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Sport Clubs Bring LGBTQ+ People Together After Lockdown

Sport Clubs Bring LGBTQ+ People Together After Lockdown

<p>Sport Clubs Bring LGBTQ+ People Together After Lockdown</p>

As the pandemic winds down, athletic groups are helping queer people reconnect.

The queer scene in Los Angeles has a trendy new meetup — but don't forget your running shoes.

Every Monday evening, runners of all skill levels have started gathering at locations like Los Angeles State Historic Park or the riverside bike path in the Frogtown neighborhood. They swap names and pronouns, do stretches, and get running tips before setting off for a casual two to four miles, followed by drinks and socializing at a local brewery. More adventurous types can sign up for road races, or meet on the weekends for trail runs.

Diverse, health-oriented, and growing in popularity, athletic groups like Queer Run Club LA are a sign of how the LGBTQ+ community is reconnecting in a post-pandemic world.

DJ Ki, 27, and Jess Baron, 26, launched the group in August 2022, after Baron asked around on Instagram if anyone was interested in weekly runs for LGBTQ+ people.

“I used to run a lot,” Baron told The Advocate. “I ran in college all the time, I used to do a lot of 5K/10Ks. And then during the pandemic I kind of lost it and had the opposite response. I got really withdrawn and didn’t want to go outside and do as much."

Baron has been athletic most of her life, competing in track, dance and ice skating during her school years. She's well-connected with L.A.'s online network of queer sports groups, including West Hollywood Soccer Club, Dyke Soccer LA, WNBGAY basketball, and the local OutLoud Sports league.

“Once restrictions started to loosen up, I started playing soccer and kickball and stuff like that, and just realized how much I missed being active and, honestly, taking care of my body and physical health, after having health be such a big part of my life.”

Ki was less interested in team sports, preferring more solitary exercise like biking, boxing, and rock climbing. But when they got into running during the pandemic, they also began to think about starting a group. Then they noticed Baron’s posts on Instagram through mutual friends in WNBGAY, and decided to reach out.

“We talked about it [and said] ‘You know what, let’s just do it,’” they said. “‘If four or five people come, that’s a win! Let’s do it!’”

About 30 people showed up for the first run on August 8 at Silver Lake Reservoir. “We walk up and we’re like, what the hell is that crowd?” Ki said. “Is that for us?”

“I brought like 10 orange slices,” Baron laughed.

Turnout continued to reach 30-50 people over the next six months, despite a cold, rainy winter with runs taking place after dark. In early 2023, Queer Run Club appeared at races like the Pasadena Rose Bowl half marathon and the L.A. Chinatown Firecracker 5K/10K, and began meeting at multiple locations around Los Angeles to make the runs more accessible.

By the spring they’d added new captains to the team, and were exploring a larger online presence and potential brand sponsorships that could one day help members cover race fees and expensive running equipment.

Today the group ranges from ultra-marathoners to joggers and walkers, and includes people from a variety of ages, races, sexualities and gender identities — something Ki and Baron, who are Korean-American and Tunisian, respectively, are very proud of.

“One of the very first things we had talked about when we created this was running, at least in our experience, has always been a wealthier, whiter sport,” Baron said. “[We’re] trying to create a safe space for people of color who are interested in running, to have a space that’s not white cis dominated.”

Queer Run Club is one of many athletic groups that have experienced a surge of interest since the COVID-19 lockdown ended and people slowly emerged from quarantine, eager to get back in shape and rebuild their social lives.

WNBGAY initially started in 2019 as a group chat of queer friends who played basketball together, but when organizer Cass Spillman, 28, signed on in 2021, a lot more people were showing up.

“People really wanted to get out of the house and try to safely socialize as much as we could,” they told The Advocate. “We were like, okay, we need to really organize this and formally have a schedule so people can know when they can come. We established captains and a script for when we circle up, what we say to set the tone and the culture, what we’re trying to do at WNBGAY.”

Spillman sees the weekly games as a kind of playground, where queer people can reclaim and redefine their connection to sports and exercise.

I think for a lot of us, when we review our relationships to sports as gender expansive folks but also as queer folks, there is a lot of toxic elements that we all witnessed and went through when we were younger. Whether it was toxic coaching, or the primacy of the experience [being] competition and pressure.

"WNBGAY has become a community and a place where people can heal and experience queer joy on the court.”

In a Los Angeles LGBTQ+ scene that can be centered heavily around West Hollywood’s bar culture, they also feel it’s important to have queer organizations that are focused on health, wellness and teamwork, giving people a chance to form more authentic connections.

“We already know how difficult it is to create and build friendships as adults, but sports recreates the way we made friends when we were kids — through play, through exercise. It’s the perfect potion for what people are looking for, especially if they’re trying to be self improving or cut back on the nightlife routine.”

This growth in community sports comes at a time when LGBTQ+ athletes are increasingly under scrutiny and attack. In March, World Athletics announced new rules that would ban many transgender women from competing in female track and field events. Meanwhile, the political backlash against trans kids in America has gone so far that school officials in Florida have considered making it mandatory for female athletes to report their menstrual periods.

With headlines like these filling the news cycle every week, Queer Run Club and other groups highlight how sports can be an important refuge for LGBTQ+ people.

“It’s a place to build community,” said Ki. “It’s a place to find your own identity. Most people who are athletes, first and foremost they identify as athletes: My name is DJ, I’m a runner. And without that, it’s really hard to develop the social skills and come into the person you were meant to be.”

“For me it's like, what resources do I have to try to create change — social change, accessibility, equity, however I can,” said Baron, who has a background in teaching. “It doesn’t make me feel better necessarily about the world, but I want to make sure I use all the resources that I have to try, to do the best that I can to promote these safe spaces.”

“We're so proud of the community that we’ve built,” Ki added. “Just talking to people individually and them telling us, 'Wow, Queer Run Club has been so formative.' It’s super meaningful, and it’s a huge win.”

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