For some people, throwing a ball as hard as they can at someone would be an act of aggression. Alyson Spinas-Valainis on the other hand has managed to make a career out of it.
Their career as a fast-pitch softball player has taken them all over the world. From picking up the game as a young child, they became transfixed by pitching and set out to make that their forte through high school.
At university, things could have gone a completely different route though. Spinas-Valainis opted for a scholarship to play basketball, putting softball on the backburner for a few years until the perfect storm of circumstances changed things.
They became disillusioned with basketball after a change in the coaching staff, and jumped at an offer to return to softball and stay at university for an extra year. Then, their coach suggested Spinas-Valainis keep playing – something they never realised was possible, especially not in New Zealand.
The intention had been to play there for six months then go back to the US, but that was a plan that, thankfully for Spinas-Valainis, did not transpire. They would go on to make the move to Europe, initially going to the Czech Republic before stopping off in, among other places, Germany and currently the Netherlands with Olympia Haarlem.
It was something of a culture shift from what they had been used to as a student athlete, though not always for the worse.
“When I went to New Zealand, it was so powerful because coming through the American system you’re essentially told at 14 that if you work hard, you can go to university because you can earn a scholarship,” Spinas-Valainis explained.
“I wouldn’t have been able to afford that otherwise, so from a very young age it was a version of a job. I needed to do it to make ends meet, I needed to earn that scholarship and once I was there I needed to keep it. Your sport kind of comes first. This is your job, as long as you keep your grades at a certain level.
“While that breeds some incredible athletes, it takes the fun out of it. When I went to New Zealand for the first time it was fascinating, because instead of the university structure you essentially had clubs that were tied to a family atmosphere.
“You would go to the park and have your 10-year-old and your 12-year-old playing in the morning, then mom and dad have their games in the afternoon and you stay at the club and socialise afterwards.
“I was like ‘when is your conditioning session?’ It was the weirdest thing, but it helped me realise that you can still breed those incredible athletes while keeping it fun and letting people enjoy their own process, and there can be a social attribute to your sport – you don’t need to do it day in and day out.
“That took me a while to get, but it helped me realise how freeing sport can be if it’s not treated like a job, and that was very interesting.
“After that it carried over. Every country is a little bit different when it comes to softball, and some of it is based on how successful the country is in the sport. For example, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic take it very seriously. You’re going to have two or three training sessions a week on top of national team stuff, but it pays dividends because those two and Italy are the three best softball teams in Europe.
“When I trained in Germany, we trained once a week and a few people came, it just depends. I think New Zealand was that happy medium between ‘we’ve got stuff to do’ and ‘I’ve got a wedding to go to’, and you can make that balance. I think New Zealand was the closest to the perfect balance, and I was very struck by that when I first started travelling.”
While New Zealand had a transformative effect on Spinas-Valainis’ perception of softball, it was also a period of self-discovery.
They are non-binary, panromantic, asexual and polyamorous – an identity that has taken years to understand, but that process truly started on the other side of the world.
“There are a few layers to this, the asexuality thing was very easy because I was never interested in dating,” Spinas-Valainis said.
“I just had a complete disconnect from that kind of stuff, and that carried on throughout. In high school I didn’t date anyone, ever, I just wasn’t interested. I was focused on hobbies, my art, I played three sports – there just wasn’t time for that kind of thing.
“When I eventually went to university, I had teammates that were LGBTQ+, and that was kind of the first time I had ever seen that. Towards the end of my time there I had come to the conclusion that maybe I wasn’t straight, but at that point I still wasn’t really interested in dating. It always felt like there was something wrong with me I guess, but I couldn’t change it so I just continued on.
“When I was in New Zealand, I was exposed to just the healthiest relationships I have ever seen. I played with people who were married to each other, and then they would go and pick up their adopted kid afterwards and go to family dinner together. It was such a real version of something that I had never really seen, certainly not in a healthy way.
“After that, it was about educating myself. I was having questions, I was thinking to myself ‘this looks wonderful to me, where do I stand on that?’ At that time I was starting to understand the asexuality part a little bit, so at a certain point I was like ‘I must be bi’. I had girlfriends-ish, and I was just trying to figure it out as I went.
“Unfortunately I didn’t truly understand the ace spectrum, because I had romantic feelings for people but when I was finally with someone I wasn’t interested in the physical intimacy. For me, it was like ‘maybe I like you as a friend’, which is a really bad thing to say to your girlfriend! It was one of those things where I had been so ignorant to the spectrum of asexuality.
“You look at it on paper and it’s no romantic feeling, but I had to break through that and see the parts that resonated with what I was feeling. Then I came across descriptions where asexuality was just not being sexually attracted to people, and I was like ‘oh shit’. That was the lightbulb moment.
“There’s the whole spectrum to it. As soon as I started understanding that and having some life experience to go along with it, it just clicked.
“By the time I was 24 or so, I finally had been able to give a term to what I was feeling. It was important for me, but it was also important for any relationships that I was going to go into, because I could give them the information up front without me struggling to explain why I don’t feel certain things or don’t match them in certain things.
“One of my very close friends who I met back at school began their journey a few years before me as far as discovering the non-binary as their existence. Watching them go through the process of ‘I’m femme’ versus ‘I’m trans and non-binary’, being able to see that in real time helped me answer some of the questions that I was having.
“If I feel like being called a girl is wrong, how about we don’t bury that anymore? Instead, let’s start asking why that is. I really started working with a gender specialist to explore those things, why my reactions are certain ways, what makes me uncomfortable about certain situations and being put back in that box.
“In early 2020 I came out at work as non-binary, I started changing my pronouns, and it was fascinating because as soon as I started exploring that aspect of it, that gender is expression-only, it made it so easy for me to say I was going to put in earrings today or that I would grow my hair back out, because that doesn’t define me as a girl, it defines my expression.
“It has very much been a case of doing away with what no longer serves me. A binary gender no longer serves me, not taking up space anymore no longer serves me, the she/her pronouns no longer serve me, and it has just been about aligning that stuff. It has been a very long journey, but I’m very happy about where I am and where I’ve gotten to.”
Though LGBTQIA+ visibility in sport is far rarer than many would like, for Spinas-Valainis’ identities they are practically nonexistent.
Without representation, there is far more likely to be a lack of understanding around things like asexuality and polyamory, which can lead to explanations being needed more often than they might for someone who is gay or bisexual.
“Asexuality, there are a lot of stigmas around it,” Spinas-Valainis admitted.
“A lot of those things on the list are actually very toxic and misleading. For asexuality, when you think of someone who is ace without the spectrum idea and all the greys and areas in between, it always looks like a person that is unfeeling, that is a computer who reproduces like plants.
“There are so many misconceptions with it, and it really just comes down to sexually being attracted to someone. When I explain that to someone who asks what it means, they usually go ‘that’s it?’ They’re like ‘so you don’t have sex’, but I don’t speak for all ace people. Again, it’s a spectrum. There’s aro-ace, aromantic, there are so many categories. The best thing you can do is talk to an ace person about their experiences, and open your mind to what that is.
“For me, I experience romantic attractions. I want to hold your hand, that’s good to me, but I’m content with that. Explaining that all the time to allos can be really hard, but again I think the more conversations that we’re able to have about that stuff – and unique to people instead of having one banner that describes everything – the more inclusive we’re going to be with language and the idea of heteronormativity when it comes to relationship and the gender stuff.
“It’s always interesting talking to people who want to understand, but don’t quite have the language of understanding yet. Ace is a big one, and non-binary is always a thing, especially as someone who presents as femme – a big scary femme, but femme nonetheless – it can get really challenging, especially with people who don’t have any exposure to that stuff. When I introduce myself and say ‘my name is Alyson, my pronouns are they/them’, you can see their blank face as they look at you. I’m just like ‘yep!’
“For a lot of LGBTQ+, it’s just a case of believing us. Believe the thing that we’re telling you. It doesn’t need to resonate with you specifically for you to respect it. By not respecting that, you’re missing out on a huge section of who I am as a person, and that doesn’t come down to me. That’s a shame for you, because we’re great, and we’re super fun.
“Poly is another stigma type, and a lot of it has come down to what I find fulfilling in relationships. That has opened up a lot of discussion about why that is not okay. If you’re in a position where you’re looking for emotional support, not necessarily sexual or physical intimacy, and you trust someone intrinsically, why wouldn’t you date them? For me, I want an emotional connection and someone I can go to and talk to about all things in life, and who respects me and looks out for me.
“As soon as you start throwing away those ideas of what a relationship looks like, you can get fulfilled in the ways that you need and want to be fulfilled without the pressure of having to be married by the time you’re 30, or having to have a kid.
“Funnily enough, I have two tiny girlfriends. That has been an incredibly validating experience, being able to share with both of them. The three of us are all together, it’s great. As long as we’re all on the same page and all communicating and taking care of each other, what more could you ask for? It’s fascinating, I’m so content at the moment.”
Softball’s platform seems to be improving all the time. It was reintroduced into the Olympics this year after a 13 year absence, and looks certain to be included in the Los Angeles Games in 2028. It has also been named as one of the sports that will be included if the Birmingham bid to host the EuroGames in 2024 is successful, a mark of how inclusive the sport generally is.
A 2016 study suggested that around 14% of softball players identified as LGBTQIA+, compared to 8% of the general population, and Spinas-Valainis is part of a dedicated LGBTQ+ committee at Baseball Softball UK looking to continue making the sport more inclusive.
“It’s incredibly important having an entire staff who are willing to open up their minds,” they added.
“While we do have LGBTQ+ people on the panel, the committee is made up of heteronormative allo people too. It’s fascinating when they’re willing to let down their guard to listen to what you have to say. We released the non-binary rule sets with inclusive language that we use at tournaments now, and I hope that continues to push other organisations and other governing bodies to push that. It’s one thing to release the stuff, it’s another to push and enforce it.
“The message that I’ve had to people who have kicked back about some of that stuff is that you can either come with us and enjoy the ride and learn, or you can get to a point where you are the minority, and I don’t want that for you. This inclusion is not going to go away.
“Non-binary and trans people are not going away, and with the way that social media is at this point those things can’t be covered up like they have been for years and eons before this. We have always existed, and with the way we have athletes who are non-binary in elite leagues in the States and all over the world, we’re not going anywhere.
“You can either join us and ask the questions now, or you can look like a dickhead later on. That’s up to you, it’s not my problem. Making sure that other people are included does not take away from your inclusion, it just evens the playing field.
“In sport specifically, coming out was incredibly validating. How did I look at myself and think that was a straight person? I obviously wasn’t seeing clearly.
“The non-binary part is interesting. In 2020 we had a lot of time to go on webinars and that kind of stuff, and one thing that really interested me was the sports side of inclusive language. In our sport, if you’re playing on first base you’re a first baseman. There was one time on a panel I was on that I actually sat down and started looking at all the ways we could change that language.
“I started talking to my teammates about it, and it’s fascinating because playing in those different teams, their first language is not English. Introducing those kinds of things, instead of the coaches coming in and saying ‘hello ladies’, it’s ‘hello everyone’ or ‘how is everyone doing?’ It’s fascinating, because you can hear the difference between languages.
“A lot of the conversations I’ve had, particularly with my Italian friends and Dutch ones, is that everything is so gendered. That’s the case in English and Spanish as well, but it’s an interesting shift between each of those languages. When you’re just trying to say ‘hey, someone take first base’, you don’t have time to think about that sort of stuff, so we’ll sit and practice in our team.
“For the most part everyone just wants to play. They want to play, be part of a team and be surrounded by people they love and trust. That’s what it comes down to, and if your policies or your language doesn’t support that for everyone on the field, it’s not good enough, and it has to be good enough.
“I’ve been incredibly fortunate that everyone on the teams I’ve played for has been supportive of that, and in fact if they weren’t I wouldn’t be playing for those teams. The non-binary part is a little bit easier because there are no hormones or surgeries involved for the most part. It’s a little harder than the relationship part, but my team have been very good to me.
“That’s a hill I’m willing to die on, because while it is good for me I know a lot of athletes who do not have it that way – specifically with trans athletes. I know it’s very, very difficult for trans athletes that are transitioning. If it starts with a club in a country that is open-minded, then that’s damn worth it. Someone has to be the first, so by putting those things into good practice and having those questions answered, I think sports – and specifically softball – will continue to be more and more progressive.”
Spinas-Valainis currently has a fundraiser running to help reach their goal of getting top surgery – donate here.