The following in an excerpt from A Place of Our Own: Six Spaces That Shaped Queer Women’s Culture by June Thomas, available today from Seal Press, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

One Monday afternoon in the mid-1980s, I was working a shift in the Capitol Hill branch of Lammas. It had been a quiet day— I’d seen the mailman, a UPS delivery person, and maybe one customer. I wish I could say that I was doing something productive for feminist literature, but I was almost certainly parked at the register by the door, novel in hand, reading.

At some point, the skies opened up and let loose one of those epic DC summer storms. It seemed that the rest of my shift would be even lonelier. Then, without warning, more than a dozen women burst through the door. They were raucous, boisterous, and soaked to the skin—and for some reason, they were all wearing the same T- shirt.

It was only when store owner Mary Farmer brought up the rear of this noisy crew that I realized what was going on. This was the Lammas softball team, and despite having worked in the store for more than a year, I had no idea that such a thing existed. Of course Lammas had a softball team! I might have had a degree in American studies, spent years living in the United States, and been in the process of conducting a pretty intense independent study of queer culture, but I had somehow missed a basic truth of American life: in just about any place where there are lesbians, there is softball.

Forty years later, I’m still embarrassed to admit to this gap in my sapphic scholarship. Apart from anything else, the Lammas softball team was one of the most famous in the land, having appeared on the cover of Willie Tyson’s 1974 album Full Count. What’s more, I was no stranger to the world of women’s sports: by the time I was twenty- one, I’d spent months of my life at tennis tournaments. (Britain may have lacked softball, but its condensed geography conferred some advantages.) Still, somehow, softball wasn’t on my radar.

Softball’s lesbian connection is a little like the arrow in the FedEx logo: you can spend years in blissful ignorance, but once you see it, it won’t go away. The softball diamond has long been the place to meet other North American lesbians. It’s such a given that it isn’t even discussed.

Softball is so powerfully associated with lesbianism that even a vague connection to the game could be weaponized against women. In 1975, feminist newsjournal off our backs reported on the case of Cathy, a Chicago woman who, like many others in that era, lost custody of her children simply because a judge accepted an estranged husband’s claim that she was a lesbian, which therefore rendered her an “unfit mother.” The “condemning evidence” provided by Cathy’s husband was that she “played in an all-girls’ bowling league and an all-girls’ softball league.”

Fifteen years later in Oregon, Sue Carney and Patricia O’Scannell, who had been hired to teach an elementary school class about Renaissance music, had their contract canceled because Carney had served as composer and musical director for Carolyn Gage’s Amazon All-Stars, a musical about the lives and loves of the Desert Hearts softball team.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a First Amendment lawsuit claiming that the musicians had been discriminated against “because the people they associate with are perceived as being lesbians.” State officials had been so sure that softball was coded lesbian, and that this in turn was beyond the pale, that they explicitly told the women it was Carney’s association with the musical that made them unfit to teach young Oregonians. Nevertheless, they eventually settled out of court, with the musicians receiving $25,000 in damages and having their teaching contract reinstated.

It’s hard to imagine any other sport having such an immediate association with queerness. There’s no canonical explanation for how softball became the unofficial sport of North American lesbians, but its emergence as an “industrial” recreation, when employers sometimes begrudgingly organized company sports teams to provide relief from the dreadful working conditions in factories, is surely relevant. Since women who worked outside the home before World War II were more likely to be unmarried, the women who turned out for factory teams were also disproportionately lesbian. And like soccer, that most democratic of sports, which is probably the global equivalent of softball in being a magnet for sporty women, trans, and nonbinary people, it is cheap to play. All that’s needed are a ball, a bat, something to mark the bases, and preferably a mitt for each player.

Softball is also a sport that needs to be played outdoors in the fresh air, which made it appealing to women who felt stifled by the boozy smells of bars’ not-always-cozy confines, and later for those who were ill at ease in the cerebral atmosphere of the feminist bookstore. For all its baggage, softball’s setting in public parks makes it simultaneously unthreatening and accessible.

Lesbian and bisexual women seeking evidence that they weren’t alone in the world, anyone starting to suspect that they might be queer and wanting to catch a glimpse of dyke culture, and even supportive types who had learned that friends or family members were lesbian or bi could head to the park to check out the action.

Similarly, women who weren’t ready to come out could convincingly claim to be unaware of softball’s reputation. Outsiders in 1970s courtrooms or school district offices saw nefarious connections between softball and lesbianism. Out on the field, women engaging in healthy exercise could legitimately dismiss those claims as an association fallacy. Even if it were true that many softball players were lesbians, lots of straight jocks also played the game.

Softball enables easy sociability in an often lonely world. Show up on tryout day as a stranger, and within weeks, you’ll be part of a crew. You’re guaranteed to see your teammates every week throughout the season, and unlike at the bars, there’s no chance they’ll ignore you—in fact, they’ll shout your name lovingly at the slightest provocation. When they’re not cheering you on, the dugout will be quiet enough that you can hear each other speak. A team is like a family—albeit one that can be rent asunder when relationships end. (In this sense, queer softball teams are more vulnerable than straight ones.) It’s a source of pride.

The softball field also provides a venue for women to show off their physical prowess. A community that appreciates and celebrates women’s strength is one that enjoys observing the hard, accurate throws players spend years perfecting, their talent for landing a ball into the pocket of a mitt or driving a well- pitched ball over the heads of the outfielders.

The fact that these acts can be performed in an explicitly queer way—by athletes who subvert gendered grooming conventions, who shout their love for their teammates without embarrassment, and who proudly declare their dykehood—in a public space, as neighbors walk their dogs, children frolic, and locals take a shortcut through the park, makes an important statement.

Lesbianism isn’t something that needs to be hidden away in a distant neighborhood. You don’t need to be half drunk to do it. It isn’t just for intellectuals. It doesn’t have to be solemn and serious. It can be fun and healthy and loud and sweaty and untamed.

Excerpted from A Place of Our Own: Six Spaces That Shaped Queer Women’s Culture by June Thomas. Copyright © 2024. Available from Seal Press, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc. Reprinted with permission.

Help make sure LGBTQ+ stories are being told...

We can't rely on mainstream media to tell our stories. That's why we don't lock Queerty articles behind a paywall. Will you support our mission with a contribution today?

Cancel anytime · Proudly LGBTQ+ owned and operated