Jason Bergquist tugs the laces tight on his Nike cleats and grins at his parents in the front row of the bleachers at the Hollywood Recreation Center. With zero wins for the season, Bergquist's kickball team has a lot to prove.

His mother snaps iPhone photos of him in his yellow team T-shirt.

"J, you need your water?" she asks through the dugout's chain-link fence.

"Not yet, Mom."

His father can't stop smiling. "This reminds me of when the kids were little!" he says before trying to persuade other fans to do the wave.

Bergquist, 34, is playing for the Racine team of the Varsity Gay League, one of Southern California's largest recreational sports organizations specifically for gay people.

He joined the league this year, still reeling from a breakup with a longtime boyfriend. Frustrated and lonely, he promised himself he'd put himself out there and meet new people.

"My parents had been softly encouraging me to begin making new friends and start dating again," said Bergquist, whose parents are visiting from Seattle. "And they've been worried about me meeting people at bars."

He was looking for more genuine friendships anyway, he said. At a bar, he said, people — gay or straight — are trying to impress. In competitive team sports, they have to rely on one another.

For Bergquist, who played soccer in college, the Varsity Gay League offered a perfect opportunity and a "healing experience."

"We're not out there celebrating being gay; we're not waving flags," he said. "It's to have a good time and build new relationships and friendships."


One Saturday night a few years ago, league founder Will Hackner and a few friends were doing the same thing they did every Saturday night: grabbing two-for-one margaritas at a West Hollywood bar, staring at other people and not talking to anyone because the music was too loud.

They left the bar and walked to a nearby park. A friend nudged him and yelled, "You're it!" Quickly, strangers joined in their game of tag, laughing as they ran through the park.

Hackner was inspired. He emailed gay friends and acquaintances, inviting them to play a game of Capture the Flag in Pan Pacific Park. To his surprise, more than 50 people showed up that Sunday morning in 2007.

It was the first event in what would become the Varsity Gay League. Today, the league includes bowling, tennis, volleyball, poker, even Quidditch. On a recent Sunday, Jason Collins, the NBA's first openly gay active player, joined a league kickball match at the Hollywood center, with teammates yelling, "Good job!" as he rounded the bases.

Gay bars remain a popular social gathering place, but a new generation of sports leagues is offering an alternative to a late-night lifestyle that some find unhealthy or unappealing.

The leagues, which are popular in Chicago, New York City, San Francisco, Boston and numerous other cities, are part of what many see as a generational shift in the gay community.

For decades, bars were the best option most gay men and lesbians had to meet each other and "took the role of a social club," said historian Lillian Faderman, author of the book "Gay L.A."

Hackner, 33, who now runs the league full time, says he often gets emails from people saying they're recently sober and that the league is a godsend.