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Jock Talk: Giving thanks on the ice

by Roger Brigham

As we collectively prepare to sit down to hearty Thanksgiving feasts of tofu turkey and gluten-free pumpkin pie topped with sugar-free marshmallows, let us all take a moment to give thanks to the Gay Games for supplying us with late-breaking good news in figure skating - that wonderfully graceful sport of athletic artistry that has had a sporadic reputation for homophobic nastiness.

While the global and national scenes were suffering through a year of hurricanes, repugnant political divisiveness, floods, fires, earthquakes, sexual scandals, increasing foreign tensions, and even the prospect of a war with North Korea, the LGBT sports world that this column focuses on was suffering its own sucky 2017, from the last-minute collapse of the World Outgames in Miami and the interminably long ongoing investigation there to determine if the organizers will suffer any criminal charges, to the yet-to-be decided court battle over ownership rights to the Sin City Shootout, throwing that wonderful event in to a pit of uncertainty.

Just as we were about to stop believing in unicorns and any hope of ever making it over that friggin' rainbow, along comes word that athletes competing in same-sex pairs in figure skating or ice dancing at the 2018 Paris Gay Games will not face the wrath of the mainstream international skating federation.

If you know anything of the history of figure skating in the Gay Games, you will realize that this is a Very Big Deal. It signals the end to a heart-wrenching battle that has waged since the 1998 Gay Games in Amsterdam, the first time the Gay Games ever ventured into Europe.

Paris organizers announced on Facebook late last week that two years of talks between the Gay Games and the International Skating Union had ended with an agreement for the 2018 tournament to be "a joint competition utilizing both ISU and the Ice Skating Institute."

"Our previous experience at former games were such that we really wanted all skaters to be united and to really start to change minds about the Gay Games," Manuel Picaud, co-president of Paris 2018, told the Bay Area Reporter. "This is a first step."

In a separate email, Paris 2018 said that among the events the competition will offer are mixed pairs free skating and ice dance under ISU rules; and mixed pairs and dance under ISI rules. It said it plans to announce competition specifics on its website, http://www.paris2018.com, November 27, when registration for the event opens.

Longtime local skater Alan Lessik said, "The International Gay Figure Skating Union is very excited about this change. Ever since the Gay Games in Amsterdam, local Gay Games organizers have tried to work with the ISU and have been rebuffed. This is great news as it allows skaters to compete under the International Judging System rules. We will continue to have the traditional Gay Games pairs and groups competitions under ISI rules, which we have used before."

Lessik explained that ISU had agreed not to "sanction skaters, coaches, and judges who participate in the ISI portion of the competition. In Amsterdam, the threat of sanctions made the games an exhibition and not a competition. In Sydney, it caused the local judges to pull out. Other judges and coaches from the ranks of the Gay Games skaters had to fill in at the last minute. Chicago, Cologne, and Cleveland just worked with ISI and did not try to engage the ISU federations. This sanction issue has not be a big issue in the U.S., but in Europe and Australia, it has been."

Lessik was also involved in a successful effort earlier this year by members of IGFSU to get U.S. Figure Skating to add gender identity to its non-discrimination policy, starting a change.org petition and serving as group spokesman.

"It was only about four years ago that USFS added sexual orientation to their non-discrimination policies, so this was a very quick response from them for this request," Lessik said.

There are cynics in this world (I know - hard to believe) who assume that the Gay Games are restricted to gays and lesbians (they're not; they're open to all adults regardless of orientation, identity, race, gender, religion, or health status) and opine that they are not needed. And yet the Gay Games are necessary, they are the "vehicle of change" their founder envisioned, and they operate not just by changing the lives of participants and spectators, but by working to get mainstream institutions to become more inclusive.

Think figure skating is an isolated example? It is not. The Gay Games pioneered dropping invasive genetic testing and have discarded the onerous drug-testing requirements of elite mainstream sports to be more inclusive of every-day recreational athletes with various medical issues and limited personal resources. They offered women's wrestling a decade before the Olympics did.

And now this. To the French Federation of Ice Sports, members of Paris 2018, the Federation of Gay Games, and every member of IGFSU who brought same-sex figure skating to the Gay Games in 1994 - and who have fought every toe loop and camel spin since to reach this milestone - I say, merci.

Now, pass me a drumstick.

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