Friday, July 1

Staying in their Lanes: Celebrating 40+ Years of Queer Bowling Across Ohio

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From where I’m currently sitting, the 80’s seem like they were centuries ago. The LGBTQ+ community has made so many significant strides and advances since the days of MC Hammer, parachute pants, and the unexplainable hair style: the mullet.

But the 80’s also saw a proliferation of LGBTQ+ organizations. From local chapters of Stonewall to Gay Nights at straight bars to community coalitions, new entities cropped up to fill the needs of the ever-evolving population of Sexual Outlaws, which is what we were considered at the time.  As we no longer were living in the closet, these organizations and groups were important for our community to not only survive but to thrive.  They were places we could be our authentic selves and address the issues, whether political or social, that pertained to our lives and well-being. We were taking charge of our lives and our communities.

42 years later, there are very few of those organizations, institutions, and groups still around today, especially here in Cincinnati. So many have disappeared, disbanded, or been dismantled.

Except for one surprising one: Queer Bowling.

Out of the array of sports now open to the LGBTQ+ population, the International Gay Bowling League (IGBO) boasts 8,000 members worldwide and 250 Leagues and Tournaments. And it all started in 1980 with 6 cities.

Although Cincinnati was not part of the original six, not long after IGBO was formed, the Gay Bowling League in Cincinnati was born.

I was part of the initial planning committee for the league, though mostly by default since my roommate at the time was a part of the committee and many of the meetings took place either in our living room or dining room. I grew up in a family of bowlers so the idea of a Gay Bowling League was appealing to me, but I wasn’t sure if there were enough of others like us that could sustain a league.

Turns out: there were more queer bowlers than we realized.

After much searching for a venue, the first lanes that would accept a Queer League in 1980 was Mergards, a Black-owned bowling alley in Walnut Hills. Shortly after, the League moved to its current home in Newport, Kentucky.

That initial Gay Bowling League in Cincinnati, along with the help of folx from Toronto, gave birth in 1988 to the organization we call the Imperial Sovereign Queen City Court of the Buckeye Empire, which is still going strong. To honor that tradition, the league still uses purses as SWAG Bags for their annual CIN-TIT Tournament (Cincinnati Tri-State Invitational Tournament).

Bowlers using purses as SWAG Bags for their annual CIN-TIT Tournament.

To get an idea of the reasons behind bowling’s longevity, I asked 4 folx to explain what drew them to bowling and kept them in the lanes. One has been bowling since the beginning (Robb D.), and the other three were members of my most recent bowling team: one for about 16 years (Jeanne C.)  and the other two for around 7 years (Eric S. And Tim H.).Robb and I were exposed to bowling as children, Eric as a teenager, and Jeanne and Tim as adults.

The most common thread between us is that we all started and continue to bowl because of the socializing and camaraderie. Through bowling, friendships have been created on local, state, national, and international levels. There are no truer bonds than the ones formed between team members as they cheer each other on, share in the excitement of a strike or spare, and engage in good natured ribbing over balls ending up in the gutter.

(Photo Credit: Ron Clemons)

One of the other reasons we keep knocking down pins—and why some of us tended to avoid most other sports—is that bowling doesn’t require athletic prowess or ability. The IGBO website states: “The amazing growth of gay bowling is not surprising, as it is one sport that truly does not discriminate among its participants. Whether young or old, male or female, wheelchair bound or deaf, strong or weak, tall or short, bowling is a sport that virtually any living person can enjoy whether recreationally or as a member of a league.”  While they may need to update some of the words on their site, IGBO and the bowling leagues in general want and work hard to ensure that everyone feels welcome.

Like most things, bowling is not for everyone. However, it is one of those activities that most will try at least once in their lifetime. Some will love it, some not so much.  But one thing is certain: after 42 years, Queer Bowling isn’t going away anytime soon.  It is a very family-friendly sport that can connect folx from all walks of life and across the rainbow spectrum. 🔥

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About Author

Ron Clemons is a retired Social Worker, Educator and long time community activist based in CIncinnati. His passions are Photography, Writing and Story Telling. He considers himself a Grio.

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