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Serving with Pride

Since 1991, the Vancouver Tennis Association has been a welcoming haven for queer athletes. A special Tyee audio report.

Josh Kozelj 12 Jan 2023TheTyee.ca

Josh Kozelj is the inaugural Hummingbird Fellow with The Tyee.

Propped up against a fence in the suburbs of Houston, Texas, Joe Crowell took a couple steps forward, bent his knees and squeezed the sticky tape on the handle of his tennis racquet.

He wasn’t sure what would happen next.

Ms. World, a drag queen from San Antonio who also played competitive tennis in her teenage years, stood halfway up the court. A basket of tennis balls rested by her feet.

Crowell was in Houston for a tournament and met Ms. World while couchsurfing. They’d hit the tennis ball together during off-days, and during those sessions, Ms. World noticed a flaw in Crowell’s game.

She wanted to help — so she started smacking tennis balls at him.

The balls came in rapid succession towards his face, nose and arms. Crowell was helpless and flung his racquet around in distress. When the onslaught ended, Crowell looked for an explanation to the tough love.

“When [it was] all over she said, ‘There! You no longer have a backswing in your volley because I noticed you had one the other day,’” Crowell said.

Listen to VTA member Joe Crowell's recollection of Ms. World's tennis lesson.  Audio recorded by Josh Kozelj.

The VTA’s first serve

Growing up in Vancouver, Crowell was never heavily involved in sports.

But by 1990, he had been living with HIV for years and figured a healthy lifestyle was his only hope of extending his life expectancy.

“I was considered a long-term HIV-AIDS survivor. That’s what I was categorized as back then,” Crowell said. “There were no drugs yet, so we were just hanging on, looking for piecemeal.”

The same year, the Gay Games, a quadrennial sports tournament for LGBTQ2S+ athletes, came to Vancouver. Crowell, looking for a sport that would foster a healthy lifestyle, volunteered to keep score at the tournament’s tennis matches.

Watching tennis on summer days in Stanley Park, Jericho Park and Spanish Banks fostered his love for the sport. Crowell made friends within the tennis community, including one drag queen from Oregon who mentioned that tennis was on its way to becoming one of the most popular sports for gay and lesbian athletes.

“It’s an inexpensive sport, you just need a racquet and a good pair of shoes,” Crowell said. “You have the option of [playing] all by yourself or with someone who you trust and love.”

Following the Gay Games, the tournament’s tennis director, Bud Foley, decided to launch a LGBTQ2S+ tennis club in Vancouver. A few core members who were involved with the tennis tournament, including Crowell, agreed and the Vancouver Tennis Association was born.

But there was still one problem: gaining acceptance in the wider sports community.

Playing through the stigma

When the VTA launched in 1991, the club mainly attracted novice players who wanted to learn how to play the game in a fun, light-hearted environment.

“Anyone who was really playing the sport at that time didn’t want to come near the queers,” Crowell said.

Brian Bella, who joined the club in 1994, had been playing tennis for years before becoming a VTA member. At the time, as he was in the process of coming out, the VTA offered him a safe space to be around other LGBTQ2S+ athletes — many of whom he still keeps in touch with today.

“The first thing I did when I was coming out was join the club,” Bella said. “It was one of the best things I ever did because most of my best friends from that time are still my friends now.”

Two men stand together in an indoor tennis court with a blue floor. Jeff Worthington, left, wears a white T-shirt and black athletic shorts; one hand is on the shoulder of his friend while the other holds his tennis racquet aloft. Brian Bella, right, is wearing a red Team Canada t-shirt. Both are smiling.
Brian Bella, right, joined the VTA in 1994. 'It was one of the best things I ever did,' he says. He stands with Jeff Worthington, left, at the North Vancouver Tennis Centre during a break in a tournament featuring teams from Seattle and Portland. Worthington captains the Seattle team. Photo submitted.

Historically, however, sports can be an uncomfortable space for LGBTQ2S+ individuals. Locker room cultures can be filled with slurs and stigmatize queer people.

In hockey, specifically, former professional player Brock McGillis told CBC that homophobic and racist slurs are commonplace in locker rooms.

And on-ice, the situation isn’t much better.

A Hockey Canada report released last month found over 900 incidents of on-ice discrimination, including taunts and insults, were recorded across all age groups during the 2021-22 season. Over 500 penalties that were called for discrimination during that season, and 61 per cent involved sexual orientation or gender identity.

In recent months, the National Hockey League, the most popular league in the world, has taken steps to stand with the LGBTQ2S+ community.

In November, the NHL voiced support for the Team Trans Draft Tournament, an event to showcase transgender and non-binary hockey players. Following some backlash on Twitter, the NHL doubled down on their messaging and the landmark show of solidarity was hailed as a progressive shift in hockey culture.

Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of the LGBTQ2S+ sports website Outsports, says heteronormative language used in sports can exclude gay and lesbian athletes and make them feel uncomfortable.

“When you are in a men's sports atmosphere, particularly as youth, so much of the conversation is about girls and sex with girls and girl body parts,” Zeigler said. “And if you're gay guy, you just don't feel like you are part of that conversation.”

Listen to Outsports co-founder Cyd Zeigler discuss his coming out story, getting involved with sports and how locker room conversations can make queer athletes uncomfortable.  Audio recorded by Josh Kozelj.

Amidst backlash, momentum

Vancouver’s gay community has a long and robust history in the West End.

The first parade in the Davie Village took place in 1978 and the Vancouver Pride Society has been advocating for the community for decades.

Before the 1990 Gay Games, however, members of a Fraser Valley church took out full-page ads in the Vancouver Sun and the Province to denounce the event. The then-provincial government turned down three applications for funding from the event’s organizers. Threats were made against the games’ board members. And police warned that violence might occur at the festivities.

Despite all those forces conspiring against the Gay Games, it went off without a hitch.

Following the tournament, Crowell and the VTA frequently travelled to the U.S. to meet and play against other LGBTQ2S+ players. In 1991, Crowell went to Seattle for a tournament and interacted with players who inspired him to make the club more organized.

In 1994, Crowell became president of the VTA and was determined to grow the club similarly to the U.S. clubs. The first step was to become affiliates of the Gay and Lesbian Tennis Alliance, an organization that hosts over 70 tournaments a year throughout the world.

To build on the success of the Gay Games tennis tournament, the club wanted to host their own annual tournament in conjunction with the Vancouver Pride festival.

By 2000, that vision came true.

A welcoming space for the next generation

When Jeff Hernaez moved to Vancouver five years ago, he was in the process of coming out.

He had heard of the city’s notoriously aloof reputation and wondered whether he would find a safe space to find new people — people who he could trust.

Hernaez grew up playing tennis recreationally in Toronto, and when he came to Vancouver, he joined the VTA and gained comfort in meeting LGBTQ2S+ people from different careers, ages and backgrounds.

Like Bella years earlier, the club allowed Hernaez, the VTA’s current president, to feel comfortable expressing his sexuality and form a social community in Vancouver.

Listen to VTA president Jeff Hernaez remembering how he got involved with the club and why tennis is important to him.  Audio recorded by Josh Kozelj.

The VTA has over 200 members and meets throughout the year. From the fall to the spring, they rent courts at the North Vancouver Tennis Centre and during the summer they play at Stanley Park.

Since becoming president in 2020, Hernaez wants to continue fostering a fun environment and grow the club.

In his early days on the board, he admits that the club struggled to retain new members. When an organization has existed for years, like the VTA, he understands how it can be hard for new members to fit in — especially if they are new to tennis, or in the process of coming out.

“I know it’s scary. It can be intimidating, as I think it can be joining any new social setting,” he said. “Something I've found as president of the club, is [it's] really important to make it a very welcoming space.”

He also emphasizes that the club is open to everyone, including people who aren’t out as gay yet, people who are out, and allies.

The VTA was born out of a desire for inclusion, and that’s a mantra Hernaez won’t ever forget.

“I find it important to emphasize why the VTA is here, why this [LGTBQ2S+] space is important in Vancouver,” he said.

“Particularly in the West End.”

Listen to Josh Kozelj’s full 20-minute podcast on the history and significance of the Vancouver Tennis Association.  Reporting and audio by Josh Kozelj.
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