THURSDAY IS ONE of the more raucous nights at West Seattle Bowl. With two leagues bowling at the same time, every lane is occupied. Pop music plays over the loudspeakers, and bowlers sing and dance along. They take turns on the lanes like clockwork, each displaying the kind of highly personal moves that bowling seems to encourage.
The LGBTQ-focused Century 21 league — so called because its original incarnation started back in 1962, the year of the Seattle World’s Fair — fills most of the lanes. The league’s energy is a bit competitive but also intensely friendly, and high-fives are the currency of goodwill. If you bowl a strike, you get high-fives — not just from your teammates, but from your opponents, too. If you get a spare, high-fives. If you just bowled a particularly bad frame and need consolation: high-five.
I hang out for a while with Bill Sanders, who’s been in the Century 21 league for about 20 years now, and his teammates, Ashton Allison and Anthony Ogle. Like the other bowlers I meet, they’re remarkably welcoming to a stranger wearing a camera and street shoes.
“I find it to be a fun, social thing to do to keep up with my friends and meet new people,” says Allison. “It really feels like a family, in a sense.”
A few lanes over, teammates Johnna Bumbarger and Diane Taylor are selling raffle tickets to help fund an upcoming tournament. Taylor joined the league years ago, when a couple of colleagues invited her. “They’re long gone, and I’m still here,” she says with a laugh.
There’s a bowling league for just about everybody. On weekday nights, West Seattle Bowl hosts groups from seniors to schoolkids. A wine-themed league, new this year, also plays on Thursdays.
League manager Johann Stoessel says part of the idea behind the wine league was to bring in league-bowling newcomers who want to meet new people. It seems to be working so far. “It’s very inclusive. I haven’t had anyone show up who didn’t just melt right in,” he says.
Ashley McHugh and her husband, Peter Dieringer, are among those bowling next to the wineglasses and associated cheese plate. They moved to the area from Nevada last spring and, like many in this group, had never bowled in a league before. “We went bowling here a couple months ago and met people who bowl in this league, and they told us about it,” McHugh says. “We’ve actually met a lot of people in this league.”
For LGBTQ folks, bowling leagues have long held a layer of meaning beyond the usual benefits of friendly competition.
“Especially back in the day, this was one of the places LGBT people could come and not be in a bar but feel welcome,” says Nick Jasper, who joined the Century 21 league in 2004. And the friendships go beyond bowling: Some league members get together for holidays and dinners at each other’s houses. Jasper even met his husband here.
Some bowlers are better than others, of course (handicaps help level the playing field), but competition is secondary. “We’re really social and are just here to have a good time,” Jasper says.