Imagine a sports team in which degradation isn't the name of the game. You aren't humiliated if you fail to score—or find the ball. You aren't called a loser if the other team wins (if you're called "faggot," it's probably a term of endearment, not a bigoted slur). And most important, imagine a team in which, when they choose sides during practice, you don't have to worry about being the last one picked; usually that's decided on what color shirt you happen to be wearing or where you're standing on the field. Imagine Hotlanta Heat, Atlanta's gay soccer team, and the rest will be real.
Formed in the 1980s and stronger than ever, Hotlanta Heat takes itself very seriously; they just got back from playing the Gay Games in Chicago and, as part of the IGLBA, travel all over the world in tournaments. (Next up: Buenos Aires!) Approximately 25 members make up the team, with ages ranging from 23 to 45. But despite the teams' love of competition, there's something they care about even more: camaraderie.
"We're very competitive," says Billy Greening, 33, the team's coach and den mother, a job that includes spending a lot of his own money on uniforms and buying balls, and just making sure the team survives. "But we don't cry if we lose a game." Greening, who's been playing with the team since 1997, loves the team as much as he loves the game. "We have pool parties, a Christmas party, we go bowling together; we even have Thanksgiving dinner for those who don't have anywhere else to go."
Greening's biggest problem as coach is treading that fine line between discipline and being a, well, team player. "You don't want to yell at people if they don't show up for practice," he says. "That's not what we're about. In school, coaches can get away with anything because they're hanging a letter over your head. I just want players to get better."
One of those players is Corey Boggess, 31, who, as a member since April, is the new kid on the ball block. Boggess admits he isn't the best player, or, as he puts it in thick Southern charm, "I've got some rust to shake off." He says he's learned a lot from the other players, but also says that being the best isn't necessarily the best thing to be. "I joined the group because it was a different social atmosphere than hitting the bars."
Like many members, Boggess found out about the team from the Internet, showed up, and voila! Although he's been playing sports since he was a kid, he likes Hotlanta Heat because the maturity level is much higher than the sports he played in school. He also loves the fitness element. "It's made me thinner," he says. "Soccer is like doing sprints for an hour." In addition to one game a week, the team practices one day a week.
When pressed, Boggess doesn't have much to say about the fringe benefits usually associated with jocks in sexy outfits, or soccer players photographed nude for calendars and coffee-table books. "We don't have groupies; in fact, most people don't even realize we're a gay team. We don't advertise it."
If that's the case, one has to wonder, how do people even know? "Because we like men," he says, fittingly ending that discussion.
In the world of sports, liking men has often stirred up homophobia among some Americans who see that as un-sportsman-like. It's not much of an issue for Hotlanta Heat. "Straight people know we're serious," says Lon Allen, 37, who's been with the team for ten years (the longest of anyone on the team), and who's played for straight soccer teams in the past. "We don't go out there in tight shorts and pink tops, and they know that."
Interestingly enough, the only members who seem phased by any sense of bigotry are the straight team members—in a show of tolerance, Hotlanta Heat does not discriminate against heterosexuals! "Sometimes the straight guys get called 'fag,' and they're offended," says Greening. "We're used to it." (Hotlanta Heat currently has two straight team members, both of whom, like the other guys, were motivated by the desire to play ball in a fun atmosphere.)
Which brings us to the most important point: How bad of a player can you be and still join Hotlanta Heat? Coach Greening says they don't turn anyone away, which, when I inquired, would include me, even though, when it comes to athletics, I don't have a clue what to do unless two balls are involved. (They do have two levels: An A team for the more experienced players, and a B team for the rest.) Since Greening insists they'll let anyone play, I'm going to put them to the test and join up when the team arrives here in New York next winter. I just hope I can learn how to throw a spiral by then.
To learn more about Hotlanta Heat, visit hotlantasoccer.com. It's your choice, but I'd shy away from telling them Toussaint sent you.
David Toussaint is the author of Gay and Lesbian Weddings: Planning the Perfect Same-Sex Ceremony. He can be reached at DavidToussaint.com.