Once upon a time, there was a section of the Anacostia waterfront that thrived with businesses catering to the gay community. In 2006, those businesses began closing, as the District pushed forward to build a ballpark on exactly that block of Southeast. Yet the gay community still visits the site – in droves.
Tuesday, June 21, will mark the seventh ''Night Out at the Nationals,'' which now sees thousands of LGBT locals heading out to the ball game for a gay, pro-sports event billed as the nation's largest, thanks to Team DC, the area's LGBT sports organization and primary sponsor of the Night Out. And, as Team DC President Ryan Bos puts it, despite the loss of the adult-oriented gay venues lost to make way for Nationals Park, that nightlife feel has not been lost.
''For some, it's a nightclub in a baseball park,'' Bos says of the festive Night Out, which brought about 3,500 LGBT and allied revelers and sports fans to the ball park for last year's event. ''It's a crazy atmosphere, tons of fun. It's a huge sporting event where it's very safe and comfortable for people who identify as gay. It's also for hardcore fans who can enjoy the game with other LGBT fans. It's a huge, fun time.''
It's no surprise that Bos enjoys the Night Out games. Not only is he happy to welcome the Team DC contingent to the park, he's also a pretty sporty guy. Since 2001, he's been a member of the LGBT Capital & Potomac Softball League (CAPS). For about six years, he's swum with the District of Columbia Aquatics Club, and for two he's been running with the DC Front Runners, both gay clubs. Athleticism is obviously a big part of Bos's life, making him feel right at home watching a Nats game – even if he has a competing loyalty to the Chicago Cubs, the team he grew up with.
But Bos's level of sportiness is by no means a prerequisite for enjoying a Night Out at the Nationals. Just look at Suzanne McArdle, who worked just down the street from the stadium for years before learning of the Night Out.
''I couldn't believe I'd never heard of it,'' says McArdle, a government cartographer who quickly went from Night Out rookie to all-star, joining Team DC as marketing chair of the 2011 Night Out committee. ''It was pretty awesome,'' she remembers of the 2010 Night Out. ''A lot of LGBT families come out. It's really neat to see two gay dads walking with their little daughter and not get a second glance. Last year, it absolutely poured and everybody still had a big smile on their face.''
The experience led McArdle, who had not belonged to one of the many sports teams under the Team DC umbrella, to get involved when Brent Minor, past Team DC president and its current program director, sent out the call last year for volunteers.
''It's maybe 10 to 15 folks, and we've been meeting in person, doing conference calls,'' she says of her committee work. ''It's just been really neat to work with those guys. I had no idea who Team DC was, and it's been really neat to get to know them.''
While McArdle more or less stumbled upon Team DC and the Night Out at the Nationals, Larry Rosen may be even more surprised to find himself in Nationals Park on June 21. Although he remembers plenty of happy childhood outings to see the Washington Senators (the Nationals' predecessors) play ball, he was just happy to be doing something with the family. As for the ball game, he could take it or leave it, making his multiple trips right down to the diamond all the more ironic.
''The only time I go to the game is the Night Out,'' says Rosen, describing himself as ''not particularly'' a fan of baseball, certainly not a ''jock,'' and not a member of Team DC. As one of the two production managers of the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, D.C., however, his participation in the Night Out is crucial. The chorus, after all, is a fixture of Night Out at the Nationals, offering their pipes in the service of the national anthem, ''The Star-Spangled Banner.''
''Team DC approached the chorus the first time, and it worked out so well,'' recalls Rosen. ''We got such a good reaction. The players in the dugout made a point of saying how good we sounded.''
While GMCW consists of about 300 singers, their appearance at Night Out at the Nationals is a chorus segment of around 100 singers. Rosen, who joined the chorus in 1993, is not one of them. He's only ever worked on the production end of things. Still, he's out there on the field with his teammates, moving everyone into position and keeping things running.
''It's quite amazing,'' he says, recounting the thousands of cheering baseball fans and the chorus projected on the stadium's giant screen. ''It's just quite a lot of fun.''
Aside from the thrill of looking up into the stands as thousands cheer back, Rosen says the primary motivation for the chorus to participate in Night Out at the Nationals is to further their mission ''to entertain through excellent musical performances, to affirm the place of gay people in society, and to educate about the gay experience.'' With those points in mind, the Night Out is obviously a triple play for the GMCW.
''The guys were enthusiastic about singing in front of an audience that wouldn't normally get to hear us perform,'' Rosen says. ''We really jump at those opportunities.''
From what Minor has seen, it's definitely worth the chorus's while – for the sake of their mission and of the whole community. He remembers one Night Out a few years back when the Nationals were still playing at D.C.'s RFK Stadium in Northeast, awaiting the completion of Nationals Park. A few men sitting in the row in front of him were clearly not part of the Team DC group, or likely even aware of its existence. When the stadium announcer asked the crowd to rise for the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington to sing the anthem, Minor could see the shock and distress on the faces of the guys in front of him.
''Of course, they stand for the national anthem, and the chorus was fantastic," recalls Minor. "At the end, they were cheering.''
Pat Griffin would be the first to cheer this kind of activism. She's worked for years to help sports become more welcoming of LGBT people, first as director of ''It Takes a Team!'' -- the Women's Sports Foundation's education campaign for LGBT issues -- and now as director of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network's ''Changing the Game'' project aimed at LGBT issues in youth sports. She's also a professor emeritus in the Social Justice Education Program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and authored Strong Women, Deep Closets: Lesbians and Homophobia in Sports. But far from taking just an academic or advocacy view, Griffin also won a bronze medal in the 1994 Gay Games as a triathlete, and gold in 1998 for the hammer throw. Physically, cerebrally, politically, Griffin knows sports.
''Sport has been a tough place for lesbian and gay athletes,'' she says, emphasizing that sports are central not only to schools, but to culture in general. ''Having a public presence of LGBT sports fans and athletes and coaches, whether at the Night Out or at the Olympics is very important. It breaks down stereotypes, for young people in particular.''
Griffin will be contributing to that public presence in a big way at the upcoming Night Out at the Nationals. The Montgomery County native – and, like Rosen, a former Washington Senators fan – will be coming down from her adopted home of Massachusetts to accept the Nationals' Spirit Award on behalf of GLSEN.
''GLSEN is very honored,'' Griffin says of the award. ''It's wonderful. The more we can get the word out about Changing the Game, the better it is. And what a great venue to do it.''
If it's a matter of getting the word out, Griffin should also be gratified that a technological tweak makes it likely that the June 21 Night Out should see a spike in ticket sales. This is the first year that people can buy single tickets online for the Team DC section of the park. McArdle, while happy to have met Minor when purchasing her group's tickets last year, says the option to buy single tickets online may be a game-changer.
''I really think that the Nationals stepped up big when they decided to have online ticket sales,'' she says, noting that single-ticked sales in the past have been handled directly by Minor and Gary Deinken, Team DC's vice president for finance. ''I think that's going to be what sends us over the number of fans from last year," she says.
And what's good for Team DC is also good for the Nationals.
''Particularly, this night has been a good one for us,'' confirms Chris Gargani, the Nationals' vice president/managing director of sales and client services. ''A group of comparable size would be something like Youth Baseball and Softball Day, or Labor Union Night. Those are probably in the mid to high four digits.''
Gargani confirms another point, made by Minor, that the Night Out at the Nationals has been remarkably uncontroversial.
''For the most part, we have not received any big pushback,'' says Gargani, granting that every event at the park is bound to generate at least a complaint or two.
By just about any reckoning, however, the Night Out at the Nationals is a home run. So much so that Team DC is looking at ways to share the success beyond Washington.
''With the work that the [Night Out] committee and Brent have done over the years, other cities have looked to D.C.,'' says Bos, adding that Team DC is looking at ways to offer guidance to LGBT groups elsewhere, possibly onsite, and possibly even using Team DC know-how to go launch other groups' ''night out'' events. ''This is our single-most highly visible event beyond the LGBT community.''
And visibility is the name of the game.
''That's how we make progress,'' Minor says. ''This is activism in a very fun and progressive way. Sometimes you have to march in the streets, or lie down in front of the FDA. I've done that. But sometimes you have to be yourself at a baseball game.''
Team DC's Night Out at the Nationals is Tuesday, June 21, vs. the Seattle Mariners. Tickets, starting at $16 (limited), are available at Nellie's Sports Bar, 900 U St. NW; the HRC Store, 1633 Connecticut Ave. NW; and online at washingtonnationals.com/nightout. For group sales of 25 or more, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Guests are advised to arrive by 6:15 p.m. to hear the GMCW sing the national anthem. The game is scheduled to begin at 7:05 p.m.