Editor’s note: Forty-eight years ago, back when the Cowboys were just two seasons removed from their first Super Bowl victory, another Dallas professional football team took the field at Texas Stadium. It was February 18, 1973, and the Dallas Bluebonnets were set to play their first-ever game in the National Women’s Football League, which spanned eight states (and a few iterations) in the 1970s and ’80s. The Bluebonnets would lose that day, badly, to the visiting Toledo Troopers, the league’s most dominant squad and among the most successful football teams in American history. But their participation is about so much more than the 37-12 scoreline that day.
During their two seasons of existence, the Bluebonnets represented an opportunity for women in Dallas who wanted to play a sport intertwined with the state’s culture, even if it paid just $25 a game. They also provided a community for lesbians who had few such spaces in 1970s Dallas. Along the way, the Bluebonnets and the NWFL at large became a forum where women of different backgrounds and sexual orientations could come together, understand each other, and compete.
Their history is just one part of Frankie de la Cretaz and Lyndsey D’Arcangelo’s stellar new book, Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League, which is out today. What follows is an excerpt on the Bluebonnets, from their origin in an Oak Lawn lesbian bar, the challenge of navigating an often-hostile city, their camaraderie with the Cowboys, and more.
The Bluebonnets began less than a year earlier when, one night, a group of women were doing what they did most nights: hanging out in one of their favorite lesbian bars in Dallas.
At the time, there were several women’s bars that dotted the blocks comprising Oak Lawn. It was 1972 and the blocks that would eventually gentrify and be considered a trendy place to live were still gritty and seedy. The bar where the Bluebonnets were born was without pretenses: the bulk of the joint was taken up by the bar itself, the rest by a small dance floor and some pool tables. Groups of women chatted, pairs of women flirted, and everyone had one eye on the door. Should the police show up and raid the place, the women would be ready to keep their hands and eyes to themselves at a moment’s notice.
Among the fold was D.A. Starkey, a hard-drinking, loud-talking butch woman—a self-described “dyke”—who was always looking for some kind of fun. Or trouble. That night, one of Starkey’s friends brought in something she’d found in the Dallas Times Herald, an ad that caught her eye: it was two lines in the personal section, looking for women to try out for a professional football team.
Starkey wasn’t the kind of person who read the paper, so this was the first she’d heard about any football team. And it didn’t matter to Starkey that she’d never played football before. She had plenty of softball experience, so she knew she could catch the ball, and she was excited at the prospect of getting to smash into people. If there was one thing Starkey liked, it was being aggressive and shoving people around; if there was another, it was playing sports. Football would be the perfect melding of those interests.
That night, the lot of them decided they would go try out.
The women who played in the NWFL bucked convention in ways that went beyond simply taking the football field. While it is not true for all of them, of course, many of the women who played in the league were gay.
It’s a common assumption that women who play sports are lesbians. And this assumption is often meant as an insult, so as to demean these athletes for breaking out of the conventional roles and expectations of women. Yet while this isn’t always the case, it is true that many queer women often do play sports. And historically, as Susan K. Cahn writes in her 1994 book, Coming on Strong, sports teams have often been places where lesbian women could find community and acceptance in an otherwise hostile world.
The other place that many gay women found a community was in women’s bars. If not for bars, “our history would have been decidedly different,” Dallas gay historian Phil Johnson told Triangle magazine in 1997. “The bars are our roots and our foundation. It was from them that everything else sprang.” Johnson pointed out that gay bars existed before any other queer organizations—like churches, choruses, sports teams, or publications. For many of the Bluebonnets, the worlds of bars and athletics fit together seamlessly.
As a league, the NWFL (which launched in 1974) existed in an America just a few years removed from the Black Cat Tavern uprising of 1967 and Stonewall Inn uprising of 1969. Those events happened in Los Angeles and New York City, respectively, both large, more liberal cities than others in the country. And most of the NWFL teams were located in smaller towns, or in less liberal areas of the country. Even still, the resistance was trickling inward from the coasts. Many of the Bluebonnets players hung out in women’s bars together, or knew each other from the softball leagues organized out of those spaces. And so, the NWFL began at a time of major change for gay Americans.
For many of the Bluebonnets, the worlds of bars and athletics fit together seamlessly.
In fact, the same year the Bluebonnets were formed, Dallas held its first gay pride march. But not everyone in the Dallas queer bars was following the queer liberation movement, or was even aware of the shifting political tides. Dallas “wasn’t like Stonewall,” Bluebonnets quarterback Barbara O’Brien says today.
For lesbians in the NWFL, they knew that being who they were was a risk. There were places you could be safely out and places where you couldn’t. One of those places where you were (mostly) safe to be gay was in a lesbian bar. Dallas had a particularly robust lesbian bar scene. While some cities struggled to keep even one women’s bar open, at one point in the 1970s, Dallas had as many as five.
It is perhaps no surprise, then, that so many of the women who hung out in the gay women’s bar scene at that time were drawn to the Bluebonnets. Many of the women were athletic and played on various sports teams, like softball and soccer, that were organized through the bars. They saw football as an extension of that. But more than that, these women were experts at creating community spaces when the world was a hostile place for people like them. In that way, the teams and the bars served much the same purpose.
These bars were such big supporters of the league, and the players were such an integral part of Dallas’s lesbian community, that local women’s bars bought ad space in their game-day programs. In a 1977 Dallas-Fort Worth Shamrocks program, The Maidenhead, “a women’s cocktail lounge,” advertised its “Steak Out” nights on Wednesdays and Sundays at 8 p.m. Another bar called Sassy’s, also known as Too Sassy’s, advertised itself in the program as “celebrating a new era for women.” And there was an ad for Jugs, which opened in 1975 and was owned by Joe Elliott, a legend in the Dallas lesbian scene. When Jugs closed its doors in the 1990s, it was the longest-running women’s bar in Dallas. They offered twenty five-cent beer on Tuesday nights.
The bars, however, were not always as welcoming to Black women as they were to white ones. Even within a marginalized community like the gay community, Black folks were often discriminated against. Some venues would require multiple forms of identification from Black patrons, while not asking the same of white ones, as a way of excluding them.
The fact that they were gay was both important and unimportant to the queer women on the Bluebonnets. They were there first and foremost to play football. That so many of their friends were there, too, and their sheer number—in addition to the way sports teams can often feel like families—combined to make the Bluebonnets a place where any woman, gay or straight, could be herself. However, “we weren’t that open,” O’Brien, the Bluebonnets quarterback, confessed. The gay players knew who the other gay women on the team were, “but we weren’t advertising our sexuality.”
The Bluebonnets were not unique in having a large number of gay women on their roster. Sometimes, when teams traveled to games, the home team would bring the visitors out to their favorite local gay spot. Oklahoma City Dolls kicker Mary BlueJacket estimates that her team was about 50 percent gay women, and after the games, the lesbian women would go out to the women’s bars while the straight women went home or elsewhere. On the road, however, the women would party together in their motel rooms as a team.
Romances, hookups, and interpersonal drama sometimes made their way into the locker room as a result.
On the Bluebonnets, Starkey and CoCo Manson dated for a few years (and, in true lesbian fashion, remain friends to this day). Starkey says that when the two would have a fight, sometimes they put their pads and helmets on and went into the yard to get their aggression out. “We would go after each other,” Starkey said, and then say, “okay, that’s over.”
Starkey came out to her parents when she was just 14 years old. “My dad said, ‘Well, sister, that’s a hard life. Good luck,’ and it was never spoken about again.” It was never an internal struggle for her, the way it is for some people. Starkey has always been exactly who she is, which, in her words, is “just a dyke.” Her butch presentation made that fact hard to hide, and she says that any taunts or names she was called in public never bothered her. “That’s what we were!” she said. “It didn’t hurt my feelings.”
“Men would just call us dykes, and, you know, ‘Come here, let me show you what a real man is,’ and stuff like that,” O’Brien remembered. “I thought it was pretty disgusting. Right? But consider the source.”
Toni Gibson recalls that some of their worst harassment came after they’d done pep rallies with the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys players, she said, “understood our struggle” and “couldn’t have been more nice to us.” But they’d show up to practice and there would be a group of harassers—mostly men—waiting for them. “If you played football, everybody called you a ‘queer’ automatically. And the other word was ‘dyke.’” It was dangerous at times, Gibson said. “At that time, you could have done anything you wanted to a gay person and everybody would have turned their head.”
One night after a game, Gibson, Starkey, Manson, and a few other players went to eat at a Denny’s they frequented. A man approached their table, threw a wooden nickel on it, and said, “This is what y’all are worth. You bunch of dykes.”
“For a long time, you just didn’t wanna be caught in the gay bar, ’cause the Dallas police would be raiding it.Barbara O’Brien
Gibson says that when they went out as a group, their safety felt more precarious because the group of women who were read as lesbians were conspicuous; there were more of them, which made them more noticeable. In the early 1970s, police raids were still happening in gay bars, and owners, staff, and patrons of the establishments were routinely arrested just for being inside. For decades, women had to be wearing at least three items of “women’s clothing” in order to avoid being arrested. But even that didn’t guarantee safety; police could create reasons to take someone into custody. “For a long time, you just didn’t wanna be caught in the gay bar,” said O’Brien, “’cause the Dallas police would be raiding it.”
Perhaps this is why—according to Paula Bosse, who runs the local history website Flashback: Dallas—it’s incredibly difficult to find positive media stories about Dallas’s gay community prior to the 1970s. “There are plenty of negative items that appeared in the local newspapers, most of which invariably focused on reports of vice raids or were generally one-sided psychology-based discussions of ‘aberrant behavior,’” she writes on the blog Central Track, “but there is almost no mention at all of gay culture.” It wasn’t until the gay community in Dallas began organizing in earnest following Stonewall, and taking their complaints to the courts, that the raids subsided. By that time, Starkey remembers getting caught making out with a girl in her car, but the police telling them to just go home.
Today, there are very few gay bars left in Dallas, as they’ve mostly closed, following a nationwide trend of queer bars closing as it becomes safer and more acceptable to be gay in public. But a few still exist, including the Round-Up Saloon and Dance Hall, where Bluebonnet Betty Young and her wife like to go out dancing. They often run into former Bluebonnets teammates, like Norma Featherston. “I started running into all my old teammates” at some of the women’s nights, Featherston said. “Now we’re older and we’re … going dancing rather than playing football.”
The number of gay women on NWFL teams did more than just provide community for the queer players. Their presence also opened the minds of their straight teammates. Nearly every player openly acknowledged that there were lesbians on their teams; and they followed that up with insisting that it “didn’t matter” and that they were “a family.”
Especially considering that the teams often existed in smaller towns or more rural locations, where it was less accepted to be gay, straight women on the teams had often never met an openly gay person before joining the NWFL. Jan Hines, the quarterback of the Dolls, says her experience in the league forever shaped her social politics. Growing up in the church and being straight herself, she didn’t know anything about gayness until a friend of hers on the team came out to her.
“It took me a few days to work through it mentally,” she said. “And I’m thinking to myself, ‘I’ve known this person for a number of years, and never had an issue. Why should things change now that I have knowledge of something that I didn’t before? Why should that change my relationship?’”
Dolls player Pebble Myers, who was a college student at the time and a self-described “country girl,” remembers the gay players asking her if she was gay or had any interest in women. When Myers said no, “that was the end of it.” She says the players would congregate by their cars after practices and share stories from their lives. “We talked about our boyfriends,” she says, “and they talked about their girlfriends.”
It is interesting to think about this league in contrast with another women’s professional league, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). Existing during World War II, from 1943 to 1954, it predated the NWFL by three decades. The AAGPBL also had many queer women playing in it; looking at how their straight teammates, and the men who managed the league, reacted to the idea of homosexuality offers a good understanding of how much progress had been made on the issue in the 20 years between the leagues. Unlike the NWFL, which allowed the women to wear the same equipment as male athletes and generally did not police their appearance, the AAGPBL required the women to play baseball in skirts—at the expense of their safety—and attend charm school. Women could be kicked out of the league for having a haircut deemed “too butch,” because the owners of the league did not want the women to be perceived as lesbians.
“Now we’re older and we’re . . . going dancing rather than playing football.Norma Featherston
Similar to the NWFL players, many of the women in the AAGPBL came from small, rural towns and had never met a gay person before joining the league. But for the straight women who discovered some of their teammates were having relationships with each other, their reaction was not always one of normalization. Some were horrified, while others thought it was a joke. The fact that the straight NWFL players responded so differently, with an open mind and open heart, testifies to the larger social shifts that had occurred in the time period between leagues.
The women of the NWFL also disprove one dominant narrative: the idea that queer people in red states or “flyover country” always leave for coastal cities. In fact, the NWFL women stayed in their hometowns or home states, and found community among others who had stayed, too. Most of them are still there today; they did not board a bus with a oneway ticket to New York City or San Francisco.
They resisted and persisted, whether in a sport they were told they shouldn’t play or by loving people they were told they couldn’t love. They may talk about times when they felt unsafe being openly gay. But these cities and towns are also the only place they’ve ever been queer; they don’t know what it would be like anywhere else, nor do they want to.
This article has been excerpted from Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League, by Frankie de la Cretaz and Lyndsey D’Arcangelo. Copyright © 2021. Available from Bold Type Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.