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RECREATION: Changing Lanes 

With a roiling din of voices and the clattering of falling pins surrounding him, Marty lounges on the bench, eyeing his teammates and opponents as they hurl their balls down the alley. At the lounge table behind him, bowlers play cards and take swigs of beer, and catch up on each other's weeks. It's Monday night at Clover Lanes, and the gang's all here.

A middle-aged, compact man with a salt-and-pepper goatee and thin wire glasses, Marty has spent many a Monday night here at Clover, buying pitchers, commiserating with friends, and, in general, having a blast.

And that, Marty says, is why he joined the Rochester Historical Bowling Society, a bowling league for gay men and women, 23 years ago.

"I have a lot of friends here, and I have a lot of fun," says Marty, who preferred not to use his last name. "For some folks, this is the only place to see their friends."

"You're up, Marty," one of his teammates calls to him. Marty excuses himself, steps up onto the lane, scoops up his ball, and lines up for his first roll of the frame.

As it turns out, he'll only need one - he nails a strike. He raises his arms in the air, breaks out in a big smile, and slides on the slick hardwood floor in celebration. His teammates cheer and applaud, but Marty demurs. "I got lucky," he says.

Marty is one of more than 100 people who make up the RHBS, a league of 28 four-person teams that rolls at Clover every Monday from September to April. (We'll get to how the league name was chosen a little later.)

The society is a member of the International Gay Bowling Organization (IGBO), which includes 170 leagues in the United States and dozens more in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. All told, about 12,000 bowlers are members of an IGBO-sponsored league. Throughout all the teams and all the leagues all over the world, IGBO members share two common goals - have fun, and recruit people to the sport of bowling.

"I like the camaraderie of the sport," says Rob Silliman, the director of IGBO's northeast region, which includes New York. It's a simple sport, so if you're not a great bowler, you can still like the sport itself. It's about the people you meet."

The Rochester Historical Bowling Society was formed in the mid-1980's - members, even the old-timers, can't really peg an exact year - and originally gathered at Panorama Lanes before moving to Clover in 1986.

The RHBS cribbed its name and its constitution from the Toronto Historical Bowling Society. Originally, IGBO teams were required to have history-themed names, like the Plantagenet Queens and the Warren G. Hardons, but that rule was later dropped.

The size of the Rochester league has experienced peaks and valleys - Marty says the high point was 40 teams, while "the lean years" featured just six three-person teams - but now the league is very comfortably sized at 28 four-person teams.

While the league doesn't really have playoffs per se, standings are kept, and occasionally the league has position nights, in which the top-ranked team plays No. 2, No. 3 plays No. 4, and so on.

The biggest social event of the RHBS' season is its Greater Rochester Eastern Area Tournament, which the league hosts in May. Now in its 22nd year, GREAT attracts teams from across the country and Canada, with nearly 180 bowlers taking part. Tournament director Kathy Perry says this season's GREAT is already sold out.

"No matter what happens, we always get people coming back," she says.

The tournament isn't just a gathering event. It's also a fund raiser for AIDS Rochester; Perry says the event raised roughly $13,000 last year, bringing the total proceeds to more than $200,000 over the years.

In addition to entrants' fees, the league secures sponsors, all from upstate New York. Says Perry: "I'm always impressed with the support we receive from the community."

It's that support that sustains not only the GREAT tourney, but also the league itself. "We just keep going," Perry says.

Terry Bentley has "always been a bowler," since he was a kid, when he joined up in his first league. As an adult, he tried several other leagues, but, he says, "they never caught on."

Still, he enjoyed the social aspect of the sport, a very relaxed, come-as-you-are attitude of togetherness. "I've always been doing it," he says. "It just kind of stuck."

Bentley now tends bar at a gay club in Rochester, where he meets new people and strikes up freindships with them. That's how he learned about the Rochester Historical Bowling Society. He joined the league six years ago, and he's currently in his first year as president.

Bentley says he and other RHBS members are constantly looking to recruit new members, although he notes that the league tries to stick to its current size. But if there's a spot open, anyone can sign up - and "anyone" is the operative word.

"We have a lot of straight bowlers," he says. "You don't have to be gay to be in the league."

Kelley Bannerman isn't gay. In fact, she met her boyfriend through the league. Like many of the other league members, Bannerman has been knocking 'em down since childhood, mainly at Maiden Lanes, where she also worked for a while.

She came to the RHBS though a gay friend who competed in the league and invited her to join. That was four years ago, and now she wouldn't ever think of going somewhere else to get her bowling fix.

"I had so much fun in the league that I decided to stay," Bannerman says. "It's the most fun league I've ever been in. All the people are really nice. We're all just out to have a good time."

That sentiment of fun and fellowship resounds across the RHBS membership, whether gay or straight - and whether you have a 225 average, or if your ball spends more time in the gutter than it does on the alley.

"We've got good bowlers, we've got medium bowlers, we've got bad bowlers," Marty says, "but people just want to come out and have fun."

Adds Silliman, the IGBO regional director: "I can just hang out with a bunch of great people."

To some skeptics, Silliman says, bowling and gay culture don't really mix. Why bowling? Why not darts or pool or something other social sport?

The gay community bowls for the same reasons everyone else does, because the aspects of the sport that people love - coming together to have a beer, talk about life, and just bullshit with friends - are universal. Says Silliman: "Everybody's bowled once."

And therein lies the true purpose of the RHBS, and all of IGBO: to show that bowling can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of sexual orientation, gender, race, age, ethnicity, or any other artificial divider of people.

IGBO members realize that bowling is dogged by misconceptions. Gays don't bowl. Bowling alleys are dank, smoke-filled, foul-smelling dives. That bowling is strictly a blue-collar sport. "Bowling is nothing like that today," says Silliman.

Bowling, Silliman and Bentley and Marty all say, is blast, and why wouldn't you want to have a blast?

"Once people get into it, they realize it's just fun," says Silliman. "Come down and give us a week. Let us change your mind."

For more information on the Rochester Historical Bowling Society visit rhbs.it.rit.edu.

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