Scott Switzer is the youngest of four boys, all athletes. He understands the social and physical value of sports. And, while his family fully supported him when he came out as gay as a young person, the sports world wasn’t necessarily as accepting.
Eleven years ago, Switzer began playing softball in Kansas City's gay softball league. This year he's the Executive Director of the Gay Softball World Series, which Kansas City is hosting through September 7. In connection with the series, the Royals held their first official "Pride Night" signaling a new level of welcome to Kansas City's LGBTQ community.
"I think if you're playing sports and you can't be exactly who you are," Switzer said, "you're not going to perform at 100%; you're always worried about what other people might think about you, or about how you throw the ball or something like that."
The gay softball league, part of the North American Gay Amateur Athletics Alliance, has beginner through competitive levels of play and includes a 55 and older team. It's exactly the place for gay people and their allies to relax and be who they are, he said.
Gay softball is in its 42nd season in Kansas City, making it one of the oldest leagues in the nation. However, the city has not hosted the Gay Softball World Series since 1999.
The week of events has drawn over 5000 players and fans and will bring in a projected $10 million to Kansas City, according to Switzer. A record 207 teams from the United States and Canada will compete.
When Rick Leavitt formed Florida's first gay softball team in the early 1990s, not many cities had such an organization. Today, there are 6000 teams in North America.
Like Switzer, Leavitt had played softball almost his entire life. His dad was a Little League commissioner, and he jokes that participation was not optional.
He said that, at the time, he just wanted to "form a safe space for those who wanted to compete in this sport."
Moreover, Leavitt explains that in the early 1990s, when an AIDS diagnosis was still a death sentence, those who were HIV positive had little to look forward to.
"Not only was it for people in junior high and high school that were picked on and called sissies, or they were picked last, not only giving them a place to play," Leavitt said, “but also these other folks who needed something to do and take their mind off what was really happening to them.”
He recalled working with a player who had AIDS and had lost his vision. Leavitt said he didn't think of it as a big deal at the time, but he made sure that man stayed in the game as long as he was able, going so far as to work out a method of timing the player's swings.
"I figured it was like a dance step, so 1-2-3, 1-2-3, and then on three, I would tell him to swing," Leavitt said. "I knew he probably didn't have much longer, so I wanted him to enjoy what he had."
That same spirit of inclusion and camaraderie has contributed to the growth of the league, Switzer said.
And this week some major league allies are backing them up. The Royals hosted its first ever Pride Night on Wednesday, September 4.
Fans who held one of the 2000 sold-out tickets received a cap with the Royals logo in rainbow colors.
Switzer threw out the first pitch.
He said, as a lifelong fan it’s incredible for him. He also likes the level of acceptance and normalcy such major recognition imparts to young people who may be questioning their sexual identities.
"It's okay to be who you are," Switzer said. "The suicide rate of LGBTQ plus youth needs to be much lower than it is. Having this support from everybody else gives those kids support to be who they are."
Scott Switzer and Rick Leavitt spoke with KCUR on a recent edition of Central Standard. Listen to the conversation here.