The Importance of Pride Month in MLB

June is Pride Month in the United States. By way of explanation:

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month (LGBT Pride Month) is currently celebrated each year in the month of June to honor the 1969 Stonewall riots in Manhattan. The Stonewall riots were a tipping point for the Gay Liberation Movement in the United States. In the United States the last Sunday in June was initially celebrated as “Gay Pride Day,” but the actual day was flexible. In major cities across the nation the “day” soon grew to encompass a month-long series of events. Today, celebrations include pride parades, picnics, parties, workshops, symposia and concerts, and LGBT Pride Month events attract millions of participants around the world. Memorials are held during this month for those members of the community who have been lost to hate crimes or HIV/AIDS. The purpose of the commemorative month is to recognize the impact that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals have had on history locally, nationally, and internationally.

You can read more about the Stonewall riots here for greater context. Essentially, though, Pride Month is a time not just to celebrate gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer people in the United States, but also to highlight the current state of LGBTQ+ rights in the United States. For our purposes, it also represents an opportune moment to examine the current state of LGBTQ+ issues in baseball.

A couple of years ago, Gallup found that 4.1% of Americans overall, and 7.3% of millennials, identify as LGBT, although the demographer who published that data suspects that, after accounting for those respondents who are unwilling to disclose details regarding their sexuality, the overall figure is probably closer to 10%.

Britni de la Cretaz, who’s written a number of fascinating stories on the intersection of sport, gender, and sexuality, wrote an article last month exploring queer women in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, a facet ignored by A League of Their Own. And two major leaguers have come out as gay: Glenn Burke and Billy Bean.

But in another sense, baseball generally, and MLB specifically, has a lot of work to do when it comes to LGBT inclusion. Both Burke and Bean came out after their playing days were over. David Denson, the first openly gay player in affiliated ball to come out while still playing, has since retired. And while Denson said his retirement wasn’t related to his coming-out – and that his teammates were largely supportive – he nevertheless related to Bleacher Report some cringeworthy tales from his time in baseball clubhouses.

He was with the Brewers’ rookie-level team in Helena, Montana, last July, just another game day in another minor league town. When the rain swept in following batting practice and the team retreated into the clubhouse, the players did what players have been doing during rain delays since the invention of the tarp. They started teasing each other. In Denson walked and one of his teammates ribbed him, calling him a maricon. The word is a Spanish slang term for f—-t.

With Denson’s retirement, there are now no openly LGBT players anywhere in affiliated baseball. Given there are more than 3,500 affiliated players at any given time, we’d expect, using Gallup’s 4.1% figure, to find at least 140 LGBT players in affiliated baseball. And while it’s certainly possible that there are fewer LGBT people playing baseball than in the general population, the idea that there are none at all beggars belief. It is, of course, entirely possible that it’s not homophobia or transphobia at work here; after all, as Dan Avery wrote for NewNowNext, baseball presents obstacles unique to professional sports.

“The obvious reason is no one has had the courage to do it,” OutSports’ Cyd Zeigler tells NewNowNext. “One of the things that makes baseball unique is the minor league system. People are brought up and put back all the time. In baseball, your position is always less secure than other pro sports.”

To their credit, MLB has taken some steps to protect LGBT players. USA Baseball’s Amateur Resource Center includes information on LGBT inclusion, and MLB’s CBA actually contains language in Article XV, Section A, barring discrimination on, among other things, sexual orientation (though gender identity isn’t, regrettable, mentioned). And Attachment 50 to the CBA and MLB’s Code of Conduct both prohibit “bullying” or “[d]emeaning comments about someone’s race, gender, color, religion, national origin, or sexual orientation, including offensive names or phrases, or jokes about someone’s conformity with gender norms.” That language would seem to protect both gay and transgender baseball players, at least in part – so long as it’s enforced. MLB has made strides in that area, most notably suspending Yunel Escobar three games for a homophobic slur in his eye black.

But former Cardinals farmhand Tyler Dunnington, who is gay but was closeted while playing professionally, tells a far darker story of professional baseball’s attitudes towards LGBT people. Said Dunnington to Outsports’ Cyd Zeigler:

I was also one of the unfortunate closeted gay athletes who experienced years of homophobia in the sport I loved. I was able to take most of it with a grain of salt but towards the end of my career I could tell it was affecting my relationships with people, my performance, and my overall happiness.

I experienced both coaches and players make remarks on killing gay people during my time in baseball, and each comment felt like a knife to my heart. I was miserable in a sport that used to give me life, and ultimately I decided I needed to hang up my cleats for my own sanity.

At least publicly, there’s also been backlash against players like Daniel Murphy, who said of MLB’s Inclusion Ambassador, Billy Bean, that “I disagree with his lifestyle… I do disagree with the fact that Billy is a homosexual.” Sexual orientation and gender identity, it should be noted, are experienced as immutable characteristics of a person’s identity (and not mere lifestyle choices). Murphy’s comments, to be fair, do contain some level of nuance. “Just because I disagree with the lifestyle,” said the Nationals second baseman, “doesn’t mean I’m just never going to speak to Billy Bean every time he walks through the door. That’s not love. That’s not love at all.”

Baseball’s struggles with LGBT inclusion also aren’t limited to players. In honor of Pride Month, 23 teams are holding a Pride Night at their respective ballparks in 2018. Of the 30 MLB teams, two have still never held a Pride Night – the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Angels. The Yankees have evidently not yet held a Pride Night because they “sh[y] away from promotions with an ethnic or cultural flavor.” David Kilmnick, head of the LGBT Network, told the New York Times that although he pitched the Yankees on both a Pride Night and LGBT sensitivity training for employees, the team rejected those proposals. “I haven’t received any interest,” he told the Times. But when minor-league teams like the Lehigh Valley IronPigs have begun holding pride nights, the sustained holdout of the Yankees and Angels is increasingly conspicuous.

As MLB looks to find itself in this new millennium, the talk of pitch clocks and banning shifts might be overstated relative to broader demographic issues. MLB can retain its place as America’s pastime by ensuring it actually reflects America — which means, in part, including LGBT people. If 1-in-10 Americans is LGBT — and many more than that, presumably, are sympathetic to the experience of LGBT people — then we’re talking about a pretty large swath of the population. Hosting pride nights might, at some level, be a relevant as pursuing pace-of-play initiatives.

Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney and General Counsel at Open Communities, a non-profit legal aid agency in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author's. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.

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5 years ago

Thanks Sheryl. This is probably outside the scope of your work, but it’d be really interesting to see how baseball is doing compared to (i) other American professional sports leagues, (ii) European soccer and basketball leagues and (iii) American individual sports associations (tennis and golf).

5 years ago

Agreed. Though I suspect MLB falls far behind the other major American sports.

5 years ago
Reply to  Reflect

MLB behind NFL? And all their hate of kneeling and stuff?

CC AFCmember
5 years ago
Reply to  Kevbot034

The NFL, at least if you define “NFL” as the league office, is shockingly reasonable on LGBTQ+ issues:

I’m sure it didn’t hurt that it’s a family issue for Roger Goodell: