For a bowler, there's no sweeter sound than the clamor of ten white pins crashing to the floor in a strike.
"I love the game," says William Swann, pointing to the scoreboard above the bowling lane that broadcasts his team's name: PUTITIN. Swann, whose team has bowled with the Capital Area Rainbowlers Association (CARA) for two years, gestures at the expansive bowling alley. "More people should join -- we'd take up the whole place."
On some nights, the gay and lesbian bowlers of CARA can pack the entire house -- for the upcoming fall/winter Wednesday league, more than 150 bowlers will take to the lanes, says CARA vice President Shanda Georg, who's been bowling since 1987.
And CARA bowlers have packed in for this summer's Tuesday night league as well.
"People just love to bowl," says James "Hawk" Crutchfield, Tuesday summer league president.
Crutchfield is right. All the bowlers at the Tuesday night league are acting like it's the Friday night of a three-day weekend. Slapping high-fives, back-patting, laughter, drinks and fellowship reverberate over the lanes. The sport and competition of bowling is the night's main event -- the friendship and camaraderie keeps them coming back.
Formed seven years ago after the D.C. Sports Association, an umbrella group for gay sports that included gay bowling leagues, dissolved, CARA currently has about 450 members, both gay and straight, and is on a mission to lure the gay community into the suburbs for nights of hard balls and wobbly wood.
"We try to bring the gay and lesbian community in to enjoy the sport of bowling," said Jack Ellison, president of the association.
An umbrella organization that manages individual bowling leagues formed under its auspices, CARA holds inter-league tournaments, supports and sponsors national tournaments such as the annual Capital Halloween Invitational Tournament, offers coaching classes, and provides assistance to its leagues. CARA is also a member of the American Bowling Congress and the Women's International Bowling Congress. Many CARA members will be participating in the upcoming International Gay Bowling Organization's Mid-Year tournament in October in New Zealand as well as this year's Gay Games in Sydney, Australia.
But newcomers shouldn't be intimidated by the presence of competitive bowlers, who actually make up a minority of CARA participants. Says George: "It's okay to be a bad bowler."
Socially, bowling is a ball (excuse the pun) and a refreshing alternative, some say, to the bar scene for those who prefer a social atmosphere with less emphasis on drinking but with the same emphasis on fun and being social.
A lot of gay men are attracted to bowling, Georg believes, because of comfortable sociability and the lack of pressure to drink. But even though the late-night leagues are predominately male, Georg is quick to point out that none of the leagues are exclusive, and all are open and welcoming to everyone.
"Women are not intimidated," she says, adding that CARA's female members aren't in the least shy about "bringing down the house" along with the boys.
While CARA is built on welcoming people to join, bowling alleys themselves didn't always put out the welcome mat for gay bowling leagues. During the ‘80s and the onslaught of AIDS, Georg says, some gay bowlers were confronted with fear and prejudice. But over the years, Georg and Ellison both agree, CARA has let bowling establishments know that its members will not stand for harassment.
Of course, when it comes down to the ten white, wooden pins at the end of the bowling lane, everyone is equal.
Ten-pin bowling, the standard game, is a contest of two or more teams of at least three people each. Each player has ten frames to knock down pins, with two throws per frame allowed. Knocking down all ten pins with the first throw is a strike. The score is based on the number of pins knocked down -- 300 is a perfect game.
Ten-pin bowling is the traditional game, but CARA also offers a "duckpin" league during the summer. In duckpin, the pins are half the size, the balls are much smaller and have no fingerholes, and each players throws three times per frame.
As with many sports, choosing one's accessories is part of the ritual. Bowling gear has become hip in a punky, rockabilly kind of way. Retro bowling shirts, bags and shoes are staples at second-hand, vintage boutiques. Although boutiques will price even the shabbiest gear at moderate-to-high prices, for hardcore bowlers that's pocket change.
Then there are the required tools of the trade: balls and shoes. Some bowling balls can cost up to $300, while shoes can range from $24 to $200. For those not ready to purchase their own gear, the "house" will provide all the fixings.
Bowling is one of the most accessible sports out there. All you need is a couple friends and ... well, that's it. For longtime CARA member Mickey Miller, who helped start the first gay bowling league in Jackson, Miss., 24 years ago, bowling has been a way of life.
"I've met the most interesting people in the whole world (at the bowling alley)," she said.
CARA members are now forming Fall Bowling Leagues and holding organizational meetings at bowling lanes around the D.C. Metro area. Those interested do not have to attend an organizational meeting to join a league. For more information, visit www.carabowling.org.