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Love, Death and Volleyball: The Four-Decade Run of a Trailblazing Gay Sports League

How a dirt-court meetup in Central Park grew to become a vital lifeline during the AIDS crisis and a surrogate family for LGBTQ people to this day.


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Images courtesy Gotham Volleyball.

On a November Sunday at the hangover hour of 9:30 a.m., about 50 adults, mostly men in their 20s and 30s, assemble inside a high school gym on one of Manhattan’s rare quiet residential streets. A volleyball net bisects the room, and in one corner there’s a photo booth where a drag queen is sporting black lace, a tiara of sculpted snakes, and body paint that’s almost the same shade as the glittering gold backdrop. She strikes several poses before taking the microphone.

“Welcome to the Gotham Volleyball Drag Tournament 2018!”

Tournament players are decked out in wigs, heels, gowns, tutus, copious eye shadow, hand fans, butterfly wings and body-hugging foliage. They strut down a strip of rug duct-taped to the gym floor for the red-carpet show. Each team has its own name and theme. The Mariahs, wearing signature Mariah Carey looks — from a Santa minidress to a poufy floor-length gown — sashay to the breathy strains of “Hero.” The cheerleaders of team Slay It On cartwheel and high-kick down the carpet, wigs flopping. Not to be outdone, a Sailor Moon manga babe concludes her walk with a death drop, collapsing to the floor on her back, one leg straight out and the other folded beneath her.

If you think such moves take skill, imagine playing volleyball in these getups. Some players change before their first match, but not the Mariah in the poufy dress. She hoists her skirt as she darts around the court, releasing it to make an overhead pass, then gathering it back up.

volleyboys-01-and-02.pngLeft: Two players from the “Sailor Smut” volleyball team at the Gotham Volleyball Drag Tournament in 2018. Right: “The Mariahs” team at the same drag tournament.

But that’s mere physical prowess. As any queen worth her crown knows, drag is as much about inner expression as outer transformation. Accordingly, the tournament organizers have scheduled a presentation on emotional wellness during a break between matches.

“Drag and mental health are about showing part of you [that] you normally don’t,” one of the moderators explains to a crowd of players sitting on the floor and leaning against the walls. The presentation, about “standing up against the stigma” associated with mental health issues, is in part a tribute to Adam Rudnicki, a Gotham member who recently committed suicide.

A current Gotham player, Juan Arevalo, and a former player, Antonio Centeno Jr., tell their intertwined stories. Both are gay Latinos who struggled to come out in a culture characterized by Catholicism and machismo; both almost committed suicide themselves. Centeno locked himself in the bathroom at age 14 to overdose on “the most aggressive medication my parents were on,” and late one night in 2013 Arevalo walked to the middle of the George Washington Bridge. His legs dangling over the edge, he called Centeno, whom he’d met and befriended in the league, and they talked for more than four hours. At the end of their conversation, Arevalo headed home.

At this point in the retelling, the two men clasp hands. Arevalo goes on to discuss the psychology underlying his suffering — he’s been diagnosed with bipolar II disorder — and when he finishes, the crowd applauds as forcefully as at any point during the red-carpet show. Then it’s back to volleyball, a wig-toss competition, and an awards ceremony with categories including Most Fabulously Dressed and Most Tragically Dressed.

The funny-sad-fierce feel of this event is characteristic of Gotham itself. I’ve been a member of the league myself for a year, but the organization’s history goes back four decades, encompassing everything from the trauma of AIDS to a tradition of sassy T-shirts. It all began in the summer of 1980 with a group of people playing “jungle ball” (informal volleyball that largely ignores the sport’s pass-set-spike protocol) on a dirt court in Central Park.

“The Volley Girls” team wearing their signature shirt in the early 1990s.

“All we were concerned about was to get the ball over the net — no matter how,” wrote founder Tom Hack in a league newsletter. By 1982, the roster had grown to 50, and the players had joined the Manhattan Community Athletic Association of New York (MCAA), a now-defunct umbrella organization for gay sports teams, from softball to bowling. The volleyball league continued to expand, reaching 300 members by 1989, a time when AIDS was decimating New York City’s gay population and many in the LGBTQ community turned to the group for support and relief.

One of those people was Arnaldo Gonzalez-Aviles, who joined in 1987, when he was a resident psychiatrist at St. Vincent’s Hospital co-leading an outpatient support group for individuals with AIDS. Because the work was emotional and painful, his supervisor recommended he take up an after-hours activity to de-stress. In the volleyball league, he found not only an outlet for tension but also a love interest: Heriberto Estrada, who was then the commissioner.

Estrada remembers seeing Gonzalez-Aviles while making pregame announcements at the gym. Every week, players huddled on the floor to listen as the commissioner shared league news, and during these updates, Estrada says, “we kind of eyed each other out.” Within weeks they’d exchanged phone numbers and started dating. Though Gonzales-Aviles left the league after a couple of seasons, he married Estrada and remains with him to this day.

The Gotham Volleyball League, then part of the Manhattan Community Athletic Association of New York in the mid-1980s.Photo courtesy of Heriberto Estrada.

They met at a moment — pre-same-sex marriage, pre–Will & Grace — when finding a safe and supportive community was a challenge for gay Americans, even in Manhattan. Frank Santoro, who joined the league in the early ’90s, remembers a time when another player wanted to kiss him goodbye on the corner of 18th Street and Eighth Avenue. “What are you, crazy?” Santoro exclaimed, recoiling. “We’ll get killed in this neighborhood!”

That neighborhood was pre-gentrification Chelsea, where drugs were sold on street corners and league members risked “fag-bashings” walking home from games. Former commissioner Don Murray, who joined Gotham around 1995, recollects players entering the gym and warning others of danger outside. “There’s been an incident. Don’t leave by yourselves,” they’d caution.

“One of the reasons we needed a volleyball community,” Murray says, “[was to provide a] safe space from that type of crap.”

Of course, the gay volleyball community was not immune to AIDS itself. Jim Toomey, a veteran player who joined in the mid-’80s, remembers how “you’d see someone getting skinnier, getting a little gaunt — and then, all of a sudden, you don’t see them anymore.”

One casualty was the young, handsome, 6-foot-4-inch Dann O’Connor, league commissioner from 1990 to 1992 and a former Martha Graham Dance Company member.

Philip Beal, a fellow player who dated O’Connor, says that the virus ended their relationship. “He knew he was going to get sicker and sicker [so he] decided after about a year … that he wanted to break it off,” Beal says. They stayed friends, and when O’Connor was eventually hospitalized, Beal and the other league members visited him. Many also attended O’Connor’s funeral ceremony on Fire Island, during which his ashes were scattered into the ocean. In 1994, the league created a quilt to memorialize O’Connor and other members lost to AIDS, emblazoning it with the New York City skyline and 58 stars, each encircled with the name of a dead player. They created a duplicate of the quilt to contribute to the traveling AIDS Memorial Quilt, where it remains the only panel from a volleyball association.

Daryl Murphy and Wally Kunukau share a hug. Kunukau was instrumental with the formation of the league.

The league persevered and continued to grow. It is now its own standalone organization and has expanded to include more than a thousand members, making it by far New York’s largest league for LGBTQ athletes. But “before we are a volleyball league, we are a community,” emphasizes Leah Hughey, the organization’s vice president of training. Decades after the worst of the AIDS epidemic, Gotham still serves as a support system for its members.

Davide Fikri Kamel, 27, joined Gotham in 2014 and came out to his Egyptian parents last summer. Born and raised in the Italian town of Corvino San Quirico, he’d returned home for a visit with his boyfriend. Knowing his parents were Coptic Christians who envisioned him marrying a woman, having kids, and all of them eventually living together under one roof, Fikri Kamel proceeded cautiously. He introduced his partner of more than a year as a friend and co-worker, and waited until the boyfriend left to break the news.

The league’s annual beach volleyball tournament on Fire Island, July 1991.

“My dad started crying, putting his hand on his face,” Fikri Kamel remembers. His mother took longer to process the information but lost control once she did. Screaming, she shattered a framed picture of her son with his friends and boyfriend. “Go get the knife,” she ordered her husband. “Kill him!”

Fikri Kamel, already booked to fly out the next day, grabbed his bags and ran. With the help of his brother, he found a hotel room to crash in. There, he posted a plea for help on Gotham Volleyball’s Facebook page.

More than 30 people responded. Some provided names of therapists and mental health organizations, including Tarab NYC, a nonprofit for queer Arabs, Middle Easterners, and North Africans. Others simply offered words of comfort. “Know that your other family (your Gotham and other friends) love you and are here for you!” wrote one.

That family feeling is accompanied by abundant opportunities for self-expression and creativity. One recent team captain was a fashion designer who created a Louis Vuitton–style logo for his team’s uniforms. Another player, who has published 20 crossword puzzles in The New York Times, composes gay-themed crossword puzzles sprinkled with volleyball clues for Gotham’s newsletters. There are also game nights, movie outings and GIF-rich group texts, not to mention the volleyball matches themselves. Nothing like competition to get to know people, for better or worse.

“One thing that’s interesting about volleyball is that people’s inner demons come out on the court,” Murray says. “You can see who’s been through therapy and who has not.” The former teammate of mine who body-slammed himself on the hardwood floor after we lost a point would probably agree.

After each match, players usually head around the corner to Gym Sportsbar, which became New York City’s first gay sports bar when a pair of Gotham guys, Nick Leonard and Rick Schmutzler, opened it in 2005. If you visit after 5 p.m. on a Saturday, you’ll be able to identify the volleyball contingent by their sweat-soaked shirts printed with names like “Sleaze Balls” and “You Got Served.” The burly bartenders pour heavy, and make-out sessions between volleyboys are not uncommon.

The Gotham Volleyball contingent at the NYC Pride March in 2018.

As the league has evolved, its emphasis on philanthropy has grown. At various times, the league has partnered with organizations including the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, SAGE (Advocacy & Services for LGBT Elders), Coming Out (an online platform for coming-out stories), and charitable causes such as disaster relief for victims of Hurricanes Harvey and Maria. Currently, Gotham is restructuring as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to allow for more charitable initiatives.

Expanding in this direction makes sense to longtime members, many of whom are already paying it forward in their own way.

After his suicide attempt in 2013, Arevalo has become a nurturing force. At tryouts, he seeks out the unathletic — “that kid that was always last picked in team sports” — and introduces himself. Players respond to his friendliness and openness about his own mental-health problems.

“I’ve had two people in the Gotham community who are bipolar come up to me,” Arevalo says. Exchanging stories with them has helped him heal. “I am not the same person I was seven years ago,” he asserts. “Gotham normalized my anxieties.”

He now describes himself as “the Cher of Gotham Volleyball” because of the number of times he’s vowed to retire — without being able to bring himself to actually do it.

“I just feel like I have a role in the community,” he says. “I want to see our young queens be successful.”

Dan Stahl is a writer, editor and middle blocker. You can find him on social media or in Chelsea playing volleyball Wednesday nights.

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This post originally appeared on Narratively and was published April 19, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.

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