“Not Gay Enough” Softball Players Settle Suit

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Steven Apilado (kneeling, second from right), Jon Russ (holding banner at left) and LaRon Charles (center, next to Russ) are plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

SEATTLE — A gay softball organization has agreed to pay an undisclosed sum to three players who were disqualified from its 2008 Gay Softball World Series because of their perceived heterosexuality.

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And as part of the settlement announced Monday, their team will be awarded the second-place trophy it was denied at the time.

The men – Stephen Apilado, Laron Charles and John Russ – filed the federal lawsuit against the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance last year, claiming they had been discriminated against because they were bisexual, not gay.

They had played for years on a San Francisco-based team called D2. Rumors had persisted that the team was stacked with straight ringers, and when they made it all the way to the finals of the 2008 tournament in the Seattle area, others filed a protest, accusing D2 of exceeding the limit of two heterosexual players per team.

Tournament officials convened a protest committee and brought in five D2 members for questioning. In a conference room filled with about 25 people, many of them strangers, the players were asked questions about their sexuality and private lives. The protest committee then voted on whether the men were gay.

Two were determined to be gay, but the committee found Apilado, Charles and Russ to be straight. The organization said that at the time, the men never identified themselves as bisexual, were evasive or refused to answer questions about their sexuality. Minutes of the hearing say that Charles claimed to be gay but acknowledged being married to a woman, and Apilado initially said he was both gay and straight but then acknowledged being more attracted to women.

The men said they weren’t given the option of stating outright that they were bisexual, even though the organization considered bisexual players to be gay for roster purposes. They and their team were disqualified. One observer at the hearing commented, “This is not a bisexual World Series. This is a gay World Series.”

NAGAA said the settlement came after the organization won a series of motions limiting what claims the players could present at trial.

The players initially asked the court to throw out the roster limit on straight players as discriminatory. But U.S. District Judge John Coughenour ruled that the organization had a constitutional right to limit the number of straight players as a means of promoting their message that openly gay, bisexual and transgendered individuals can thrive in competitive sports.

The judge said the case could proceed to trial because questions remained about the way the softball association applied its rule, including whether the questions asked at the hearing were unnecessarily intrusive. The trial was set for next month.

“We have been vindicated by the judge’s First Amendment rulings,” said Roy Melani, NAGAAA’s commissioner. “This lawsuit threatened not only the purpose of our organization, but also its future. We fought hard to protect ourselves and our core identity and I am relieved this issue is finally behind us.”

Since the lawsuit was filed, NAGAAA has added language to its rules clarifying that bisexual and transgender players are fully welcomed participants in its events. As part of the settlement, the organization said disqualifying D2 was not consistent with its goal of welcoming bisexual players.

“NAGAAA regrets the impacts the 2008 protest hearing had on plaintiffs and their team,” the settlement reads.

The National Center for Lesbian Rights, which represented the men, welcomed the changes but said they should go even further. The group still wants NAGAAA to delete its roster limits on straight players, on the grounds that it encompasses gay players who are in the closet or who choose not to put a label on their sexuality.

Charles said he’s looking forward to playing more softball.

“It means a lot to me that NAGAAA is going to recognize our second place finish in 2008,” Charles said in a statement. “I look forward to continuing to play ball with my friends, teammates and community in NAGAAA’s tournaments.”

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