Stonewall Sports is an LGBTQ+ and Ally community-based organization that operates as a not-for-profit and raises money for other local nonprofits through organized sports leagues. The organization was founded in 2010 and has since expanded to over 20 cities in the United States.
Before Mateo Rogers, 29, arrived in Jacksonville, Stonewall Sports was foreign to the area.
“Sure, there were like two gay bars, but there wasn’t a place to go outside of social media to really interact with others in the LGBTQ community that did not requires late nights and alcohol consumption,” Rogers said.
Rogers grew up in Oakland, California, with his mother and younger sister, Brandi. With a vacant father and his mother going through a second divorce when he was just 18-years-old, Rogers felt inclined to step up.
“There was just something inside of me telling me that now is the time for me to play husband and father for my mother and sister,” he said.
He joined the Navy in 2010 to help provide financially for his family. Moving from California to Norfolk, Virginia, where he worked as a welder for approximately 10 years, he said. During his time in the Navy, being gay was a “don’t ask, don’t tell sort of topic,” he said.
“I have always followed the status quo, but this caused me to have a weird relationship with my identity,” he said. “I constantly felt torn between representing masculinity, while also suppressing masculinity.”
Rogers had dated a few women before leaving California, but knew he identified as a gay man, he said. Upon entering the Navy, however, he had only come out to his mother and his sister.
While in Norfolk, Rogers discovered Stonewall Sports and joined the sporting leagues as a way to interact with like-minded people, he said. The organization is geared toward representing an inclusive, diverse group where people from all backgrounds are welcome to get together to play sports.
“This feeling of community and belonging was everything I needed at the time,” he said. “It was a way to not only embrace the side of me I had been suppressing, but I was doing good for the community as well.”
After his time in the Navy came to an end due to a back injury, Rogers eventually moved to Jacksonville, a place he had grown fond of during his time traveling with the military.
Here, Rogers met his now husband, Johnathon. As Rogers got to know Johnathon more, his passion to improve the LGBTQ+ community in Johnathon’s hometown grew even stronger, he said.
“You know, he was wanting to move away when we first met because he did not have many gay friends or any representation in the place he called home,” Rogers said.
Before actively pursuing a Stonewall Sports organization in Jacksonville, Rogers helped Johnathon enlist for the Navy and, luckily for them, he was stationed in Jacksonville.
“I have just always wanted to be remembered for something good, something bigger than myself,” Rogers said. “When I met Johnathon, he was working at Target and didn’t have his license. Now, he can drive a manual and is in the Navy.”
Rogers’ difficult childhood inspired him to always look for the next step to make himself and the people around him better, he said. There are many people in his family who have passed that he feels he cannot remember one good thing about them.
“My childhood best friend is in jail and I could have ended up the same way,” he said. “I sold drugs as a kid and slept in vacant houses. I could have been that boy in jail but I knew I could do better. Everyone can do better.”
While Johnathon was away at bootcamp, Rogers got to work on his goal to bring Stonewall Sports to the Jacksonville community.
The first thing he did was join River City Pride as a board member to help contribute to the community, while also talking to people about the organization he wanted to start.
“The more I talked to people in the community about my vision, the more I realized that the people were already here and so many were eager to see something like Stonewall happen, but nobody would just step up and do it,” he said.
Rogers enrolled in the Stonewall organization as a commissioner, or director, in order to bring an extension of the program to Jacksonville. A franchise of the organization, if you will, he said. He was given the framework to get it started, but the rest was up to him.
“Each Stonewall is completely different depending on where you go and what sports are compatible with the location,” he said. “It isn’t like a KFC where you can walk in and be guaranteed the same thing each time.”
Rogers said that getting people to agree to participate in the launch of Stonewall was difficult, even with others in the LGBTQ community.
“I planned to launch it the spring that COVID-19 happened, but that obviously got delayed,” he said. “Even when I was close to launch, I had people saying like ‘that is so cool, I just can’t see it picking up.’”
Despite all odds, however, Rogers launched Stonewall Sports-Jax in 2021 with great success. He managed to collect a diverse group of people to join his board, fellow LGBTQ members and allies, each with a unique background and upbringing.
“I feel like my board helps capture who Jacksonville really is,” he said. “We could have gotten a bunch of Ken dolls to go play kickball all day, but is that really going to build sustainability and longevity? No.”
Jacksonville is the 22nd “franchise” of the Stonewall Sports organization, and, currently, the farthest south of them all. Each is run by a different commissioner and board of directors, but operate under the same framework.
“I like to tell people that the fuel was already very much here,” Rogers said. “I was just the ignition that sparked the fire.”
Stonewall Sports-Jax just closed their summer kickball season, raising $25,000 for their summer beneficiary, Overflow Health Alliance. The next kickball season begins Oct. 3 and games will be held at Willowbranch Park. Anyone ages 21 and older are welcome to join.
Rogers is currently working as a development manager for Teach for America, a nonprofit educational organization that works to confront educational inequity for all children in America.
While he is still the current commissioner for Stonewall, Rogers hopes that one day he will pass the torch to the next commissioner and the organization will continue to grow and bring unity among the community, he said.