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US culture wars come to baseball as MLB celebrates Pride month | MLB

US culture wars come to baseball as MLB celebrates Pride month | MLB

When the Los Angeles Dodgers arranged their latest annual Pride Night the team probably did not envision facing opponents from the Catholic League as well as the National League.

Gamedays that celebrate LGBTQ+ communities through initiatives such as rainbow-themed uniforms and drag queens throwing out the ceremonial first pitch are commonplace, and until recently they typically occurred with little fuss. Now they are a battlefield in the culture wars, with Dodger Stadium at the centre of the fiercest conflict.

The Dodgers will hold a Pride Night on 16 June for the visit of the San Francisco Giants. The team invited The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an anti-bigotry activist group of queer and transgender drag performers who dress as nuns, to give the Sisters a Community Hero award.

The Sisters were founded back in 1979. But in May a Republican senator from far-away Florida, Marco Rubio, described them as an anti-Catholic “hate group” and grumbled to the MLB commissioner, Rob Manfred. Fuelled by fulminating rightwing media, a backlash ignited that prompted the team to rescind the invitation for being too controversial.

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Following criticism from LGBTQ+ supportive groups the Dodgers reversed course and the Sisters returned to the lineup at a stadium where 23 years ago security ejected two female fans for celebrating home runs by kissing. So the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights launched what it termed an “ad blitz” on local radio in Los Angeles urging fans to boycott the game. The Sisters were also invited to the Los Angeles Angels’ Pride Night last week as guests of the Anaheim mayor and protestors reportedly held a prayer circle outside Angels Stadium.

Players weighed in. The Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw, a Methodist, voiced his disapproval at his club’s invitation to the Sisters, although he said his issue was with the Sisters specifically rather than Pride month. He also revealed that Dodger Stadium will host a Christian Faith and Family Day in July. Trevor Williams, a pitcher for the Washington Nationals who is Catholic, said he is “deeply troubled” by the invitation.

When the Tampa Bay Rays added rainbow colours to the team’s uniforms for Pride Night last year at least five players refused to wear the altered kit. “Maybe we don’t want to encourage it if we believe in Jesus, who’s encouraged us to live a lifestyle that would abstain from that behaviour,” pitcher Jason Adam told the Tampa Bay Times. There was no repeat rainbow rebellion during last Saturday’s Pride Night at Tropicana Field after MLB introduced a policy this season forbidding teams from changing their uniforms to mark local themed events.

Resistance from players has been especially visible in the NHL, where several teams have decided not to wear Pride jerseys, not least because of the presence of Russian players and the anti-gay laws in that country.

Once viewed – however speciously – as an escape from the wider world, American sports and politics have been explicitly entwined since athletes began protesting civil rights injustices, prodding their organisations to take a stance amid the polarising rise to power of Donald Trump. In the “war on woke” waged by leading Republican politicians such as the Florida governor and presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis, some brands seeking to showcase their progressive credentials have faced intense rightwing criticism and calls for boycotts.

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Sales of Bud Light plummeted after a transgender influencer posted an Instagram video promoting the beer, while Target removed some Pride products from its stores after threats towards employees. The fast-food chain Chick-fil-A was founded by a staunch Christian, is closed on Sundays and has previously donated to organisations with anti-LGBTQ+ stances. Yet even it was accused of “going woke” for strengthening its diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

Last month Anthony Bass of the Toronto Blue Jays reposted an Instagram video that described Target and Bud Light’s support as “evil” and “demonic”. The pitcher apologised but the furore appears to have played a role in the team dropping him on Friday, hours before he was to catch a ceremonial first pitch during the Blue Jays’ Pride Weekend as a form of atonement. Bass is hardly an outlier though. A significant proportion of MLB players are from strict religious backgrounds, while much of its US talent pool – and fanbase – is drawn from conservative parts of the country. As the New York Mets’ Mark Canha put it last year: “I think I’m probably in the minority [among MLB players] in saying I’m an ally to [the LGBTQ+] community … You have to hope that this country moves towards a place of more acceptance and more forward thinking.”

San Francisco drag laureate D’Arcy Drollinger throws out the first pitch as part of the San Francisco Giants’ Pride Day. Photograph: Jeff Chiu/AP

Dale Scott, an MLB umpire from 1986 to 2017, says the recent uproar is reflective of wider trends.

“I feel like the pushback is part of a much bigger thing than just baseball, it’s happening nationwide with this extreme right philosophy that everything is bad if it’s not straight and white,” Scott tells the Guardian. “The way I see it, the Maga faction of the right wing is protesting everything.”

Scott became the first openly gay MLB umpire in 2014 and last year published an autobiography, The Umpire Is Out: Calling the Game and Living My True Self. He threw the ceremonial first pitch at Tropicana Field last Saturday. “There’s always been people that maybe aren’t on board with [Pride festivities],” he says. “What’s new is that the voice has been amplified and has given the license for a lot of people to jump on that anti-Pride bandwagon that might have stayed silent in the past … The pushback is much louder.”

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Still, out of the 30 MLB teams, only one is not hosting a Pride fixture this season: the Texas Rangers, who have never done so. The Dallas area is home to a large and vibrant LGBTQ+ community – and a raft of influential conservative megachurches.

Asked why they are the only Pride Night holdouts, the Rangers provided a statement that did not directly answer the question. “Our commitment is to make everyone feel welcome and included in Rangers baseball. That means in our ballpark, at every game, and in all we do – for both our fans and our employees,” it read, adding that the team sponsored the 2022 Gay Softball World Series in Dallas and works to promote inclusivity with a range of community groups.

Texas’ Republican governor, Greg Abbott, one of many conservative state-level politicians across the nation eager to roll back transgender rights at a time when hate crimes are rising sharply, refused an invitation to throw out the first pitch at the Rangers’ 2021 home opener. This was in protest at MLB removing that year’s All-Star Game from Atlanta because Georgia introduced restrictive election laws seen by critics as an attempt to suppress the votes of non-white people.

Trump urged his followers to “boycott baseball” – though, much like his core support, the sport’s fanbase skews older, male and white. Rubio’s letter to Manfred cites MLB’s appeal to nostalgics and traditionalists. “Baseball has always been tied to our nation’s values, at the heart of which is faith in God,” he wrote – though if baseball is to be extolled as an embodiment of America, its history of racism and exclusion, and its capacity to evolve to reflect and effect cultural change, should also be acknowledged. “I still think it’s a pretty conservative sport but in a lot of ways they’ve been very proactive,” Scott says of MLB leadership.

More than 20,000 players have taken to the field in MLB but no active player has come out publicly. In 1982, three years after his last MLB appearance, the late Glenn Burke became the first to do so. Billy Bean, who retired in 1995, came out publicly in 1999, and TJ House came out in 2022, five years after the end of his brief MLB career. Bean, who was named MLB Ambassador for Inclusion in 2014 and is now the league’s senior vice-president for diversity, equity and inclusion, did not respond to an interview request.

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“I’ve been surprised quite frankly that baseball hasn’t had someone on the active major league level come out, with other sports having that happen. I could see where someone might be a little leery now if he was thinking about coming out because of the nasty climate that’s in the country right now,” Scott says.

All in all, he adds: “It kind of proves why you have to have Pride Night.”



Tom Dart

Published: 2023-06-12 08:00:15

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