Out at the ballgame

Reno Aces Pride Night is new—but LGBTQ sports events in Reno are not

Reno Aces Pride Night will be held at Greater Nevada Field at 7:05 p.m., Aug. 17. For tickets, visit www.renoaces.com or call 334-4700.

On Aug. 17, the Reno Aces and Our Center will host the first ever Pride Night at Greater Nevada Field, aimed at including sports fans among Reno’s LGBTQ community. The Aces are the third triple-A team in the Pacific Coast League to prioritize such an event, behind the El Paso Chihuahuas and the Sacramento River Cats—against whom the Aces will play that night.

“It was an idea we wanted to do for a while,” said Alex Strathearn, account executive with the Reno Aces. “We wanted to participate with the other minor league organizations who are doing Pride Night and really connecting with the community.”

Strathearn believes the recent efforts in the minor league are due to examples set by teams in the major league, like the San Francisco Giants, who have held pride events for the past several years.

According to national LGBTQ sports blog Outsports, this year, a third of the teams in the MLB hosted Pride Nights in June, a figure that suggests a changing cultural landscape in a sport associated with traditional American values.

“I know that sports have been a community that traditionally … have been generally less accepting of the LGBTQ community,” Strathearn said. “With that being said, I think that our upper management and our structure here have really nailed home the fact that this isn’t something that we’re doing because everybody else is doing this. We don’t feel that this is a duty of ours. This is a desire of ours.”

Rodeo days

LGBTQ-specific events have drawn the ire of some fans. One commenter posted on the Reno Aces Facebook page, “That’s one night I won’t be taking my grandkids to. Thanks for the heads up.” However, Strathearn said the Aces’ fan base has been largely supportive.

“We actually have little to no pushback from the community at large,” he said. “We’ve seen the little Facebook comments here and there kind of bashing the night itself, but, realistically speaking, there’s been so little pushback from our fans and our community that we really haven’t had to handle any real negative situations.”

While teams continue to make headlines with overt LGBTQ acceptance at the national level, Jeff Auer—a professor at both University of Nevada, Reno and Truckee Meadows Community College and director of the Nevada LGBT Archives—said there’s precedent for Reno being historically progressive when it comes to organized sports.

“The Reno Gay Rodeo was founded in 1976 as a way of fighting gender stereotypes that gay men are weak,” Auer said. “They ran it like a straight rodeo, with all the competitive events, and it started small. By 1982, 20,000 people attended that year.” The event drew national and international press.

The legacy of the Reno Gay Rodeo may be unknown to younger generations and community transplants, but the event was seen as groundbreaking at a time when LGBTQ issues and culture were largely ignored. By the time the event was shuttered in the mid-’80s for funding and political reasons, it had laid the groundwork for a larger network. The International Gay Rodeo Association still credits Reno as its birthplace.

While serving as an empowering space for the athletes and attendees, the Reno Gay Rodeo was also an economic engine that many Reno businesses welcomed. The event received advertising revenue from the casinos, local vendors and powerful brands such as Budweiser.

“A lot of vendors were saying, ’We don’t care about if these people are gay. They are bringing money to this town when Reno is in real trouble,’” Auer said. “Reno had gone through an expansion, an over-expansion, in the late ’70s, when all these casinos were built. The rodeo was bringing in a lot of money.”

Old-West attitude

Auer—who has lived in Reno for over a decade and who wrote an essay titled “Queerest Little City in the World: LGBTQ Reno” for a 2015 National Parks Service theme study—believes that Northern Nevada’s Old-West attitude has a hand in its culture of acceptance.

“There are also libertarian roots that go much deeper [here] where, ’as long as you’re not bothering me, or getting in my way, I don’t have a problem with you,’” Auer said. “I think that older Nevada view explains a lot of things.”

And while being inclusive has proven to be good business sense, the gesture of acceptance by local sports franchises can be priceless to the next generation of LGBTQ athletes.

“If I had seen a Pride Night back when I was coming to terms with who I was, it could have potentially saved a lot of sleepless nights and a lot of depression and a lot of, ’I’m different—what’s wrong with me?’ thoughts that go into your head,” said John Mikulak, a volunteer with the LGBTQ community center Our Center, which is coordinating with the Aces for Pride Night. “If you see something more like that on a regular basis as a young person, it makes you feel like everyone else.”

Mikulak, who is 37, grew up in Fallon as the child of military parents. After being openly gay with his friends and coworkers for some time, he made the choice to come out to his mother three years ago and seek a more active role as an LGBTQ community organizer.

His work with Our Center over the past year led to the center’s Health and Wellness Summit last May. He coordinated with vendors—including the Aces—and local softball organization Reno Pride Sports to serve Reno’s LGBTQ athletes and interested community members who may not pursue traditional sporting opportunities due to fear of exclusion.

“When it comes to sports, a lot of LGBTQ members choose not to participate because it has the heteronormative connotation that you have to be super masculine or super butch to play,” Mikulak said. “’You can’t like somebody of the same sex and do that at the same time,’ which is aside from fact.”

Mikulak, himself an avid basketball player, remembers the isolation he felt in his rural high school as he struggled to come to terms with his identity. His classmates formed bonds over sports that he felt he didn’t share, and a lack of LGBTQ role models provided little direction.

Inclusive messages from organizations like the Aces, he said, not only provide support for younger LGBTQ players, but closeted professional athletes who fear losing community support—or even their careers—by coming out publicly.

“I think I might have come out a little earlier if what’s going on right now—with all the visibility in the media and whatnot—was happening in the ’90s,” Mikulak said. “I probably would have had a lot more strength to come to terms a lot quicker and say, ’This is who I am, this is what I feel.’”

Sharing a space with LGBTQ members in a relaxed, apolitical atmosphere, he believes, might also impact fans who are not members of LGBTQ community.

“I believe it’s a positive step in brining different groups of people together,” he said.