When The Rules Were Different
If you've watched the television version of “A League of Their Own,” no doubt you cheered—at least to yourself—when some of the players discovered a secret lesbian bar and could, for a brief moment, be themselves. “Let’s forget the rules for one night,” Jo says to Greta. And, if you grew up as a lesbian in the 1950s and 60s, as I did, it wasn’t just compelling TV; it was how you felt the first time you realized you might possibly be able to have a real life.
I went to see the movie version of “A League of Their Own” when it came out in 1992. I was 40 that summer, and I went because I loved Penny Marshall and Geena Davis, and because it was fun to see women play baseball. I didn’t go expecting to see the stories of the many lesbians who actually played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, because I knew that if that was any part of the plot, it would be minimal, and it was. But it was a good movie, and it was fun to learn a tiny, though flawed, bit about this part of American history.
No matter how lucky I feel getting to be myself in the world, I never, ever take it for granted, and I know that telling our story is as important as breathing.
This summer, when I discovered the television version of the story, created by Abbi Jacobson and Will Graham, it immediately felt like a different take on that history. Just for starters, there was a strong, black, female character who wasn’t in the movie, and there was clearly an attraction between a couple of the players. With each episode, we saw so much more than women's baseball. Not only were there several fully developed black characters, complete with the gut-wrenching discrimination they experienced in 1943, but there were lesbians—several of them. Not surprisingly to me, or I imagine to any other lesbian watching it this summer, these women were as “normal” as they could be, even faced with having to keep their sexuality and their partners a secret.
Besides being entertained, what I felt most was gratitude, and a gripping ache inside of me. As a young teenager, grappling with feelings I didn’t even understand, I never dreamed that I would one day be sitting in my living room with my female spouse watching a television show that presented the truth about what it was like to grow up gay. When the players were told they needed to wear skirts to look more feminine, when they had to attend a crash “charm school,” when they had to hide behind boyfriends and husbands, and when some were beaten up for living openly—all of that reminded me of that feeling that hung over me back in the 1960s—when the rules ruled.
I knew no one else who was gay back then, though I'm sure many people were. I saw no adults who looked like I felt, and certainly none who lived openly with their gay partners. When I was in college, I met older lesbians, who had traveled a much tougher road than I had. They recounted the torture of living two lives—as straight people during the day at their “acceptable” jobs, and as gay people at night when they could dress as they wished and be comfortable at home or in gay clubs. Even then, when I was just out of the closet, it seemed like so much work ... and so much pain.
I feel lucky that the world began to change not long after that, and that I had growing circles of friends who saw me as me. The fact that I was a lesbian was not different to them than the fact that I had blue eyes. But the shame that I felt inside me all those years was hard to shake. It took a lot of therapy and a lot of intentionally loving and supporting myself. One of my favorite things about young LGBTQ people today is that their love and acceptance of who they are is applauded. In a recent conversation with two young trans people, I felt a little like those older lesbians I met in college. Their ease with themselves was such a relief, and a feeling I would have paid money for all those years ago.
Having now relished the first season of "A League of Their Own," I’m bowing to Jacobson and Graham for reminding us all of what it took for the world to get here. No matter how lucky I feel getting to be myself in the world, I never, ever take it for granted, and I know that telling our story is as important as breathing.