LGBT Fans Show their Browns Pride

Since 1980, there have been 355 Browns Backers groups started worldwide. Members of the organization’s first LGBT group talk about the stereotypes surrounding sports and how sports have impacted their lives. 

Story and Photos by Nicole Raucheisen

In recent years, the complex intersection of sports culture, homophobia, transphobia, and out LGBT athletes has become a hot topic among sports fans and in sports media. Although there seems to be a larger shift towards acceptance rather than discrimination — thanks in part to our governments ruling on same-sex marriage this year — the predictable stereotypes surrounding people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender still seem to influence the opinions of mainstream society. However, as the Browns Backers with a Twist members demonstrate, sports remain a shared and unifying experience regardless of sexuality, gender, race or religion.

In 2012, Scott Swaggerty spearheaded the beginning of an umbrella organization for all of the LGBT sports teams in Cleveland called Team CLE. The group’s mission is to dispel discrimination against LGBT people participating in sports while also providing an outlet for participation in local, regional, national and international amateur competitions. Although Team CLE provides softball, volleyball, kickball and various other athletic leagues, Scott realized there was potential for more. In June 2015, he started a chapter in what is considered one of the largest organized fan clubs in all of professional sports: The Cleveland Browns Backers. 

The Browns Backers Worldwide simultaneously exists as the official fan club of the Cleveland Browns and a non-profit organization that actively supports and positively promotes the team. The first group began in Akron over 35 years ago, but they have since expanded to 14 countries across 7 continents, including Antarctica. How exactly? Similar to the rabid Red Sox or Steelers fan bases, those who support this Northeast Ohio team unwaveringly bleed orange and brown. As Don Hartman, a Browns Backers with a Twist board member, recalls, “The Browns haven’t won a championship since 1964, but someone said to me, ‘I can’t believe the Indians are doing so well, but can’t fill the stadium. Yet, every week, the Browns fill the stadium.’ People are die-hard Browns fans and that’s just the way it is.”

After they started the group, Scott and Don proved that the devoted fan base also included a large portion of the gay community. They currently have 47 registered members and the attendance for their Sunday tailgates at Twist Social Club continues to grow week to week. “I think this is bringing a lot of people together that wouldn’t normally go out to a bar to watch the game,” Don said. “We can get 50 to 60 people here, but if we weren’t holding the event, they would probably only get 10 people in the bar on a Sunday.” As you might expect, even though a majority of the members are LGBT, the group does not discriminate. Regardless of sexuality, gender, race and even team preference, you’re welcome to join in on the fun as long as you’re respectful to everyone.

The group members have high hopes not only for the future of the Backers, but also for the future of LGBT participation in sports. “When we first started Team CLE and our outreach group, we wanted to get into the colleges and high schools to let the upcoming, younger gay people and allies know about the groups,” Scott says. “We’re in our 40s so we won’t be playing softball and volleyball forever. In order for these groups to continue to grow and succeed, we need the youth to get involved and a lot of them don’t even know this exists.” Still, over the course of three years, they have certainly proved that there is always strength — and pride — in numbers. A fact that will hopefully attract newcomers.