A basketball-sized ball is bowled along Rushcutters Bay Park as the nearby water catches the sun’s final rays. A man dressed as a cow goes to kick it, but misses. He curtsies elaborately to style it out, the cow’s tail slapping his back.
“Strike one!” A ref calls.
“You’ll get it next time!” A fellow bovine-attired player shouts, swooshing his own tail in solidarity.
“Mooo!” The kicker responds.
Soon, the assembled line of kickers follow, everyone now chanting a moo of encouragement. On the second bowl, the ball is kicked at a velocity that propels it across the field.
Fielders stir into action. A man in a tutu and giant fairy wings throws the ball at the kicking cow, who leaps over it.
The crowd erupts, half of them mooing, the other half cheering.
The next time the ball is kicked high into the air, it plummets directly above me. I gulp.
That familiar voice enters my head, “You won’t catch it, you worthless – .” I sometimes manage to catch the ball in training. But I lose my nerve in the game.
Thankfully, the inner voice gets drowned out by others: cheers of encouragement from my team and – perhaps counterintuitively – supportive words from the opposing team.
Still, I don’t catch it.
“Nice try!” I hear. I scoop up the ball and return it to the pitcher, preventing my rival from reaching the next base. “Good one, Gazz!” A teammate shouts.
This is a game that has filled most of my Sundays since the end of the first lockdown in 2020.
The game is kickball. The rules are similar to baseball or softball, with kicking instead of batting. And you sprint around the bases to score a run – as fielders try to catch you out.
The league is Emerald City Kickball, which nurtures self-expression and connection among the LGBTQIA community and its allies. One way it does this is by inviting players to partake in an optional fancy dress theme for each weekly game.
It started as a quirky game imported to Sydney from the US in the form of an LGBTQIA sports league in 2020. We played outdoors when health regulations permitted.
It has since grown from 60 players to 120 players in Sydney, and a sister league has just finished its first season in Perth. Its founders are now eyeing Melbourne and Canberra expansions.
On a personal level, not only has the game been my saviour, it has created a volte-face.
As a young gay guy, I wrote off team sports as something straight boys did. The toxic masculine culture didn’t just exclude me, it scared and deterred me.
Even as I grew more comfortable in my own skin, I remained unconvinced team sports were my bag. Many of the LGBTQIA team sports, while friendly, seemed dominated by people who didn’t look like me: people who I saw as ripped, six-foot tall, handsome. I’m five-foot six and ginger.
Emerald City Kickball changed that. It’s not just inclusive of LGBTQIA people, it features a variety of races, ages, genders, body shapes and confidence levels.
It includes those who take the game very seriously, down to those who mainly attend for the community and connection. Weekly fancy dress themes set the tone for how competitive you want to be on the day.
Herein lies EC Kickball’s point of difference. Instead of team before self, our league nourishes individuality and self-expression within the game. Our uniforms get styled up and accessorised. We’re sporty, but everyone gets equal pitch time.
In 2020, I lost three of my regular journalism columns. Three big, long-term projects I’d been working on were lost to the pandemic. The stress of this affected my closest relationships. The first wave of COVID swept away with it my self-worth and the spring in my step.
A friend suggested the kickball open day to restore my spirits.
At a time we were encouraged to keep our distance, here was the opportunity to be with others outside, safely.
At a time the queer community’s places of connection were being taken from us – Sydney’s landmark gay venues The Green Park and ARQ both closed permanently – EC Kickball restored this community. Right when we needed it most.
As I’ve grown my confidence and social network, I’ve watched other queer people blossom around me. Quieter, shy players are given the opportunity to shine through being coached to improve at the game, and by the extensive social events on offer.
After losing every single game in season one, my debut teammate Matt and I are reunited in a team for season four. Matt coaches us. We come a respectable third, losing just one game.
The end of season awards ceremony is a highlight. At the first one, I heard a player sob as he explained how kickball had saved him from the double isolation that came with being both queer and locked down.
At our most recent awards ceremony, I was asked to present the award for most positive player. I nervously practised my introduction speech for days beforehand. On the night, after leading the league through a drum-roll, a screen showed the individual winner from each team. It was time to announce them, then I saw the first name on the screen: me! Cue award laughter.
Accidentally presenting an award to myself was a fittingly entertaining way to mark a hobby that has given me camaraderie, purpose and, on most Saturday nights, restraint from partying.
The founders of EC Kickball have used Mardi Gras to pay tribute to the Australian culture they love, dressing as bin chickens last year and fairy bread this year.
But there was one magical moment that sums it all up for me. At a Mardi Gras party, I ventured outside with the handful of revellers brave enough to face the torrential deluge. Suddenly, I spotted EC Kickball founders JES III and Jamarr to my left and right. They enveloped me in a warm kickball hug as rain pelted us.
At the following week’s game, I told JES III how that moment was special – my Mardi Gras highlight.
“It was more than special,” he countered. “It was healing.”
I joked that “healing” was the most American word ever. But after my LGBTQIA community has been savaged by the pandemic and our gay village shrunk to a hamlet by development, “healing” I concede, is wonderfully accurate.