Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Gay Games VII: From vision to inheritance


Gay Games moments, from top: Torch-bearers George Frenn and Susan McGrievey at Gay Games I in San Francisco in 1982 with Armistead Maupin onstage; Carmen Morrison at 1994 Gay Games IV in New York; a couple kissing at Gay Games II opening ceremonies in 1986 in San Francisco. Photos: Mick Hicks
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In gyms, on track and soccer fields, and in rehearsal halls, the legacy of the Gay Games and its ties to the Bay Area has been overflowing in the past few months as hundreds of athletes and performers prepare for their trip to Chicago.

Last weekend at Eureka Valley Recreation Center, Tsunami coach Suzanne Baker put swimmers through amusing routines in preparation for the festive Pink Flamingos show. Upstairs, Golden Gate wrestlers practiced moves of a different, less musical, kind.

Across town, track and field athletes practiced baton handoffs for relays, while others flung discuses and javelins. Over in Marin, the Spikes competed in yet another soccer match. And down in Pacifica, bowlers rented lanes one more time.

Among each of these groups – and many more – people are immersing themselves in sports for the first time, while others share an athletic history that precedes even the first Gay Games.

In 1980, former Olympic decathlete Tom Waddell began working with Paul Mart and Mark Brown to plan and organize the concept of a gay multi-sport event that afforded the opportunity for all athletes to participate regardless of skill, ability, race, or sexual orientation.

A board of women and men, including Sara Lewinstein (who would later marry Waddell, despite their both being gay), worked tirelessly to create the first gay and lesbian multi-sport event in the world (the terms bisexual and transgender had yet to be formally included).

That plan grew into the Gay Olympic Games, until the United States Olympic committee sued the fledgling organization, making history by forcing the event to become the Gay Games.

We've come such a long way since 1982, when 1,350 participants marched into Kezar Stadium on a breezy August day.

Six successive quadrennial Gay Games have expanded the global LGBT athletics community, inspiring participants to start their own teams and tournaments. Overcoming homophobia in sports organizations, fiscal crises, and even rival games, the Gay Games have endured, and persisted.

This Saturday, more than 12,000 athletes and cultural participants will join the pageantry and ritual, as Team San Francisco leads the march of athletes into Chicago's Soldier Field on July 15 to herald the opening of the seventh Gay Games.

To celebrate those who will compete for the following eight days, an array of performers will entertain them and an expected 30,000 more viewers. Andy Bell, Margaret Cho, Megan Mullally, and Jody Watley are scheduled to appear. These entertainers will be interwoven with traditional ceremonial components such as former NFL player Esera Tuaolo singing the Gay Games anthem, in a historic narrative told through the movement of an international corps of hundreds of dancers, gymnasts, and combined marching bands and choruses.

Rose Mary Mitchell, Gay Games organizer and Waddell Cup nominee

A world cup

The presentation of the Waddell Cup, given to outstanding members of the Federation of Gay Games' sports community, will also be part of the opening ceremonies. Nominees also include two Bay Area residents, Rose Mary Mitchell and Derek Liecty.

"The 2006 finalists are citizens of Germany, the Netherlands, South Africa, and the U.S.," said Charlie Carson, chair of the FGG's awards committee. "Selecting the finalists has been an enjoyable and difficult responsibility because all of this year's nominees have long, distinguished records of volunteer work on behalf of the Gay Games and the wider LGBT community."

First presented in 1990 at Vancouver's Gay Games III, previous Tom Waddell award recipients originally from the Bay Area include Mart, a charter board member of San Francisco Arts & Athletics, the original governing body of the Gay Games; Rikki Streicher, a charter board member of San Francisco Arts & Athletics, and benefactor of the early women's softball teams; and Susan Kennedy, who worked with the FGG and Team SF.

For Rose Mary Mitchell, a Gay Games volunteer and former FGG director dedicated to chorus and cultural events, the first Games still hold a place of honor.

"To have that vision and ability to bring those people together; it was just so unbelievable," said Mitchell, who co-produced choral events for the Games in 1982 and 1986.

Born in Philadelphia in 1943, Mitchell struggled with being a lesbian as a young Roman Catholic. While purchasing the classic novel The Well of Loneliness at age 19, she also picked up a newspaper that described San Francisco as "the new gay mecca," and moved there soon after.

"Just that little blurb hit me, so with all of $500, a friend and I moved here in 1965." By 1980, Mitchell had joined the GALA Chorus, which was scheduled to perform at a related concert.

"I was amazed," said Mitchell of the large gathering at Kezar Stadium. "I never envisioned anything of this magnitude. Yet I couldn't get anybody to go with me. Some people laughed at the idea. So, I went alone, and stood and bawled my eyes out. We were all screaming and yelling. We just hugged each other and cried."

In 1985, Mitchell�s friend Catherine Krebs was awarded the contract to produce the opening and closing ceremonies of Gay Games II, and Mitchell helped out.

"By then, I was the one who was always gung-ho on making things happen," she said of joining the Federation of Gay Games, which was formed in 1989. "The dream of Tom Waddell was always to have this grow and grow."

Yet, moving the third Games to Vancouver was a difficult decision. "It was hard to think about letting it go from San Francisco," she said. "It was our baby. We wanted to make sure that it would grow properly."

And grow it has, with more than 13,000 participants at Amsterdam's Gay Games V. "I absolutely think its the best thing that its grown so big," said Mitchell. "It's such a symbol of what we as a community can be and are; not just what straight people have said about us. It�s what we know we can do. When you look at the total amount of spectators and participants, it's such a wonderful reputation of what we are and can still be."

Mitchell is aware of the growing pains, however. "Logistically, when you talk about being able to handle something of this magnitude, that was the big struggle in the FGG and with the host cities. How do we put on such a huge event such as this? How do you manage that? Will we make money? Will the host organization come out not in a deficit?"

There have been deficits since the fourth Games, held in New York City. Thus, the pressure is on for Chicago to prove its organizational and financial capabilities.

But with an array of technological advancements, including online registration, software applications that handle sports event schedules, and even mobile phone updates for event news, the seventh Games has evolved quickly.

And although Mitchell was not actively involved in the FGG through the now-infamous Montreal contract disputes (she left the FGG in 2000), she said, "I was upset that it happened. I thought, 'Here we go again.' Sometimes, the gay community is its own worst enemy. Why would they take an event so beautiful and make it an either-or thing? I hate that divisiveness, which we seem to do to each other."

Mitchell does see a positive outcome with the two events. "It can only mean that thousands more – for many reasons, financial, political – will come from another country or city to stand up and be part of it."

One of the persistent critiques of the Outgames is that it's seen as an appropriation of the Gay Games. For Mitchell, "I believe that we own that name and it's right to ask for a licensing fee." Montreal organizers never paid the licensing fee to host the seventh Games. Finances were part of the dispute that led Montreal organizers to create the Outgames.

While in Chicago, Mitchell will enjoy watching as a veteran, and will attend as many cultural and arts events as possible. Forced into retirement after being laid off from Sun Microsystems, she'll enjoy the honor of being a Waddell Cup nominee.

"It's really nice to be honored for what was a very lovely period of my life. It's nice to be remembered by the newbies."

Derek Liecty, Waddell Cup nominee, at a 2004 cycling event. Photo: Lynette Chiang

Spreading the word

Derek Liecty has been a volunteer since Gay Games I. A charter FGG director and former officer who focused on outreach efforts around the world, Liecty is also an accomplished cyclist, and will be competing in Chicago's individual time trial competition.

Liecty officiated in the first soccer games at Gay Games I. But at the time, he was "supposedly straight."

At a meeting of local soccer referees who were asked to volunteer for the first Games, Liecty was among half a dozen to sign up. "It was my sort of subtle way of getting into the Games," said Liecty, 74, who was a collegiate NCAA ref for 25 years.

"I was just about to retire, but I waited until later," he said. His experience inspired him to continue volunteering at the second Gay Games, and he traveled extensively to promote it. He also sought out appropriate venues at subsequent Games sports events.

Even since the first Games, "not everybody wanted us on their property, but in general it went pretty well," said Liecty, who also took on archival, sports committee, and membership duties for the newly formed FGG in 1989.

Like several other surviving Bay Area athletes and coaches – Doug Litwin, Mark Brown, Rick Thoman, and Gene Dermody among them – Liecty will make Chicago his seventh Gay Games. Liecty also served on the board of Different Spokes San Francisco from 1982 to 2002.

But he said his main focus has been outreach to underrepresented nations. "It's been my passion to spread the word to more than 20 countries, from going to little subterranean bars in Budapest to AIDS organizations in Peru."

At Saturday's opening ceremonies, more than 75 people on scholarships from countries like South Africa, Chile, and Taiwan will be part of the festivities. Liecty added that unfortunately many will have to return to an environment where coming out is still difficult.

For some South African participants, visa problems on the part of the South African government ensued, specifically, Liecty said, because the athletes are black. "But we had a breakthrough recently," he said, and the athletes will be in Chicago.

"You just know when they walk in that stadium, they are going to think, 'Oh, my god; I'm not alone in the world anymore."

Sandra Ghilarducci, left, and Sara Waddell Lewinstein at the April "100 Champions" event at Chicago's Soldier Field. Photo: Bob Olayas

Family ties

Sara Waddell Lewinstein, 51, who was active in the Bay Area sports community more than a decade before the first Gay Games, which she helped organize, has witnessed every year of change in LGBT athletics.

"We've grown a lot," she said. "I think there's more to the Games than people realize. We have the next generation to come along and add new things," including synchronized swimming, touch rugby, and the incredible expansion of corporate sponsors for Chicago's Games.

"You have people like myself who stay with it," said Lewinstein. "I want to make sure that doesn't get lost. So I love seeing the kids get involved. They're learning."

Among those new to the Games is Lewinstein's daughter, Jessica Waddell, 23, who was at the second Games, but as an infant. "For the first time, she's working on it like her mother and father did," said Lewinstein.

"You work until you're damn tired,� she said. "For me, it was waking up to 12-hour days. I'd sometimes call Rikki Streicher at two in the morning with plans."

As someone who had to face the USOC lawsuit as her husband, Tom Waddell, was dying of AIDS, Lewinstein is understandably protective of the Gay Games and its legacy.

She bristles at the mention of the rival Outgames, to be held in Montreal in two weeks. "Look how closely they imitate us," said Lewinstein, who nevertheless hopes the rival games are a success. "If they look bad, we all look bad."

Among the criticism Outgames organizers were quoted as saying of the FGG was that it was "the old guard." Lewinstein laughed at what seemed an ageist depiction. "I remember Tom at 49 thinking he was old. But without us, there wouldn't be an Outgames. It never would have happened."

Lewinstein added that the conflict may have led to bringing new life to the organization. "The people in the federation need to open up and have a good time. This is something from our hearts and passion. We're not being paid to do it." Chicago's staff, however, is a combination of paid and volunteer efforts.

Lewinstein said she is excited and hopeful for the seventh Games. "As long as it's successful and you have the right people, it can work. It's not easy. Anyone who thinks so will have a rude awakening."

For Sandra Ghilarducci, Lewinstein's life partner, the first Gay Games were an awakening of a different kind. She had yet to meet Lewinstein, and volunteered as an usher at opening ceremonies.

Active in softball since the early 1980s, Ghilarducci, 51, was part of Team Sausalito for the second Games, which she said, "was really my coming out. I wanted to be openly gay, but before then I couldn't." Working for L'Oreal as a sales rep, she said, "It was hard, working in a dress and high heels. I wasn't your typical lesbian at the time."

But playing softball provided an outlet, and Ghilarducci was on the Gay Softball League's only women's team at the time. "We had to play the men. They beat us a lot, but it was fun."

By Gay Games III, Ghilarducci started her own team, the Artemis II, with sponsorship from Lewinstein's cafe. By 1998, at the fifth Games, Ghilarducci's team AVTS (Audio Visual Technical Services) won the gold medal in the women's slo-pitch division. Gay Games V also served as an anniversary for Ghilarducci and Lewinstein, who were married in a gay and lesbian wedding ceremony held in Amsterdam.

In Chicago, the couple will be "running all over to ceremonies and different events," said Ghilarducci. "It's all pretty amazing. I think this one's going to be the best; the energy, the people."

That diverse array of veterans and newbies, the younger, the older, the multiple medalists, the novices, are the soul of the Gay Games. Lewinstein's daughter Jessica Waddell has been in Chicago working in media relations for the Games, and will present the Waddell Cup, named after her father, at opening ceremonies. Said Lewinstein, "It's up to the next generation, these kids, to take the Games even further."

And so they will, as the future Games are passed on to them like a golden baton, from one generation to another, from vision to inheritance.

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