For better or worse, everyone remembers their first time. For me, it involved a surprisingly lumpy brown couch, a room with popcorn ceilings and a fight over what to watch during dinner. The argument was solved with a combination sure to please the eight pre-teen girls crammed into my classmate’s basement, or at least enough of a compromise to make sure everyone was pissed until it was time to go home. As soon as the screen lit that gorgeous VHS blue, my life changed forever.
You know exactly what I’m talking about. Welcome to my Independence Day: A League Of Their Own.
Set in the war-focused America of 1945, A League Of Their Own (1992) finds our bat-wielding heroes alone and in a time of crisis — there’s no baseball! When all the men go to war, Dottie Hinson and her sister Kit Keller are recruited for the AAGPBL (All American Girls Professional Baseball League). What starts as a way for baseball advertisers to make money quickly transforms into a heartwarming story, inviting both the girls and viewers into a world of short skirts, long bus rides, hard won ball games and a snapshot of an American past few still remember.
Beyond first glance, the film’s whitewashed veneer covers a rich layer of history and subtext, a fantasy as fleeting as it is frozen in the time and cultural moment that created it. These girls are abruptly left in a world without men, and are suddenly afforded the dream of a lifetime, or at least, of a wartime. For months on end, their world only knows the bond of “friendship,” of fixing lipstick on buses, swing dancing drunk, painting nails with gentle strokes and using those same painted hands to strike out the enemy, time and time again. With a cast including Geena Davis, Rosie O’Donnell, Tom Hanks and Madonna, it’s almost as if this star-studded film had no choice but to rise in the canon of queer independence days.
Don’t believe me?
Talk to your LGBTQ+ friends — their stories on life, love and coming to terms with their true selves will ultimately end up as varied as the colors of the rainbow, but what most can pinpoint as a unifying experience is that gut feeling they got the first time they watched something that felt made for them. That first moment, awash in the glow of a crackling display, stomach heated with a feeling we’re too naive, or afraid, to acknowledge, stays with us forever.
For me, it was the sight of Davis effortlessly catching a fastball with her bare hands, while decked in a Bushwick Lesbian Everlane Jumpsuit. That was it. One ridiculous display of skill and I was done. Oh, and Madonna. Definitely Madonna. But beyond the outfits, I knew there was something about them that was more than just relatable: I wanted to be them.
I’m not alone. A League of Their Own’s legacy has existed long beyond the 128 minutes of family friendly historical comedy it was intended for, and almost 30 years later, the film revels in a category of queer awakenings that has lasted long past the generation it was created for.
Made by award-winning director Penny Marshall, the film goes beyond the history, thriving on the individuality of the girls it portrays. Rather than fall for the trappings of their femininity, A League Of Their Own thrives on the dirty, gritty, ruthless world they live in. They drink. They smoke. They’re made to slide in skirts and take the burns rather than lose the game. They dance, see men, confess and are on the diamond by 3 the next day. They’re advertised as dolls, and win by thriving as the vibrant, unique women they truly are.
Growing up, I saw these women as stickers, film class analyses, fanfics, GIFsets and more. They represented, at their core, a freedom not afforded to women at that time, and to a young queer girl growing up in a Southern state, they stood for a freedom I thought I’d never find. Every day on the field was independence day for them. And for 128 minutes, I was free too.
As an adult, part of my maturing was doing deep deconstruction on the idols of my youth. There is a history in the LGBTQ+ community of queering a lot of inherently straight material. Why? Because in a world that refuses to show you, you cling to the work that makes you feel like you belong. For every story we see, there is an entire history erased, sanitized, made palatable for a PG audience.
A League Of Their Own isn’t my favorite film anymore. I’ve seen the difference inclusivity makes in media — what representation feels like when it’s explicit, rather than argued out of every scene, or shown as a cut clip to heroicize the main character. So the realization that this real-life league was the backdrop for one of the world’s greatest love stories was one of the best days of my life.
That’s how I felt when I watched A Secret Love, a Ryan Murphy-produced documentary that tells the story of Pat Henschel and Terry Donahue, an All American Girl Professional Baseball League utility player, who hid their lesbian relationship from their family for close to 70 years.
When the two, an old married couple at the time of the doc, talk about Donahue’s time in the league as close to the best years of their life, the real-life footage of old-timey pitches and baseball cleats are undercut by photos of the two, Donahue decked out in her classic uniform. The documentary’s story centers itself in the freedom that the Girl’s League provided: For Donahue and Henschel, it didn’t just mean an escape from the norms of femininity, it meant freedom to be themselves, and together. Suddenly, the tight-knit friendships made by the teams, the camaraderie and closeness that the story provides, became even realer to me — not for the queer safety net it once embodied, but for the actual, honest-to-god epic of a love story that used it as its backdrop.
There are few holidays I rightfully celebrate in America as a black woman. Black History Month. Pride. Juneteenth, and presumably whatever non-offensive Juneteenth Pride celebration that will happen in New York next year. My imagination does not extend to celebrations that disregard who I am as an individual.
As such, in the years growing up, the Fourth of July has slowly become another holiday point of contention for me; so instead, I think of other things that remind me of freedom. When the fireworks sound, barbecue smoke fills the street and people mark another month in a post-corona world, I’ll be thinking about Dottie, about Henschel, about Donahue, about the world they created, and the world that I found the day I pressed play — and learned that being different might just be the key to this whole thing.