Gay softball pioneer Jack McGowan dies

by Roger Brigham

Bay Area Reporter

Friday February 6, 2009

Jack "Irene" McGowan built an inspirational legacy in San Francisco through the sport of softball, but it was his hardball approach to life for which he may best be remembered. On January 23, the man who gave so much of his heart to the sport he loved died after a lengthy battle with heart complications. He was 78.

Mr. McGowan, Mark Brown, and the late Everett Hedrick founded the San Francisco Gay Softball League in the 1970s and were all inducted into the inaugural class of the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance Hall of Fame in 1997. The San Francisco and New York City leagues created in the 1970s built the foundation of that national association and helped spawn other queer sports organizations and the Gay Games. Mr. McGowan fought for the rights of gay softball teams to play on city playing fields, fought to include younger gay athletes, and fought to allow straight athletes to play on gay teams.

"Jack is the one who brought me into the San Francisco Gay Softball League," current league Commissioner Vincent Fuqua said. "It was the first time that they allowed 18-year-olds to play in the SFGSL. I was a young gay man who was involved with Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center, and he reached out to us and coached the team. We were a group of young LGBT individuals and his spirit and passion will never be forgotten. I am extremely grateful that he was part of my life and his spirit will continue to be part of my life."

Lenny Broberg was the SFGSL commissioner when LYRIC was admitted.

"When I began the process and initially met with a resistance from some of the members, Jack stepped up as one of their greatest advocates," Broberg recalled. "He recognized the importance of mentoring and creating a positive environment for GLBT youth while giving them an outlet for socializing and learning. It was a great learning experience for everyone involved. Many of the players from that team went on to establish themselves as great players and contributed much to the SFGSL.

"Jack always put sports, especially softball, before anything else. He wanted to make sure that anyone who wanted to play had the opportunity to."

Broberg added with a laugh, "With Jack, you always knew where you stood with him. You may not have always agreed with him, but he was always more than happy to explain his point of view and why you were wrong."

Mr. McGowan's influence was felt far beyond the softball world through his sports columns in the now-defunct Sentinel gay newspaper and the Bay Area Reporter.

"Our local wrestlers could always count on Jack to write a feature about them in his column when they competed locally," longtime Golden Gate Wrestling Club President Gene Dermody said. "It did a lot to improve our image, help us recruit, pull together, and flourish in those early years.

"His columns struck fear into the hearts of the old Team SF leadership, something that once baffled me, but that I understood and appreciated better over time. Jack was more about the exhilaration of the competition, the celebration of the athlete, the camaraderie of the competitors, and the consequent strong relationships. I always envied what softball had created in our community."

B.A.R. assistant editor Jim Provenzano worked with Mr. McGowan while writing his long-running Sports Complex column and later while curating an exhibit on the local LGBT sports movement for the San Francisco GLBT Historical Society.

"He was both generous and guarded in our talks - generous, because he had so much fascinating history and memorabilia to share, but guarded due to concerns that his contributions be properly represented," Provenzano said. "It pained me to have to reduce his inspiring legacy to a few items in the exhibit. He deserved an entire wing.

"When he once - politely - complained that I didn't write enough, as he had so colorfully, about softball, I reminded him that due to his groundbreaking work, there were now dozens of other LGBT sports groups to cover.

"A proud moment was the opening night of the exhibit, introducing Jack to young, proudly out gay athletes in other sports who hadn't even been born when his work began. He disliked the term 'activist,' but that's what he was. We all owe him so much, not just softball players or other athletes, but our entire community."

Mr. McGowan was born in 1931. He worked as an assistant to the vice president for Southern Pacific Railroad and Freight Traffic.

A memorial service and celebrations are planned for this Saturday. The service will be held at 11 a.m. at St. Mark's Lutheran Church, 1111 O'Farrell Street. A remembrance celebration with food, cake, and champagne will follow at about 1 p.m. at the Pilsner Inn, 225 Church Street. A continuation party will be held later that afternoon and into the early evening at Marlena's bar, 488 Hayes Street.

For more on Mr. McGowan's life, a companion article is online at

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