Minneapolis volleyball league gives community chance to connect

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Originally published in Lavender Magazine, March 2021

Sean Kennedy wondered why so many gay men showed up on those particular phone app grids every Sunday when he was home. He found out there was a gay volleyball league in the park across the street.

“We made a team with a group of our friends,” Kennedy recalled. “None of us had ever played, and we won maybe two sets the entire season, while having a bunch of fun.”

That season, someone from another team tipped Kennedy off about a group that would let him and his friends practice their game. That’s when he attended his first volleyball open gym of the Gay Lesbian Amateur Sport Society, or GLASS.

What originally started as the Upper Midwest Gay Lesbian Athletic Association in December 1991, GLASS provides volleyball and tennis play, along with competitions, for the LGBTQ+ community. In recent years, the nonprofit has shifted their attention to focus solely on volleyball.

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Before the COVID-19 pandemic, GLASS hosted volleyball open gym nights Mondays through Thursdays. Each evening is catered for different levels of play, from beginners to advanced. It will be back to a similar model once restrictions are lifted.

Prior to COVID, the beginner open gym on Tuesdays averaged 45 to 60 people. “We regularly remind folks it’s a night for learning and fun, and I like the culture we’ve got going on there,” Kennedy said.

Their protocols have obviously shifted due to coronavirus.

Eric D. Nelson is the GLASS Board President. He’s been playing with GLASS since 1998.

“COVID has greatly impacted the organization,” Nelson said. “We were able to do some limited grass volleyball this summer with limited participants and masks. We have been able to start limited open gym again in January twice a week, but participant numbers are limited to 24 a night with sign ups. We are filling up reservations within minutes, with waiting lists to play.”

“We have hand sanitizer at each court, extra masks, and regularly change out balls during play,” Kennedy added. “The hardest adjustment for me initially was not high-fiving all my teammates after every point, but we’re really good at elbow bumps these days.”

The Gay Lesbian Amateur Sport Society (or GLASS) hosts volleyball open gym nights for beginners to advanced. Photo courtesy GLASS.

What to expect

Alex Urquhart joined GLASS in 2015. “I got into GLASS because I wanted to not be so awful at volleyball, and I wanted to help a friend get more involved in something gay outside of the bar scene,” Urquhart said.

He runs the beginner gym open night and describes what happens during a typical session.

“The first 15 minutes are for warm-ups. If you are new, someone will usually approach you and offer to pair up with you. If you need help finding a partner, the night’s organizers will either find you someone or warm up with you.”

“After warm up, we have announcements. Then we play. An algorithm will place you on a team designed for balance. You will then play with that team all night. If you are a long-time player but first time to GLASS, you normally will jump right in. If you are new to volleyball like I was, people will offer help, show you techniques, and offer advice.”

“For some people, this is the first time they have ever touched a volleyball. For others, they have been playing for 50 years. Play is fun and unapologetically queer.”

GLASS Volleyball participants before the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy GLASS.

More than just a game

“My life would have been way different if I didn’t start playing volleyball with GLASS,” Nelson told Lavender. “My closest friends are people I met through this organization. Through GLASS, I was introduced to the North American Gay Volleyball Association. I have played volleyball tournaments all over the United States and Canada, meeting tons of amazing people and sharing lots of amazing experiences.”

Nelson isn’t the only one who understands the impact of GLASS.

“I had no idea I would love volleyball this much,” Urquhart said. “Six years ago, I had literally never touched a volleyball. Today, I play as often as I can and ref for a league in the city. I love to play, talk about, and watch volleyball. That all started with GLASS.”

And GLASS serves as an additional way to connect with others in the LGBTQ community.

“There are stories of love, and love-adjacent relationships for sure,” Kennedy reflected. “Many members that have been involved can say they have long lasting friendships that stem from GLASS. All kinds of people come to play, and I don’t guarantee you’ll meet your next boyfriend or roommate by attending (although it happens), but you’ll find great people worth getting to know outside of open gym.”

And after a difficult year, connecting with great people is what we crave.

“A lot of people are having a hard time as we approach a year of isolating,” Kennedy said. “Not everyone is ready to be in a space like an open gym yet, but if people are looking for ways to be active and connect, I’d say when you’re ready to give us a try! We really try to make everyone feel welcome.”

No experience is needed to attend a GLASS open gym night at Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis, but organizers say a positive attitude is always appreciated. You can learn about the Gay Lesbian Amateur Sport Society on their website, or you can stay up-to-date by liking their Facebook group.

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