It all started as a game of capture the flag. In 2007, Will Hackner invited a few friends to play in a match — and 50 people showed up, far exceeding his expectations.
“OK, maybe this is something,” he recalls thinking at the time.
Soon after, Varsity Gay League, known informally as VGL, was born. It’s a pioneering U.S. queer recreational sports organization and the first multisport league, carrying on a now-50-year-old tradition of gay sports leagues, Gay Games, and the Gay World Series. Since that fateful match, its membership has grown to over 25,000 LGBTQ+ folks and their allies, who regularly face off in matches of kickball, dodgeball, soccer, volleyball, bowling, darts, and even video games in about 20 cities across the country.
Hackner, VGL’s founder and CEO, still seems surprised his organization took off the way it has. In addition to providing a forum for recreation, it is “remarkable,” he said, to have an arena that redefines what it means to be a queer adult. His organization creates a social space outside of gay bars that doesn’t require “worrying about whether you have a six-pack or a nice car.” Instead, participants can “find self-confidence and worth through our friends, through games, through activities, through community, through love,” he says.
Like most real-world communities, VGL was disrupted by the pandemic, which for a time prevented recreational sports competitions from taking place. Members didn’t just lose physical activity; they lost a support group for a demographic that is already vulnerable to isolation and mental health issues.
When the country closed, however, Hackner leapt into action. He pivoted online to create a digital space for VGL members to keep them connected. The CEO then enlisted famous drag queens like Alyssa Edwards, Eureka O’Hara, and Ginger Minj to perform in virtual charity competitions for LGBTQ+ causes.
In Los Angeles, where Hackner is based, games began again in March with masked players. The league then commenced a new, unmasked season in June, following the city’s guidelines.
It’s a move that had been long anticipated by Andreas Andrea, the logistics director of FabFitFun. Andrea has been a VGL player for the past eight years. When he first moved to L.A., he had some trouble making friends from the bar scene alone. Now he considers his teammates “my brothers.”
“I think the fact that you have an activity that requires you to get together once a week and accomplish something, it reinforces those bonds,” Andrea says.
For queer people who don’t conform to heteronormative standards, VGL also provides a welcoming environment, allowing many to experience competitive sports for the first time. “The guys who normally, conventionally speaking, would be considered more feminine or more femme are actually pretty good athletes,” Andrea says. “But in the conventional sports arena, those people don’t really have a chance to shine.”
Although the games were paused during lockdown, the bonds Andrea formed at VGL played a vital role in his mental health. The members of his kickball team, the Bloody Marys, provided “a perfect pandemic pod” and support system during this time, he says.
Hackner himself continues to be a player in VGL in order to foster these bonds and help LGBTQ+ folks realize their athletic potential. While he is now working hard to get the league’s tournaments up and running, he is also looking forward to participating in the sports themselves and being like “a Little League dad” to his teammates. “Just seeing people improve and grow — it’s been a real beauty,” he says.