As DIVA turns 20, its members recount how the sports organization
has given meaning to their lives far beyond volleyball
Friday night. This is the night around 300 people in the DFW area look forward to every week — and not because it’s the start of the weekend. Friday night is their time to set, spike and slam.
It’s volleyball night.
DIVA, the Dallas Independent Volleyball Association, just started its new season. It will play out like any other, filling weeknights with practice times and Fridays for games. They’ll take part in the Pride parade and have their tournament and banquet at the season’s finale. But this rings just a little louder than others because this is also their 20th anniversary.
"I’m really proud they have made it to 20 years as a gay sports organization. It’s one of the largest and more organized associations and we continue to grow. It’s a good outlet," says board member Donny Perry.
Perry, a DIVA member for 12 years, may be the prime example of what DIVA means to the community and to local volleyball fans in general. He came to the game with not much team sports experience and found himself worrying that he was going to miss out on his Friday nights at the bars. That’s all changed.
"It gives me something to do that’s positive that doesn’t involve getting drunk. The first month, I hated it. I was always being told not to duck," he says.
His skills improved and one year later he was sitting on the board. But really, what DIVA seems to have done for him was probably save his life.
He was ill, bored and hooked up to an IV. He got the idea of playing volleyball, made arrangements with his doctor and with a clever contraption, was able to remain connected to his medicine and play the game. His doctor wasn’t overly thrilled but Perry noticed something.
"After two months I started feeling better and a lot of it had to do with volleyball and being around people," he says.
If it wasn’t for DIVA, Joel Lazarine might not have met the love of his life.
"I met my partner of 11 years in January in our first season," he says. "It wasn’t why I joined. I came just wanting to know how to play." But he’ll take the fringe benefits nonetheless.
Lazarine serves on the board as treasurer. Not only has he benefited personally by meeting his partner and a slew of friends he now calls family; he speaks with pride about DIVA’s commitment to the community.
"I’m really proud that we give back to multiple charities — not only LGBT organizations, but also the city gyms where we practice and play. We’ll buy school supplies and donate to kids’ programs in the area," he says.
They also offer free memberships to Youth First Texas members, believing that DIVA could provide a positive environment for younger LGBT people.
"When I came out at 15, there was nothing to do. Now, we can offer stuff to do that’s positive and fun. We’re always trying to welcome everybody and at DIVA, we make it so easy," Perry says.
So what is it about DIVA that transcends its sporty appeal for 20 years? Over a decade later, Perry and Lazarine have come out ahead in a manner of speaking but continue to stick around. Most people might have found what they were looking for and moved on, but if DIVA were taken away tomorrow, both men would be at a loss.
"I would be devastated. Another member’s schedule at work had changed that conflicted with volleyball and he was going to quit his job. For me, it’s kept me healthy all these years," Perry says.
Lazarine figures he would simply go out and start another DIVA. This is commitment most people would kill for in a relationship. And it’s a feeling that’s been there from the very beginning.
"At that time, people already knew each other. After games we’d go out to eat or go to a player’s house. It easily became very close-knit," Gil Flores says.
Flores has been with DIVA for all its 20 years. In the beginning, it was a group of some 42 people playing in one division on Saturday afternoons at the Reverchon Rec Center. There was no local league at the time, but enough people were interested to start one albeit without looking beyond its instant gratification.
"I don’t know if it was looked at as a long-lasting goal. The thought was ‘Let’s do this because people want it.’ When membership grew, we knew it was something more," he says.
Now, 20 years later, DIVA is almost a microcosm of what the LGBT community could hope to be — a community of people with diverse backgrounds getting along.
"It’s a common interest. I think that’ a big part of it. We get to see a big group of our friends every Friday night and there’s just not that many activities where you can do that," Lazarine says.
For more information, visit Divadallas.org.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 4, 2009.