By James Bridget Gordon
Two years ago this summer, the Tampa Bay Rays’ annual Pride Night was repurposed to honor the victims and survivors of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando. Fans, players, team and league flacks, all basically shared the same message: we’re part of this community and our neighbors are in need.
“In the wake of a terrible tragedy, and in a matter of hours, 40,000 people have chosen to come together, to stand side by side in a show of support for the victims, their families, the city of Orlando and the greater LGBT community,” Rays president Brian Auld said at the time.
In a wider sense, that’s what most LGBT Pride Nights hosted by MLB teams are about when there isn’t a horrific tragedy to grieve. Queer people are fans of the team and members of the community. Like Hispanic Heritage nights around the league or the Cardinals’ “Christian Day,” Pride Nights are a simple and low cost way to make a particular constituency feel welcome at the ballpark. (And if we’re being cynical, a means of customer retention.)
To the extent that promotional nights like these are a sign of social progress, it’s in the simple and lowkey recognition that LGBT folks are actual humans— your neighbors, your coworkers, your PTA organizers, and fellow fans of your team. It seems almost trite now, but 30-40 years ago this kind of institutional acceptance would’ve been unthinkable.
And for some ballclubs, it still is.
The Yankees are notable for refusing to have any kind of gameday promotion with a cultural or ethnic bent, and LGBT Pride Nights are no exception. Of course queer fans are welcome at Yankee Stadium, along with “[everyone] of every nationality, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation and/or preference,” according to Yankees spokesman Jason Zillo. “We are a long-term believer in diversity and inclusion, and have always looked to create a safe and supportive environment for all fans to enjoy their experience here.”
But that appears to be as far as the Yankees are willing to go. For decades their refusal to have any kind of Pride Night promotion would’ve been greeted as a total nothingburger. But the Cubs’ first Pride Night back in 2001— Wrigley Field, of course, being steps away from historic gayborhood Boystown— opened the floodgates. With most major league ballclubs hosting Pride Nights during the season, and the league hiring Billy Bean as an executive to promote diversity and inclusion, the Yankees find themselves sticking out like sore thumbs.
Yet they’re not totally isolated. Three other major league clubs have also never hosted a Pride Night— the Angels, the Reds, and the Brewers.
Of course, teams are not obliged to have an LGBT promotion, even in the face of the league-wide trend and wider social acceptance. And even Bean admits that not having a Pride Night is not an indictment of a team’s commitment to diversity. “The idea of a team not hosting a pride night is not a complete assessment of its stance on inclusion, especially where baseball’s responsibility lies,” Bean said. But as any LGBT person will tell you after trying to live in a country where legal protections are eroding and public support for them is waning, silence can often be deafening.
Pride Nights have their share of problems. Looking to large corporations— and let’s not mince words, professional baseball is a big business— to lead the way on social progress is a fast and easy path to disappointment. The kind of queer assimilation into mainstream society (as exemplified by promotional nights at sporting events) ends up leaving large swaths of the community out in the cold. And these promotions often end up— probably inadvertently— leading to the erasure of the people they’re supposed to welcome. To say nothing of the fact that many LGBT folks— especially those who fall under the T in the acronym— don’t necessarily feel safe being “out” in public spaces. There’s still a complex calculus that queer people end up performing on the fly in large social settings— often with the knowledge that their lives could be at stake.
But it’s those problems that prove why Pride Night promotions are necessary in the first place. Teams and leagues will inevitably screw up, but most LGBT people know and appreciate good faith efforts to do better when they see them. The trepidation involved in being “out” in public spaces are exactly why it’s important for those spaces to be inclusive— to signal to LGBT folks that they are in fact welcome. League press releases may dance around the language used to describe a promotion, but no PR spin can wash away a group of people who show up.
When the Pulse nightclub shooting happened, politicians and media pundits bent over backwards to avoid talking about what kind of people were killed and why. In the current political and social climate, just surviving and refusing to hide is an act of defiance. Pride Night promotions may be fundamentally about customer care and brand activation, but sometimes the gestures matter.
James Bridget Gordon is a writer and sports journalist based in Chicago. They write about soccer, LGBTQ politics, contemporary art, and pop culture. You can find them on Twitter as @thaumatropia.