Joining a bowling team typically is a normal, middle-class thing to do, but as the token straight man in a league filled with gay and lesbian bowlers, it became less of a sport for me and more of a weekly education in tolerance.
James, my best friend who also was a co-worker in the Information Technology department at my company, invited me to fill a vacancy on his team. The last time I had bowled in a league setting, however, was the summer before my freshman year of high school and I was concerned about my ability to compete after a 20-year hiatus from the sport.
I also had reservations about being the “odd man”, so to speak. During our long friendship, James and I only had one big fight about my attitude towards alternative lifestyles, an attitude that I didn’t know I possessed until he called it to my attention. He said I was stereotyping, thinking all gay men were “Nelly Queens” and called me homophobic. In retaliation, I told him I was fed up with his “heterophobia” and fear of the straight world. James and I later made peace about this, each one accepting and respecting the lifestyle choice of the other.
After voicing my sports and sexuality concerns, James took me to a local sporting goods outlet and, after parting with about $100 of my hard-earned money, I became the proud owner of a custom-drilled bowling ball engraved with my initials, a bag and a towel to wipe off the oil that bowling alleys use to condition the lanes. Though James and I had talked at length about the habits and customs of his friends, I wasn’t exactly prepared for the folks who were proud members of the “Monday Moaners,” the gay and lesbian league that took control of Carriage Bowl (and later Western Lanes) from 7-10 p.m. every Monday night.
Things that turned out were quite unexpected that night as nothing could have prepared me for this and I had butterflies in my stomach about facing the best players in the game that I had done research about at aboutbowlingballs.com and therefore I had no choice but plunge into the picture and give my best.
On that first night, all my fears seemed unfounded. Except for a few flamboyant bowlers, the folks who showed up could easily have been members of my church congregation. There were no flashing neon signs screaming “Yeah, I’m Gay” above anyone’s head and no one was running around the alley wearing pink taffeta or feather boas.
Most players were dead serious bowlers, though. An older gentleman named Ran always brought a customized suitcase filled with balls for every situation, including a specially-drilled one that he called a “fingertip ball.” This one, he told me, was for converting a tricky split into a spare. I even spent one summer bowling on Ran’s team and it was there that I learned that he truly agonized over every pin and every frame.
Being the new guy in the league, there were, of course, a lot of questions asked about me, James told me later. A few of the single guys inquired about my dating status and were disappointed when James revealed that I was 100% straight. There were no hard feelings about my orientation, though, since we were all there to bowl. The only real complaints came when my league average for that first night was a less-than-impressive 70 pins.
Over time, I did become a better bowler, but the team’s dynamic changed. James left the league over a disagreement with our team captain, which I thought would also end my association with the league, but the captain assured me that I was always welcome. New members joined us, some of whom were incredibly gifted bowlers and made us serious contenders for the first place trophy. At the start of one season, though, all my teammates abandoned me to bowl with their friends, leaving me floundering for a few weeks before I found a slot on another team. Loyalty, it seems, is a fleeting thing in the world of gay bowling.
At first, I kept to myself and listened to the stories my teammates would tell about their lives. To my heterosexual ears, some of these tales seemed scandalous, especially our team captain’s thrilling account of his dalliance with the bellman at a vacation resort. It seemed that the entire league was preoccupied with sex, especially various bowlers who hooked up during the games and shared a bed later that night.
That’s not to say that I didn’t fall in love myself, especially since there were a lot of attractive ladies in the league. One evening, Kim, who everyone simply called “K.Y.”, was shocked to learn that I was heterosexual and spent the rest of the night kissing me square on the mouth after each of her strikes and spares. That turned out to be a one-night fling for Kim, though, since she was devoted to her life partner Carla. I was more than just a little heart-broken, though.
I soon learned that several bowlers were HIV-positive or had full-blown AIDS. One friend who used prescription drugs to control the virus in his blood showed me how his hands swelled in reaction to a new blood pressure treatment prescribed by his physician. Kim also recited a disturbing list of ailments and cancers that she had battled for years.
One teammate even routinely took a break between the second and third games to go out to his truck and smoke marijuana to relieve his pain. Other friends and acquaintances suffered from what are called “opportunistic infections,” which can take months to recover from. Some good friends never returned after our summer break, having quietly let go of life before the league started up again in the fall.
After changing teams and teammates many times over a 7-year period, most people simply assumed I was gay, especially since I returned to the league like clockwork every September. At that point in my bowling career, it became easier to maintain an illusion of homosexuality than to keep reminding them that I was straight. I was just one of the boys and that was fine with me; I looked forward to hanging out with them on Monday nights after work.
In a league such as ours, however, there was little chance of me finding someone to date seriously, so I made a tough decision in the summer of 2004 not to rejoin the league. I wanted a girlfriend and, if things worked out, a wife, something I probably would not find on Monday evenings at Western Lanes.
Looking back on those days, I can see that my heart and tolerance grew a lot more than my bowling average. When listening to my friends and teammates complain about their relationships, I realized that their gripes were the same as mine with the exception of the genders involved. Straight and gay couples deal with issues in pretty much the same way; we’re all human beings after all and we all suffer from the human condition.
I do miss my bowling buddies, but this token straight man needed to spare himself some grief and strike out on his own.