There’s something you may not know about Salt Lake City Gay Athletic Association founder Mark Barr: Homophobia drove him out of high school baseball.
Being a gay teenager in Mansfield, Ohio (about 45 minutes north of Columbus and 45 minutes south of Cleveland) wasn’t easy. After realizing he was gay at age 13 Barr remembers keeping a journal in which he “self-censored” himself by writing that he was bisexual, not gay.
“I was afraid that someone would read it,” he explains, chuckling. “Luckily I did kind of self-censor, because I found out my mother was reading it every day.”
Self-censorship was also behind his decision to quit the school baseball team, a decision Barr made because he felt the environment the team created wasn’t “that conducive to being out.”
“It was difficult. I played baseball my entire life. But it didn’t feel right to be lying to all my teammates,” he explains.
Happily, Barr didn’t drop out of sports altogether. During his senior year he joined the varsity football team and started the process of coming out. Although he lost several friends (and faced hostility from a teammate who found out Barr had a crush on him), he says he soon befriended “more open-minded people.”
“I didn’t change how I acted. I didn’t have a press conference,” he says. “It’s high school. You don’t have to say anything, it kind of goes around.”
Word of Barr’s excellence at football also got around. After graduation, he was offered an academic scholarship to play football for a local university, a procedure that was normal for that time and place. But as a gay person, Barr knew he needed to “go further.” Figuring that his small stature (at least, when compared to most football players) would keep him out of the professional leagues he enrolled at Bowling Green University near Toledo, Ohio and concentrated on academics, eventually settling on film studies and telecommunications. Degree in hand, he then moved to New York City to work for Show Time where he worked for seven years—first in human resources and then in broadcast operations, the department responsible for acquiring films.
While in New York City, Barr participated in a number of gay sports organizations, including a pick-up flag football league that he helped create. At the same time Show Time paid for him to attend the New School for his master’s degree in media studies. As fate would have it, a young law student named Scott McCoy was attending the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law right across the street.
As Barr tells it, he first met his future partner through a mutual friend when McCoy, newly accepted into law school, visited the city to look for housing. They stayed in touch when McCoy went back to Washington, D.C. and began casually, then seriously, dating when the new semester started.
“It was kind of weird how he found a place to live in New York and found a husband in same weekend,” Barr jokes.
The two came to Salt Lake City in 2002, when McCoy accepted an offer to be a clerk for a Utah Supreme Court justice.
“We were ready to get out of New York and it seemed like a good idea to try something out west,” says Barr. “We’re very happy with the decision we’ve made.”
After settling in Salt Lake, Barr, unable to make any film or TV contacts in the area, decided to reinvent himself. He got his license from a real estate school and devoted his free time to establishing the Salt Lake City Gay Athletic Association, an umbrella organization for a number of gay-friendly sports teams including the Mountain West Flag Football, Volleyball and Basketball leagues.
Barr’s purpose for starting the association: so gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people who, like him, had to choose between sports and their sexual orientation when growing up—or who felt like they didn’t “belong” as gays because they were athletes—could find a safe place to play and learn to love sports. And, of course, to socialize.
“One of the biggest problems is meeting people in Salt Lake,” Barr explains. “If you have outlets like volleyball and kickball you can show up to them, and if you get yourself there, you can make new friends that day. Then it’s up to you to try to stay in contact. That’s what builds self-confidence and self-worth and makes people think that life is worth living, when [they’re] connected to people and have those outlets.”
He also sees a political purpose in having gay-friendly sports leagues in the city.
“If I’m living here I want Salt Lake to be the most gay-friendly, liberal place,” he says. “I think if people have roots in sports leagues it’s harder for them to leave because they have a world and a family already established around them.”
“I want people to seriously reconsider coming here for skiing, for hanging out, for moving, for transferring job wise,” he continues. “It’s a great place an we need more LGBT people, allies, friends who will roll up sleeves and get involved with community and make this a better place.”
In order to do his part in making Salt Lake City a better place, Barr said he is looking to expand the athletic association. He would like to start a kickball league soon, to resurrect the city’s now defunct gay soccer league, and to find a permanent home—perhaps a rented school gym—for the volley ball and basketball teams to meet for practice and pickup games. He’s hoping that Gay Bowl 8, which Salt Lake City is hosting this year and in which gay flag football teams from across the country will participate, will bring in enough money for the athletic association to make these dreams reality.
Ultimately, Barr hopes to see gay athletics continue to grow in Utah so no gay person will ever have to face the unfair choice he did as a high school student.
“The idea [in creating the association] for me as for LGBT people to be happy, and to make people feel good about themselves and work through the issues they may have had in life regarding sports,” he says. “I think gay sports leagues can do a lot for people.”