NEW YORK >> Next year is the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising in 1969, when demonstrations after a police raid of a Greenwich Village bar helped kindle the modern gay rights movement.
The commemoration of such a seminal moment for gay people is expected to draw millions to New York next June for festivals, parades and cultural celebrations.
Amid it all, a surprising participant has gingerly emerged: the Yankees.
Baseball’s most famous franchise has stood by as welcoming gestures for gay sports fans have become increasingly common, whether they be gay pride nights at arenas and stadiums or the NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, riding aboard a pride parade float. Major League Baseball had a float in the New York City Pride March for the first time this year, with the recently retired umpire Dale Scott, who is gay, aboard.
But faced with the potential embarrassment of being the only major league team never to have held a pride night at a game, the Yankees are developing a series of events next season tied to the celebration of the Stonewall riots, a team spokesman said, confirming an SNY report Tuesday. He declined to provide any details because the plans were not close to being completed.
“The anniversary of Stonewall every year is an emotional and seminal event for LGBT people — not just for those in New York City but around the world,” said Corey Johnson, the City Council speaker, who came out as gay to his high school football teammates nearly 20 years ago. “To have an event in the Bronx at Yankee Stadium is a very special moment and, for me, as a former athlete, I’m going to be really proud to be there.”
The Yankees are often slow to embrace change. They maintain a strict grooming policy — banning long hair and beards — that dates to the 1970s. And they resisted calls to extend protective netting down the foul lines at Yankee Stadium until the outcry became fierce last September after a 2-year-old girl was hit in the head by a line drive.
While thematic promotions are ingrained in baseball culture, the Yankees have largely shied away from them, particularly those with an ethnic or cultural flavor, not wanting to be put in the position of saying yes to some and no to others. (The Yankees will, for the second year in a row, play a weekday afternoon home game in September so that their schedule does not conflict with Yom Kippur.)
The Yankees have been involved with LGBT causes behind the scenes. General manager Brian Cashman and his assistant general manager, Jean Afterman, have worked with groups who assist gay and transgender youth, and the team has invited Billy Bean, the gay MLB executive who promotes inclusion, to speak with Yankees players at the major and minor league levels.
But they have refrained from holding a gay pride event at Yankee Stadium — rebuffing at least one effort to get them to do so.
Near the end of spring training, though, the Yankees began to have internal discussions about how — with the Stonewall anniversary approaching next year — they might make a meaningful gesture to gay fans while remaining selective about whom the team recognizes and how.
A greater urgency arrived early last month when the Los Angeles Angels announced that they would have a gay pride event next season, leaving the Yankees as the only baseball franchise that had not held or planned such an event. The Yankees then began to answer calls from gay rights leaders and city officials like Johnson.
The Yankees have not studied how other teams put on pride events, mostly developing their plans in-house and being determined to come up with something unique. By framing their plans around the Stonewall celebration, the Yankees hope to create an event that in some way endures, though it remains uncertain whether it will be more than a one-time event.
Jim Buzinski, a co-founder of the website Outsports, said there were a number of meaningful steps the Yankees could take, including setting up a scholarship fund for gay college students interested in sports management and putting LGBT people into positions of authority within the organization.
“Stonewall is a perfect anniversary to do something special to make up for the fact that they were going to be the last team to hold a pride event,” Buzinski said. “It’s a good thing. I just hope it’s not a one-off — ‘Well, we did Stonewall at 50 years.’ The big question is, what are they going to do in 2020?”
What may be lost in the Yankees’ pursuit of a grand gesture is how important a simple one — like holding a pride night — might be in creating a welcoming atmosphere.
As recently as the 2010 playoffs, during the ritual playing of the Village People’s song “YMCA,” fans in the Yankee Stadium bleachers taunted opposing fans with a vulgar version of the song that included a chorus of “Why are you gay?” When videos surfaced on social media, the Yankees increased security and halted the practice.
“A lot of LGBT people in their childhood or adolescence were ostracized or felt trauma for not being accepted in the locker room or as part of physical education or in playing sports,” Johnson said. “That’s why I think these types of events can be healing experiences as it relates to sports and their own identity.”
David Kilmnick, chief executive of the LGBT Network, persuaded the Mets to resume their pride night in 2016 — they had one event about a decade earlier. He was unsuccessful in persuading the Yankees to follow suit when he proposed the idea to team representatives before that season at a diversity summit sponsored by Major League Baseball.
He was pleased to learn the Yankees were planning an event next year, but he expressed hope that “it’s not just a one-time event because millions of people will be here for Stonewall 50.”
“Some might think of it as a gimmick of sorts, but it’s not,” Kilmnick added. When a rainbow flag was unfurled at Citi Field last Saturday for the Mets’ Pride Night and same-sex couples were shown on the “kiss cam” at the stadium, “that shows the ballpark is a place for everyone,” he said.
He added, “It says something to the kids that were there with their families, who leave and go back to their schools. It’s a step to creating safe environments.”
If the Yankees were inclined to look for an example of how to have an impactful relationship with the gay community, they could look across the country at the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The organization was embarrassed in 2000 when security guards ejected a lesbian couple after fans complained that they were kissing. The Dodgers publicly apologized, instituted sensitivity training and donated 5,000 tickets to a gay and lesbian rights organization. The next year, the Chicago Cubs held what is believed to be the first game promoted as a gay pride event.
In recent years, the Dodgers have put a Hollywood flourish on their LGBT Night, recruiting gay celebrities to sing the national anthem and throw out the ceremonial first pitch, and teaming with LA Pride to make the event the kickoff to Pride Month each June. This year’s event, the team’s sixth, brought an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 LGBT people to Dodger Stadium.
Erik Braverman, the Dodgers’ senior vice president for marketing, communications and broadcasting, said the event’s popularity stemmed from the team’s investment in that community. The team donates to the Trevor Project, an advocacy group for suicide prevention among gay and transgender youth, and sponsors LGBT adult kickball and dodge ball leagues.
“We’re involved throughout the year,” said Braverman, one of baseball’s highest-ranking openly gay executives. “It’s a year-round connection, not just a one-day connection to drive sales and drive awareness to one night.”
His advice to the Yankees?
“It has to be genuine and authentic,” he said. “You can’t pander to the community and put it on the website saying there’s a ticket package and rainbow item. You have to practice what you preach — especially in New York and LA. I think you have to lead by example.”