Toronto Blue Jays fan Jocelyn H. has been waiting for tonight’s game against the Baltimore Orioles for a very long time. Tonight marks the first time since the early 2000’s that the Jays have hosted a Pride Night. And for members of the LGBTQ community, it’s long overdue.
“I am really looking forward to the Pride game. The Blue Jays have a lot of queer fans, and a lot of fans who are really progressive, queer-positive allies. Blue Jays Twitter is full of them!,” said Jocelyn H., who tweets as @GirlSwagger101. “I know a lot of people are really excited about the game. I hope the Blue Jays do a great job with it. I hope it will be respectful and positive and really fun.”
The Toronto Blue Jays are working hard to ensure Pride Night lives up to expectations, said Jessica Beard, Manager of Fan Engagement.
To start, they sought input from the outside, something Jocelyn H. felt was vital for the event to really show support for the community. The Jays coordinated Pride Night in conjunction with You Can Play, an organization dedicated to ensuring equality, respect, and safety for all athletes, regardless of sexual orientation and/or gender identity. You Can Play shared best practices, trained game day staff, and consulted on ideas for the night, Beard said.
“In addition, the Blue Jays and Jays Care Foundation officially partnered with You Can Play to positively impact the experience of countless Canadian kids involved in sports. This partnership will create inclusive spaces through training and education for more than 28,000 young people enrolled in Jays Care programming,” she said.
TD is donating $10,000 to facilitate the training.
The decision to host Pride Night comes directly from fan input, according to Beard.
“We are always looking at new ways to engage our fans through promotions and events, and have tested different giveaways and theme nights over the past few seasons. However, there was a clear desire from our fans to return Pride Night to the schedule in 2018,” she added.
Jocelyn H., a 41-year-old Toronto resident, related that her fandom for the team has grown as she has. She started out as a casual fan as a child in the 1980’s, then grew into a more dedicated fan “as a teenager during the World Series years in the 90’s,” before growing into a “huge fan” in 2011, watching almost every game and attending as many as she can.
“Throughout the time I’ve been watching again, the first number of years, the Jays did not mention Pride at all, not wishing folks a happy Pride on the day on the broadcast or anything. Each year, when I happened to be watching at that time, I found it really upsetting and disappointing. It’s only in the past couple years that they’ve acknowledged it at all (having someone from Pride Toronto throw out a first pitch), but no official Pride Night until this year,” she said.
Why is it important that a sports team recognize Pride and/or the LGBTQ community?
She believes that the Toronto Blue Jays have an “obligation to stand up for and with members of the queer community and other marginalized communities in this city and this country.” It’s one of the reasons that she, along with other members of the LGBTQ community, have advocated for the team to host Pride Night for the past eight years.
“They have a large presence and can really have a big impact as a role model if they choose to. For the last several years, more and more teams across the MLB have been having Pride Nights, pairing with local LGBTQ organizations and giving back,” she said. “Canada is 10-15 years ahead of the US in terms of queer rights and protections, so I feel like the Jays could/should have reached out in this way a lot sooner, as the lone Canadian MLB team.”
The Jays showing support for the LGBTQ community is extremely important on the heels of incidents involving players Yunel Escobar in 2012 and Kevin Pillar just last year.
“Both of these homophobic incidents had a very big, negative impact on the queer community, like being told ‘you don’t belong here’,” Jocelyn H. said, noting that she stopped attending games after Pillar uttered an anti-gay slur during a May 17, 2017 game versus Atlanta. “I had no desire, even as a huge fan who watches every game. It was only when they finally announced that they would be having a Pride Night this year, that I started buying tickets again,” she said.
Escobar served a three game suspension for wearing eyeblack with a slur written on it and Pillar served a two-game suspension.
Those incidents, along with others that take place annually in MLB, emphasize the importance that all teams throughout the league work to foster an inclusive environment in their clubhouses, front offices and ballparks not just on Pride Night, but the the other 364 days a year too.
“We work in partnership with MLB, who conduct league-wide training for players,” Beard said of the ways in which the organization works to spread a broad message of acceptance. “From a front office perspective, our goal is to provide an inclusive environment every single day of the year – regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, race, religion or other. We continue to work towards this goal, not only for our fans, but also our visitors and staff.”
Jays’ Pride Night pregame ceremonies will feature 65 LGBTQ community members carrying a large rainbow flag on the field, the Toronto Gay Men’s Chorus (Forte) performing the national anthems and a number of individuals and groups from the community will be attending the game. In addition, three You Can Play athletes will throw out the ceremonial first pitches, caught, as is tradition, by members of the Toronto Blue Jays.
Fans attending Pride Night will also have the opportunity to participate in several pride-themed activities on the WestJet Flight Deck, including live entertainment, photo opportunities, temporary tattoos, rainbow flag giveaways, and food sampling.
The first 20,000 fans entering the ballpark on Pride Night will receive a Blue Jays Pride Night Hat. Additional Pride merchandise, including Pride t-shirts, lapel pins and key chains will be available in the Jays Shop on Pride Night and throughout the remainder of June, which is Pride month.
“I’ve wanted a Blue Jays Pride t-shirt for years,” Jocelyn H. said. “I am excited about the merch. I’ve already bought two of the little rainbow Blue Jay lapel pins. I’m sure I’ll buy a Blue Jays Pride t-shirt tomorrow. They look great. The giveaway hats look really great, too.”
Beard said the majority of feedback the Jays have had from fans in response to again hosting Pride Night has been positive and supportive. “Pride Night reflects the inclusive experience we strive to offer all fans at every single Blue Jays game.”
Jocelyn H. is cautiously optimistic about Pride Night and is hopeful the Jays will continue to vocally support the LGBT community. “There have been times when they haven’t been great in the past around these issues, around making sure the Dome is a safe and welcoming place for diverse fans (queer fans, women, people of colour)” she said. “This is a start. I hope this is only the beginning.”
Photos courtesy of The Toronto Blue Jays
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Joy Frank-Collins is a Communications professional who got her start writing as a journalist at a daily newspaper in southeastern Ohio. She was born in Reds country, but “found” baseball watching the 1986 Mets win the World Series. A long-time Pittsburgh Pirates fan, she added the Blue Jays as her AL team the day they picked up Russell Martin. She lives in Marietta, Ohio, with her family, who all share her passion for baseball. She loves the suicide squeeze, a crisp 6-4-3 double play and catchers. When not obsessing over baseball, Joy likes to work out, travel and drink wine.