For over a quarter century, the Gay Games have built an international legacy of changing cultural, social and political attitudes towards LGBT people across the globe, at the same time empowering thousands and thousands with the transforming benefits of sports competition.
In 1981, gay athletes were a hidden and marginalized community within the greater marginalized and beleaguered LGBT community. Being gay and being an athlete was an either-or proposition: be a jock or be a queer. All of that changed when the athletes marched into Kezar Stadium in 1982.
“We need to discover more about the process of our sexual liberation and apply it meaningfuIIy to other forms of liberation,” Waddell wrote. “The Gay Games are not separatist, they are not exclusive, they are not oriented to victory, and they are not for commercial gain. They are, however, intended to bring a global community together in friendship, to experience participation, to elevate consciousness and self-esteem, and to achieve a form of cultural and intellectual synergy…. We are involved in the process of altering opinions whose foundations lie in ignorance. We have the opportunity to take the initiative on critical issues that affect the quality of life and we can serve in a way that makes all people the beneficiary.” Waddell wanted to bring gays and lesbians together in an unprecedented effort, and he wanted “to dispel the prevailing attitudes in sport regarding ageism, sexism and racism.”
Thirty years later, perhaps the best measurement of the Gay Games Movement is the legacy of change it has produced. Here is a timeline look at how the Gay Games have changed the world — and continue to change it, one athlete and attitude at a time.
- January 1979 — In San Francisco, a newly formed Front Runners club, named after the popular Patricia Neil Warren novel, elects its first slate of officers. According to the International Front Runners website: “There were few gay activities that were not centered around the bars. There were no gay hiking clubs, track, swimming, skiing, wrestling, bicycling or tennis clubs, bands, choruses, theater groups.” It becomes the first gay club to join the mainstream American Athletic Union.
- June 1981 — San Francisco Arts & Athletics is founded by Dr. Olympic decathlete Tom Waddell to produce the first “Gay Olympic Games.”
- August 1982 — Less than three weeks before the Opening Ceremonies, the U.S. Olympic Committee obtains a court order barring SFAA from using the name Gay Olympic Games. The word “Olympics” is blacked out like a solar eclipse from all Games-related materials, but the Gay Games are born nonetheless. Over the next few years, the USOC prevails in court, puts a lien on Dr. Waddell’s home, and drops it only in 1993 — years after his death in 1987.
- Gay Games I, San Francisco, 1982 — In a world without email or internet, the fledgling San Francisco grassroots organization brings together 1,350 participants athletes, joined by 300 cultural aprticipates, to compete in Gay Games I in 11 sports. Rugby is offered for women only. Wrestling, sanctioned by USA Wrestling, is offered for men only and its results appear in the New York Times, which, given its policy against use of the word “gay,” refers to them as occurring in the “Homosexual Games.”
- September 1982, Chicago — Less than three months after the San Francisco and Los Angeles bands, along with a combined Flag Corps, performed at Opening and Closing Ceremonies of Gay Games I, seven independent bands met in Chicago to form the Lesbian and Gay Bands of America, now called Lesbian and Gay Band Association (LGBA). There are now 26 member bands around the world.Gay Games II, San Francisco,
- 1986 — Gay Games II draw 3,500 participants from 17 countries in 17 events. Swimmers from Sydney to New York had started to make connections four years earlier, and by the time 400 of them had shown up for Gay Games II, they were ready to form an international alliance. International Gay & Lesbian Aquatics was formed the following year.
- In his speech before the participants, Waddell says, “We have talked for years about becoming teachers, and that is what we have become. We have something to teach a world that clearly seems to be going mad. We have taken responsibility for ourselves, particularly in the face of the AIDS crisis. We have set the standards for care and support. We will soon be teaching others. With the activities of this past week we have demonstrated what tolerance, friendship, and understanding can achieve. This world needs a lot more of these things, and we can give it. Last week I suggested that we were the largest minority in the world. I want to modify that statement. In fact I want to retract it. We are not a minority, we are an alternative. Everyone is welcome in our community. It is so simple; we like anyone who likes us! We have many battles ahead of us before we achieve parity in our respective societies. There are people who fear our differences, who do not understand us. They will be educated through events such as those you have enjoyed this past week.”
- July 11, 1987 — Tom Waddell dies of complications from AIDS.
- July 1989 — The Federation of Gay Games is formed from the old SFAA and new board members are solicited internationally.
- Gay Games III, Vancouver, 1990 — The Gay Games goes international in a big way, stepping out out the States for the first time and drawing 7,300 hundred participants, representing 39 countries and 27 sports. The Games are the largest volunteer effort in Vancouver history.
- The Province, a conservative Vancouver newspaper, writes on its editorial page: “Amost a year ago, we called these gay games ‘silly.’ What’s next? we asked. Bisexual games? Asexual games? What, we queried, does sexual orientation have to do with the high jump? Since then, we’ve been educated. We’ve learned that these games are intended to build bridges, strengthen community and bolster self-esteem. Members of groups that bear the brunt of society’s ignorance and fear need to make special efforts to support each other. And sometimes they need to stand up and be counted. “It is not for us to question — so long as others are not being hurt — how the homosexual community chooses to celebrate itself and to educate us, any more than it is out place to question how native Indians or blacks or women choose to define and redefine themselves.” “What of the AIDS spectre? AIDS as a sexual issue is no more relevant to these games than it is to a convention of heterosexual mountaineers or carpet layers. These games are, above all, about having fun. It isn’t often we get to have fun and, at the same time, learn about tolerance, compassion and understanding. B.C. residents should go out to some of the events of the 1990 Gay Games and Cultural Festival.”
- After the Gay Games III competition, wrestling coaches at the Games met informally and agreed to establish an international federation to help organize future Gay Games wrestling competitions. Golden Gate Wrestling Club of San Francisco joined the FGG in 1992 while the International Wrestling Alliance (IWA) was being formed. IWA took over the Golden Gate seat on the FGG board in 1996, and changed its name to Wrestlers WithOut Borders in 1999. The organization now has member clubs from Australia to Europe.
- Post Gay Games III — Inspired by the gathering in Vancouver, the French sports club CGPIF, now known as FSGL (Fédération Sportive Gaie et Lesbienne) is formed. Subsequently presidents of French, Dutch and German sports clubs form the European Gay and Lesbian Sports Federation (EGLSF) to help athletes to organize and train for future Gay Games.
- October 1991 — Following three Gay Games which increasingly brought teams together in competition, a steering committee is formed to found the International Gay & Lesbian Football Association.
- July 1993 — Gay Games hosts an event in New York honoring Martina Navratilova at the famous Madison Square Garden. Never before have the words “gay” or “lesbian” appeared in lights on the Garden’s marquee.
- March 1994 — The Gay Games score a milestone political victory against U.S.policy when Attorney Janet Reno signs a blanket waiver allowing HIV-infected individuals to enter the U.S. for Gay Games IV without special visa or application. The Designated Event Status (DES) draws attention to the ramifications of national policies restricting travel by AIDS-affected individuals.
- Gay Games IV, New York, 1994 — Another barrier is broken when the Gay Games offers women’s wrestling — 10 years before the Olympic Games follow suit. Olympic champion Greg Louganis comes out of the closet during the Opening Ceremonies. The USOC, having ended its legal battle against the founders of the Gay Games, lists them in its annual handbook as a noteworthy event. Louganis is given the USOC’s highest award; in hs acceptance speech, he dedicates the award to Tom Waddell and successfully lobbies to prevent the 1996 Olympic volleyball competition from being held in homophobic Cobb County, Georgia.
- Gay Games IV draws 12,500 participants from 2,000 cities and 40 countries in 31 sports events.
- Gay Games V, Amsterdam, 1998 — Another milestone in acceptance of LGBT sports by their mainstream counterparts is achieved when British Sports Minister Tony Banks, after meeting with members of the British Gay and Lesbian Sports Federation, voices his support for British athletes taking part in the Gay Games. Roughly 13,000 participants come from 68 countries to compete in 30 sports events.
- October 2001 — Barely one month after the terrorist attacks on 9/11 have chilled international travel, the FGG gathers in Africa for the first time to select a host for the 2006 Games. “In spite of recent world events, we have 150 people here from more than a dozen countries,” then-FGG co-president Gene Dermody says. “That sends a strong signal to the LGBT and non-gay communities about our commitment to what we are doing. We are strengthening our communities by eliminating obstacles that prevent any person from reaching his or her personal best.”
- Gay Games VI, Sydney, November 2002 — The first Gay Games in the Southern Hemisphere draw 11,000 participants for 31 sports and 11 cultural events from 80 countires, including Iraq, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates.
- More to come!