McGowan's work led to acceptance for gay athletes
by Roger Brigham
Jack "Irene" McGowan, who died January 23 at the age of 78 after a lengthy battle with heart ailments, found the inspiration to create a world of opportunity and acceptance for gay athletes in an era that had little of either.
"I was born in 1931, during the Great Depression," Mr. McGowan said in an interview in his home on October 15 while convalescing between trips to the hospital. "They didn't have welfare then. My mother, unfortunately, was raped when she was 13 and had my older sister. From there on she had three kids by the time she was 17. And they just took us away from her. My father deserted her and they put us in a Catholic orphanage. I spent from third grade to the ninth grade in the Catholic orphanage in New Haven, Connecticut."
The orphanage had a Knights of Columbus sports program and relied on charitable contributions form the local community.
"We used to have to fight for socks and underwear. We used to take the priests' old golf balls and strip them. We'd put tape around them and that's what we used to play baseball with. That's all we had.
"We got one present a year. One of the supporters of Knights of Columbus was a roller skate manufacturer. Every year you were asked to make a list of what you wanted, and on the list you had to put roller skates. So everyone every year got a new pair of roller skates. The day after Christmas if it wasn't snowing we'd all be out there roller skating and we'd have four or five pairs hanging in our closet.
"I played soccer for years and I was playing football when I was around 8 or 9. I loved sports. I loved competition. I liked the one-on-one and I just liked being better."
When he went to work for a railway company after his service in the Navy, Mr. McGowan said, he rose in three years from elevator operator to assistant to a vice president.
"Normally in the railroad business it takes 20 years to get that far," he said. "Whatever I've done in my life, I've done the best I can. I used to write in my [gay newspaper] column, 'Not winning is not a problem, but not wanting to win is.' In other words, whatever you do in life, if you don't want to win, don't do it. You ought to want to be the best you can be."
Mr. McGowan said he was never attracted to much younger men – "If he's young, I feel fatherly or grandfatherly. I never have been sexually attracted to young boys. I prefer men" – and usually found himself involved with men in heterosexual relationships.
"I have a history of straight guys," he said. "My football coach in high school, a chief petty officer in the Navy. Not gay guys; gay guys didn't find me attractive. It wasn't that I was nellie: it was just that I was too different. I was outspoken. I was ready to fight all the time. I think that's one of the reasons straight guys liked me. I was ready to fight for what I thought was right. And I did. I never took shit from anybody."
Mr. McGowan enlisted in the Navy during the Korean War.
"It was wonderful," he recalled. "Having grown up in a restrictive kind of background with an orphanage, having to get up at a certain time, I was used to the regimen of the service. I loved it. I absolutely loved the Navy.
"But again, like most of my life, I got involved with a married man in North Carolina and I gave myself up because I wanted to go live with him in New York. I told them I was gay and they gave me an undesirable discharge.
"To this day I have no veteran's benefits because I gave myself up," Mr. McGowan said. "Then I went to New York and he was married to a beautiful model. And the model told him she was pregnant. So after I gave up my career in the Navy where I was a first class petty officer – after I gave that up, he dumped me. He said he couldn't leave his wife because she was pregnant. Of course, years later I found out she wasn't really pregnant; she just told him that."
It was during his days in the Navy he earned the nickname "Irene," for an act he did in drag as Betty Grable to entertain the troops. He was in his Betty Grable drag when he posed for a picture in Admiral Chester Nimitz's lap and was slapped on the butt by Bob Hope, who told him, "Grable's got nothing on you, kid."
After he was booted by the service and dumped by the serviceman, Mr. McGowan worked in New York City as a cashier at the Savannah Club, then moved to Connecticut before driving out with two friends to discover San Francisco.
In the 1970s, Mr. McGowan, Mark Brown, and the late Everett Hedrick founded the San Francisco Gay Softball League.
It was in San Francisco that he met his partner of 52 years, Harry Smith. Mr. McGowan said he had written a manuscript about his life, but had to stop when he came to write about Harry.
"I got up to my meeting Harry, but after that I couldn't write about Harry," he said. "I started to cry."
Mr. McGowan recounted the meeting.
"My two very best friends, both of whom are dead now, and I had gone to a movie Wednesday night. We went down to a gay bar called the Sea Cow. Lenny, the owner, had been in the Navy with me. Guys in the Navy who used to make passes at me – I'd switch them over to him if I wasn't interested.
"Well, we came into the bar very early in the morning and there were about three people in the bar: the bartender, Lenny, and this handsome, handsome – I can't tell you how handsome my Harry was. You must understand, I was never a great beauty, but I must have had something that straight guys liked. Anyway, Lenny had been trying to make him all night, evidently. So Harry said to Lenny, 'If you fix me up with that pretty blonde that just came in, I'll let you do me.' Lenny said okay and he brought me and my two friends over. We sat down and talked.
"We all had to work in the morning except Harry, who was in the Merchant Marines. We were leaving and he said, 'Aren't you going to invite me up for a cup of coffee?' I said, 'If you want coffee, sure.' So he came up to this big three-bedroom flat we had and we sat there and talked until about 3:30 in the morning. Then Jack and Jay said they have to go to bed. I said me, too. As we walked out the door, to the right were the bedrooms and to the left was the front door. Well, Harry walked ahead of me and went to the right. I said to him, 'Where are you going?' He said, 'Aren't we going to bed?' I said, 'No. You said you wanted coffee and all you're going to get is coffee.'
"Harry had never been turned down in his life. Never, ever.
"The next day he called me up and said he wanted to take me to dinner. He took me to Sausalito and said he never saw anybody eat like I did. That night he called up his girlfriend and broke off his engagement. We were together ever since."
Smith later developed cancer.
"Harry lived to be 76. He smoked and drank every day of his life. He had a terrible nosebleed, so he went to the veterans hospital," Mr. McGowan said. "They took a blood test and found out he had some sort of cancer. But he never told me. Never told me.
"He came back and for the next six months he kept getting weaker and weaker and thinner and thinner. On October 8  he didn't wake up in the morning, he was in a coma, so I called the doctor and the nurse and we were all sitting in there all day. It cost me $1,100 that day for doctors. At 4:20 in the afternoon on October 8, 2003, he woke up and said, 'Jack.' He said kiss me. I kissed him and he died."
Mr. McGowan was outspoken in his face-to-face meetings and in his sports writing, but said he often respected most of the people with whom he disagreed and attributed the hardheadedness of him and his fellow pioneers to their competitive zeal and their fight for survival.
"Those of us who really wanted to do it – we fought at every chance we had to express ourselves" he said. "I once ended up in a wrestling match with my [gay softball] vice commissioner on top of a pool table. We were so full of unrequited energy. We had never been involved in sports organizations and we always wanted to be top dog. So many of the older people are dead. So many of them are gone. We used to love each other and fight all the time.
"I wrote from the heart," Mr. McGowan said. "What I wrote was mostly a mixture of humor and facts. I wrote the truth, or at least what I thought was the truth. All my life I've had a quick jab.
Although he fought against homophobia in sports all his life, he expressed dismay at what he saw as a loss of sense of pride and identity, and an abandonment of strong moral values.
"I'm very disappointed now," he said. "We used to have wonderful cheerleaders. They'd come out there in drag with little jockstraps on. Sponsors used to take busses and load them up with customers and take them to the games. All those days are changed now. I'm not saying the athletes are any better or any worse: It's just not gay."
Mr. McGowan said he did not think D2, a gay softball team from San Francisco, should have entered the 2008 Gay Softball World Series with more straight players than the national association rules allow, but he also thought that rule should be discarded.
"One of the players they wanted to kick out because he's straight: this boy played for me when he was 15 and his father still plays," Mr. McGowan said. "The boy still plays for me: he's now 21. When he graduated from college this year, I couldn't afford it but I sent him a $50 gift. Now, here's a card written by that 21-year-old straight boy. It is the most beautiful letter I've ever had. I cried when I got it.
"The amazing thing is the loyalty that straight players have. I think it's the old coach-player aspect. I'm not being homophobic, but not too many gays percentage-wise have gone through that camaraderie between coach and player, whereas straights do it all the time. They do it from the time they're 5 years old. You'd be amazed at the number of phone calls I get all the time from straight players who remember me.
"I preferred gay life when it was ... I'm not saying we shouldn't have gay rights. Obviously, we should. But I don't believe in broadcasting your sexuality. I believe in living a normal life."
We spoke about the onslaught of AIDS just as LGBT sports were becoming established, and the importance of sports as a vehicle for making better life choices.
"AIDS were a terror," he said. "It came on us so quickly. The first year I lost a whole team.
"Competition is important to any community. It's part of human nature. They played sports when we were cavemen. Even animals compete. If you teach your young friends gay or straight to compete, they have a sense of value and high esteem when they accomplish something. I think without sports, this world would be in even a worse mess than it is today. Even Iran and Iraq: they warred for years, but they still played soccer. Competitive sports is a very minor but lesser alternative to war.
"I think sports are essential to your peace of mind and well being."
When we spoke last October, Mr. McGowan's weight had dropped from the 215 pounds of his playing days to a mere 145. I had written about his multiple bypass surgery in my first column in January 2007, and he had spent much time convalescing and returning to the hospital for more procedures in the intervening months. During that last interview, he proudly pointed out the flat screen TV former players had bought him so he could watch his beloved sports. In his remaining days, he found himself depending on the kindness of strangers he had turned into athletes and friends.
"I'm not long for this world," Mr. McGowan said. "I fall because I don't eat properly. I'm very fortunate that after years of sharing, these people haven't forgotten me. They do my shopping; they clean my house.
"When they gave me this TV set, I broke down and cried because nobody's ever given me anything before. I don't know what I'd do without it. I'm basically house-ridden. I can't go out unless someone helps me up and down the stairs."
Mr. McGowan, Irene, is gone but not forgotten.
As former SF Gay Softball League Commissioner Lenny Broberg said, "I am sure that there are going to be many things said about Jack, but I guess the one thing that I wish I had said before he passed, was 'Thank You.' Thank you for the time you devoted to promote sports, that GLBTs can play on the same level as straight people, for sharing your ideas and opinions with me even though we did not always agree. Thank you for being a voice that made sure it was heard and helped many people that may not ever know that you spoke on their behalf. Thank you for helping to start something that has been a positive influence in my life and has given me wonderful memories and great friends. Thank you for just being you."