When Jovan Madjercic, a player and coach in Hamilton's Steel City Inclusive Softball Association, tells people he's headed to the Gay Softball World Series, he often gets a similar response.
"My friends who are not part of the league are like, 'Holy crap, something like that exists?'" says the 43-year-old music teacher, who leaves for Minneapolis-St.Paul, Minn., with the Hamilton team on Sunday. "It will be great to show the World Series who we are."
His team is made up of 18 players drawn from the Hamilton league's competitive and recreational teams — one of only three Canadian teams expected to play at the week-long event. The other two are from Vancouver's West End Slo Pitch Association, says Steel City league communications director Ashley Letts.
The Canadian athletes will be among the 225 teams and more than 4,500 participants expected in Minnesota for the World Series, which, according to organizers, is one of the largest annual gay sporting events in the world.
The Steel City Inclusive Softball Association joined the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance in 2022. (Submitted by Ashley Letts)
The players fly to Minnesota this weekend and begin playing Tuesday, with finals set for Saturday, Sept. 2. In addition to the many softball games, the week's special events include a Taylor Dayne concert and a Minnesota Twins theme night.
"We're going there to celebrate softball with an exorbitant amount of queer people," said Madjercic, who says he's excited to be "representing queer people in Hamilton."
Local league a safe space for LGBTQ+ community
According to Madjercic, the three-year-old Steel City Inclusive Softball Association is the "largest and fastest-growing queer organization in Hamilton." The league has 22 teams across its recreational and competitive divisions.
The league bills itself as a "safe and fun space for Hamilton's 2SLGBTQIA+ community and allies." It was accepted into the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance last year, paving the way for this year's participation in the World Series. Steel City is the only Hamilton sports league and just the third in Canada to be part of the alliance, which also includes Toronto's Cabbagetown Group Softball League.
Letts, the communications director, says the Hamilton league includes players who have attended the World Series in the past while with other leagues, and found it to be an empowering, community-building experience.
"Seeing this kind of camaraderie and the scope and love of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community outside our own backyard is particularly important for players from a city like Hamilton, where progress and acceptance sometimes feel slow to come," she told CBC Hamilton in an email.
Rayne Jarvis, another player on Hamilton's team heading to Minnesota, says that's why being part of the league has been such a positive experience — "It's such a beautiful, beautiful environment" amid a city that has seen its share of homophobia.
Rayne Jarvis says they always loved softball but never found a team with the right vibe until they joined Hamilton's Steel City Inclusive Softball Association. (Faye Cooper/Submitted by Steel City Inclusive Softball Association)
The city received national attention after violence erupted at its 2019 Pride festival in Gage Park and the police service was scrutinized for its response to the melee. Both then-mayor Fred Eisenberger and former police Chief Eric Girt apologized after an independent review found the police response to be inadequate.
The city also saw a record number of hate crimes reported to police in 2021, with the LGBTQ+ community among the most targeted groups. More recently, a homophobic slur was scrawled on the door of a downtown guest house.
'A bunch of queers who love softball'
Jarvis, 32, says all of that feels far away when the league hosts its regular games at Eastwood Park in Hamilton's North End.
They said the games draw some area residents to watch, and people living in the apartment building that looms over one of the baseball fields have hung Pride flags from their balconies.
Jarvis, who came out as queer at about nine years old, said they played softball at various levels in their teens but never felt like they fit in.
"It wasn't always the most inviting environment but I still loved the sport," they told CBC Hamilton earlier this week. "I expected softball to be the queerest thing ever. I'm not sure if it was the teams I was on, but it wasn't like that."
They gave up on sports for a long time after that, but were drawn back in by the inclusive community at Steel City. Now, they can't wait to grow that community through the folks they meet in Minnesota.
"I'm excited to see all the different teams play [and] I'm excited to see a city light up with a bunch of queers who love softball," Jarvis said.