I was two minutes into my second interview of the book project when my interview subject–a loud-talking, Southern-drawling woman named DA Starkey–stopped me.
“You know we were all gay, right?” she boomed into my ear.
I laughed in response. “Well,” I replied, “I didn’t want to assume. But now that you’ve mentioned it, let’s talk about it.”
That book, Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League, was about the National Women’s Football League, the first professional women’s football league in U.S. history. The league existed from 1974 to 1988, launching during the women’s liberation movement and shortly after the passage of Title IX in 1972. It also existed in a post-Stonewall era, but many of the cities where the teams played were in less liberal areas of the country throughout Texas, Oklahoma, and Rust Belt states like Ohio. As a result, my co-author Lyndsey D’Arcangelo and I weren’t sure if the book would end up being explicitly queer.
We assumed that a good number of the players would be gay—not because we’re ones to buy into stereotypes, but because we’d seen their photos and read a little about the athletes and, as queer people ourselves, we tend to have a sixth sense about that kind of thing when we see it. What we didn’t know was whether any of the women would talk to us about being gay, whether they saw it as important or connected to their time in the league, or whether it was something they would want to discuss publicly at all. I’d reported on queer women playing in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League two decades prior, and it was impossible to get any of them to speak about it. They usually changed the subject with a brief, “We didn’t talk about any of that.” I wasn’t sure if this would be the same.
So when Starkey very quickly let me know that she was and had always been, in her words, “gay gay gay,” I was relieved. Because, sure, while we can write a book about a women’s football league without ever mentioning whether any of the women were lesbians, or by making it a footnote instead of a central theme, that book can never be the whole story. By telling a story that includes who these women were—who they really were—you can actually get a fuller sense of what this league was and what it meant to the women who played. Because the story of the NWFL is a sports history story, and it is a women’s history story, but it is also a queer history story.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: Not all of the women in the NWFL were queer. But estimates from the players range anywhere from 50-75% of their team being gay. “I knew a lot of the players already because we hung around in the gay bars together,” Starkey told me. “I came out to my parents when I was 14 years old. My dad said, ‘Well, sister, that’s a hard life, good luck,’ and it was never spoken about again. But I didn’t ever change, I was just a dyke. And it wasn’t a big deal back then! You know, people weren’t—we weren’t ridiculed for being gay! I never was.”
As soon as Starkey told me that she was gay and that she’d learned about the Dallas Bluebonnets in her local lesbian bar, there was no doubt in my mind that that bar scene, and the lesbian culture in middle America in the 1970s, would be central to the story we were trying to tell. For Starkey and many of the other players, their queerness was not just a footnote—it was the axis on which their participation in the league revolved.
“Going to the bars was not to go to bars,” said Bluebonnet player Betty Young. “It was our community. It was our home. The Bluebonnets were like that, too.”
Writing this book also showed me in a very tangible way, as a queer person who grew up in a time of relative acceptance, that people like me had always been here. Queer people have always existed, whether or not you can see them. If you know where to look, you can find them—it’s how I found the queer players of the AAGPBL by reading their obituaries. We have been hiding in plain sight—or, as with many of the women of the NWFL, not really hiding at all. But those narratives are often erased from history, rendering us invisible in larger cultural narratives.
I once interviewed an author about his book about an incredible woman athlete who played during the Victorian era. He wrote of her close friendship with another woman, of the trips they took together, how they were never apart. There is no confirmation that these women were ever anything more than friends, but as I read about their relationship, I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps they were. I asked the author about whether it had crossed his mind, and he said it had, but he didn’t want to speculate about that kind of thing because if he were wrong, it would be disrespectful.
I bristled at that characterization, but it’s a common one. It’s considered to be in bad taste to speculate about the sexuality of people from history, especially if there’s no proof of their queerness. But that fear of speculation implies that being queer is something that someone should be ashamed of and that to wrongly accuse someone of being gay would be a great offense. Similarly, leaving out the very explicit gay history of a league like the NWFL is to imply the queerness should be a source of shame, or that it diminishes what the women in the league were able to accomplish during their time on the gridiron.
When I talked to these players, I found that many of them were willing to open up right away about their own gayness or their teammates’. The lesbian bars of the 1970s had been their homes, and the NWFL teams served similar functions as the bars—safe community spaces. If a player came out to me, I would often come out in return to let them know that I was one of them, and to hopefully reassure them that their story would be handled with care, by someone who “got” it and had no intention of sensationalizing it.
But there was one thing I didn’t share: that I was married to a cishet man. My interview with Starkey was in June of 2019, and I was sitting in the TV room in the house I shared with my husband. I remember trying very hard not to mention the gender of my partner, wanting to feel an affinity with an elder of mine, wanting to be seen for the person I knew I was, the person I feared would be invisible the moment I used a pronoun or the word “husband.” It was an omission I’d found myself making a lot more often, and not just while conducting interviews for the book. At social events where I knew no one there would ever meet my husband, I’d refer to my “spouse.” At events we had to attend together, I would be embarrassed that people knew he was with me.
Each progressive phone call I made to Bluebonnets players was another exercise in trying really hard not to talk about myself and hoping no one asked, while also desperately hoping they would see me as a kindred spirit. I felt like a fraud—not because a queer person can’t be in a relationship with cishet man, but because I knew that, for me, I was not being authentic to my own feelings in doing so. I felt guilty for deceiving these women I was forming a connection with and who were trusting me with their story.
I began to be resentful of my husband, to feel suffocated. I was like that frog in boiling water who hadn’t felt the heat progressively rising until it was so hot it was scalding. The pot I was sitting in was roiling all around me, and I couldn’t take the heat any longer. Being married to a man no longer felt like something my queerness could exist within; being married to a man now felt like a lie.
About a month after I began reporting Hail Mary, I asked my husband for a divorce. I wrote the book while the rest of my life was up in the air, telling the stories of my elders as a grounding force and a guiding light.
These women inspired me, as people who were openly gay at a time when it was incredibly unsafe to live that way. I realized that I was ready to live in a way that was authentic to who I was, too. What a gift it is to be able to bring their stories to the world while I’m continuing to write my own.
Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer who focuses on the intersection of sports and gender. They are the co-author of Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League.