQ+ fan pages on Facebook for professional sports teams. The banter can be fun during a game, and the groups often help one learn more about sports, and share news of unused tickets for free or sale.

    During the first two years of the pandemic, it was a godsend to have my most knowledgeable sports friend, Colby Michaels, text back and forth with me during Giants, Warriors, and Niners games while we sat alone in our homes. As an unofficial ambassador for the Niners, he recruited me to join him as one of several diverse LGBTQ fans modeling for the groundbreaking unisex apparel campaign. What fun, and we got to keep all the cool merchandise!

    Colby shared with me recently, “Being a gay male 49ers fan since the 80s, I watched Head Coach Bill Walsh introduce the NFL to what is now referred to as the ‘West Coast Offense,’ and saw ‘The Catch’ and several Super Bowl wins. It thrills me immensely that the 49ers organization has taken the lead in becoming the first-ever NFL team to have a dedicated club offering events, merchandise, and other benefits to their LGBTQ fans and allies!” 

    The great thing about being a fan is that it’s open to everyone and doesn’t require a lot of money. I can still remember my grandfather passing time in his rocking chair, listening to Pittsburgh Pirates baseball games on his clunky radio. And he’d struggle wrapping aluminum foil on the rabbit ear antenna atop his black and white TV to watch the Steelers.

    Another great benefit of fandom is that you don’t have to be athletic. My late mother played softball with her siblings and cousins as a teenager and was so good that she batted fourth—the home run hitter—in the lineup! Sadly, her athleticism didn’t trickle down the gene pool to me. But the love of sports surrounding me in my youth is something I’ll always appreciate. 

    Gay or straight, or somewhere in between, sexual orientation is something to be celebrated in all areas of life, and shouldn’t prevent anyone from participating on the field or arena at all levels of competition … or cheering from the stands. May the best team win and I hope it’s mine!

    Community leader Gary Virginia, a former President of SF Pride, is the Founder of Krewe de Kinque, which is a social/charitable club that raises awareness and funds in the spirit of Mardi Gras. He is also on the Advisory Board for the nonprofit PRC. Winner of the Mr. Leather title in 1996, Virginia could probably take home that or a similar honor yet again given his continued dedication to fitness and the LGBTQ community.

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    Published on January 26, 2023