Stonewall Sports Cleveland — the largest local chapter of national LGBTQ+ sports organization Stonewall Sports — will host the eighth annual Stonewall Sports National Tournament and Summit from July 8-10.
Combined, the events will accommodate more than 1,500 LGBQ+ athletes and 175 summit attendees in a three-day long experience designed to celebrate, uplift and inform LGBTQ+ athletes from across the country.
Each of Stonewall Sports’ 23 national chapters are set to send at least one representative to Cleveland to compete in seven different intramural sports: bowling, bocce, billiards, dodgeball, kickball, sand volleyball and tennis.
With dozens of pieces of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation sweeping the country at the state, local and national levels, Stonewall Sports Cleveland organizers say creating safe, inclusive environments for LGBTQ+ athletes is more important now than ever before.
“Young trans and queer athletes are under attack in Ohio,” says Ryan Clopton-Zymler, director of this year’s summit. “And we have a social responsibility to do more than just march at Pride.”
‘I just needed to feel wanted’
Growing up, Clopton-Zymler hated sports.
“I was uncomfortable. I never felt like I was good enough,” he says. “I always thought I’m tall, but I don’t have great coordination.”
But when Clopton-Zymler returned to sports as an adult through Stonewall Sports Cleveland, he realized something important about himself.
“Turns out, when I’m affirmed and allowed to be my authentic self, I’m actually very good at sports,” he says. “I thought I didn’t like sports, but it wasn’t about sports at all.”
“It was about the atmosphere and the people I was playing with,” he adds. “I just needed to feel wanted.”
That’s why Clopton-Zymler chose to explore the intersection of advocacy and sports at this year’s summit— with a specific emphasis on making Stonewall Sports leagues as accessible and inclusive as possible.
Breaking down barriers
Keynote speaker and Cleveland Browns’ chief of staff Callie Brownson will discuss her experience in the professional sports industry, along with the importance of LGBTQ+ representation in sports.
Clopton-Zymper says this year’s summit aims to break down stereotypes and push toward inclusion in sports.
“This is a reminder that queer people are everywhere,” he says. “And that anything is possible for us.
The summit will also include an overview of Ohio House Bill 151, which could ban transgender athletes from competing at the high school and college levels if passed by the Ohio Senate.
Overall, Clopton-Zymler says he hopes the summit’s topics and speakers help LGBTQ+ athletes see themselves more positively within the context of sports — and prepare them to better lead teams and communities in their towns and cities long after the summit is over.
“If I’d had that earlier in life,” he says, “I probably would have had a much different sense of self when it comes to my abilities.”
Welcoming LGBTQ+ athletes to Cleveland
For tournament chair Monica Gustin, welcoming LGBTQ+ athletes to Cleveland is especially powerful.
Cleveland was set to host the tournament and summit in 2020, but organizers canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re really ready to welcome everybody,” Gustin says. “It’s very, very exciting.
A lifelong basketball player, Gustin joined Stonewall Sports Cleveland in 2015 — the same year it was founded.
After playing basketball at the collegiate level, she missed the competition.
“I was out of school [and]I was really looking for community around some type of physical activity, or community in the realm of sports,” Gustin says. “[Stonewall Cleveland] really fit.”
Gustin’s passion for Stonewall Sports overlaps with her work as the Director of Business for the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission, which attracts and hosts competitive events across Northeast Ohio.
While Gustin says Cleveland is currently Stonewall Sports’ largest and most diverse chapters, there’s still work to be done to make the league more accessible and inclusive.
“Just like everything else that starts, there’s been a lack of women represented, a lack of trans representation and a lack of representation of people of color,” she says. “I’ll give national leadership a lot of credit. They said they were going to change that, and they have.”
Now, Gustin says it’s up to local chapter leadership to do the same — which is why she and other organizers have placed such emphasis on accessibility and inclusion while planning this year’s tournament and summit.
A different kind of community space
“People want to be part of something where they can be their authentic selves.” Gustin says. “And this is a space to exist. It’s a space to take up — and to let people see you for who you are.”
“This is a different type of space,” she adds. “It’s not a bar.”
LGBTQ+ people have historically formed community ties at bars — including The Stonewall Inn, which Stonewall Sports is named after.
But Gustin says it’s important that queer people have a chance to socialize and build community outside of bars and drinking culture too.
“I’m excited for people to get here and see what Cleveland is all about,” she says. “We’re not D.C., New York, Chicago or LA, but this is a good place to live. We’re just ready to see people get together and watch Cleveland shine.”
‘Anything can be for anyone’
In Out on the Fields’ 2015 international study, more than 80% of participants said they experienced or witnessed homophobia while playing sports.
In 2022 alone, dozens of anti-transgender bills were introduced across the country — many of them designed to help police and exclude LGBTQ+ from competing in sports.
For Gustin and Clopton-Zymler, the tournament and summit are part of a larger change they hope to be part of.
“This is a group of people coming together under the name Stonewall,” Clopton-Zymler says. “That’s a namesake that actually means something, and should mean something about who we are and what we do.”
“Anything can be for anyone,” he adds. “For some people, it’s about actual activity and the love of sports. For other people, it’s about community and the rejecting the notion that there’s only one type of person who plays sports — or that there’s only one way queer people can come together in community.” 🔥