As part of our celebration of Pride Month, the Rams will be spotlighting four LA non-profits/small businesses supporting the LGBTQ+ community, aiming to raise awareness of those organizations' efforts.
The series kicks off with the Varsity Gay League, the nation's original Queer+ recreational sports leagues.
Founded in 2007 as an alternative to the bar and nightlife scene by creating out of the box games and activities for the queer community, Varsity Gay League (VGL) was inspired by CEO and Founder Will Hackner's experiences growing up.
"While recreational sports have long existed in the "straight" world, queer opportunities were limited to football, softball, soccer and basketball – great sports, but ones built in with a hyper masculine perspective," Hackner said. "For those folks, like me, who did not grow up in organized games, and spent the better part of my childhood being bullied for not being athletic and small, I wanted to create a space where we could play and remove as much judgement as possible."
That identity first manifested with a game of capture the flag, and now programs 40 activities per week to more than 7,000 queer adults across America, with those activities ranging from kickball to beach volleyball and basketball to football.
Recently, VGL celebrated its 15th anniversary and also shot a commercial with McDonald's as the fast food chain's first-ever queer partner. That commercial was shot with Hackner and his friends and teammates, plus players of their community.
"The hope, of course, is to bring more representation to sports through a different lens," Hackner said. "It's also really exciting to say you've been in a McDonalds commercial."
Community is what motivates VGL. Hacker said the connectedness of sports allows it to be a perfect platform for building confidence and friendship, and also "to date, to exercise, to network – it's a social sphere where the burden to impress is built on being a team player, and not being an icon."
To that end, VGL has worked with more than 40,000 individuals, including 13,000 in L.A. alone.
" All of their stories and moments and emotions have resonated deeply within me for years," Hackner said. "Their stories became my story, because I've watched them experience it. It's a true blessing to have empathy and kindness surround you, and that starts with a positive supportive community."
Hackner said he's proud not only of the organization's growth, but also the inspiration it has provided to many other groups throughout the country.
"Ultimately, my goal is to create a queer sports space in every metropolitan city in the United States, regardless of the state coloring," Hackner said. "We want to continue to make sports more accessible to novices and, most importantly, have fun long past our prime."
When it becomes to being better allies for the LGBTQ+ community, Hackner pointed to being a supportive voice.
"Allies is such an antiquated term, from my perspective," Hackner said. "I think acceptance of the queer community has evolved, whether forced or not. Certainly not everywhere, and certainly not with those toxic masculine people that think a trans athlete is cheating the system, or gays are hitting on them in the locker room. This clearly exists, and everyone should find this revolting. But the vast majority of people now know a queer person, and whether they accept them or not, they are forced to engage with them, which is the true starting point of education and growth.
"In those moments, I think, that's when 'allies' can shine. By supporting a friend, standing by their side, speaking up in a room full of negative, blasting down a social media post – essentially doing what one would do to a best friend – an ally can reinforce the truth about all people: we all have blood, we all cry, we all laugh, we all die, we all want love, we all want to be understood. People's differences should be celebrated, not demonized – and allies can help be that voice."
According to Hackner, there are many ways people can celebrate pride.
"Pride is about answering that little voice that screams in your head when a Kelly Clarkson banger comes on, or your favorite movie icon returns, or the perfect beer matches the beer sunset – it's expressing unfettered joy," Hackner said. "Pride should be about celebrating as best as you can. It doesn't require rainbows – lord knows they have become overdone. It just requires answering the call in your body and celebrating. Pride is a firework with a really great soundtrack. Pride is amazing ice cream, on a hot day, that never drips. Pride is line dancing for 10 hours and knowing all the choreography. While many use Pride Month as a time of reflection for how far we've come on the backs of generations who struggled for so many others, for me, I want to see Pride Month is that special time where we get to celebrate US."