Three dykes you're out
The Chicago Historical Museum examines the link between lesbians
There are certain stereotypes that, for better or worse, seem to have permanently attached themselves to the GLBT community. Gay men, for example, make the best interior decorators, bisexuals are fence-sitters and lesbians love to play ball. At least one of these stereotypes is about to get its due discussion when the Chicago Historical Museum presents “Before the Gay Games: Lesbians in the Ballpark,” as part of its ongoing Out at CHM lecture series.
Susan Cahn, a historian at SUNY Buffalo and Anne Enke, a University of Wisconsin historian, will speak at the CHM about the powerful connection between gay women and baseball. Cahn will discuss the early years of women’s softball leagues, which originated here in Chicago.
“There were two things going on in Chicago in the ’40s and ’50s,” Cahn says. “There was the All American Girls Baseball League, which didn’t actually have a Chicago team, but it was started by Philip Wrigley and his associates during [World War II], so its headquarters was located in Chicago. [Wrigley] formed it because it looked like the major leagues might actually come to a halt during the war.
“[Then] there was this counter league that hadn’t gotten much press called the National Girls Baseball League that was all Chicago-based. That was the league that had the reputation as being the really butchy league. They wore baseball pants and didn’t do anything to create an impression of femininity.”
According to Cahn, promoters based the sport on a femininity principle, the idea that audiences would find novelty in the fact that beautiful women in pastel skirts were playing a masculine sport. Initially, they feared these women might be hypersexual in their relationships with men. But as the sport formed its own culture and identity, a preponderance of lesbianism soon prevailed.
“I think that because baseball and softball were associated with masculinity, it was a place where gay women who were more butch could find each other. And qualities of being able to be tough, be powerful, be aggressive…those were positive in that context,” Cahn says. “It was a comfortable space for lesbians.”
However, homosexual activity was strictly forbidden, and the promoters attempted to keep gay women away from the sport.
“[Lesbians] were officially banned from the All American Girls Baseball League. They said no Amazons,” Cahn says. “If there was suspicious activity, anyone could be fired. I interviewed one [gay woman] who got a very short haircut, not intending for it to be a signal for anything. She told me she was very careful not to associate with the gay crowd because she didn’t want to get kicked out, but they just sent her home.”
But gay women still found each other in the same coded ways that gay men did before Stonewall. “You didn’t have to say you were gay,” Cahn says. “It was a place where there were both competitors and fans. If you join a softball team or sit in the stands, you’re not identifying yourself, but you’re finding a certain path into the culture. It could all happen without using words like lesbian or homosexual.”
While Cahn says other sports, most noticeably track, golf and basketball, may enjoy similar followings, gay women may always be indelibly linked to softball.
“I think if you had to choose one sport that is most associated with lesbianism, it would be softball. It was a place where those communities already existed, and so once people started feeling out and proud, softball was a logical place to start.”
"Before the Gay Games: Lesbian in the Ballpark" goes up to bat Thursday 8.