Columns » Sports

The defining moments of queer sports history
by Roger Brigham

It could be argued that ever since Gilgamesh and Enkidu grappled in the muddy streets of Uruk millennia ago, sports have had a decidedly gay aura to them.

Champions are adorned with rings or ribbons, boxers fight for purses and belts, swimmers shave their bodies and strip down to their swimsuits. Talk about queer eye for the sports guy.

Despite that, until the past few decades the collective queer consciousness had never included sports in its collection of favorite cultural pursuits. Stereotypes and homophobia, external and internalized, conspired to keep our jocks closeted. There are now hundreds of thousands of openly gay athletes competing in thousands of recreational sports leagues, both LGBT-centric and mainstream. There are LGBT websites devoted exclusively to sports. Day-by-day at an accelerating rate elite athletes are coming out and speaking up. For this year's Pride weekend, the Bay Area Reporter takes a look at the most significant defining moments of queer sports.

These are not things that "just happened." They are willful moments of struggle and anguish, of courage and torment. They are reminders that happiness and equality are not the rewards of passivity, but rather the fruit of hard-fought victory.


David Kopay becomes the first American male pro athlete from a team sport to come out.

And not just any sport: NFL football, the darling of television sponsors, tailgate BBQs, and your neighborhood bookie. The we-hit-so-hard-we-have-to-wear-plastic-armor-to-keep-from-killing-each-other league. The former San Francisco 49er was an All-America running back for the University of Washington before playing in the NFL for nine seasons, retiring after the 1972 season.

The year before Kopay came out, Patricia Neil Warren had published her groundbreaking novel The Frontrunner , about a closeted and ostracized track coach and his romance with one of his athletes, who is killed by a sniper in the Olympics – the kind of tragic ending almost any novel about a gay character was expected to have back in the day. And Kopay's decision to come out in the Washington Star was triggered by a series of stories on gay athletes that ran in the paper, including a profile on his former lover, fellow NFL player Jerry Smith, who was interviewed anonymously.

But Kopay's story was revolutionary because it killed the myth that gay men could not, did not, play the most macho of American team sports: showed that myth to be the biggest fiction of all. This wasn't anonymous. This gave us a name, gave us a face, gave us a flat out take-him-home-to-Mom-and-break-out-the-apple-pie hunk. This was real.

Before that, the only queers many of us from Podunk to Poughkeepsie knew about were Liberace, drag queens rioting in Greenwich Village, and the weekly arrests at the local highway rest stop.

Kopay? Kopay was different. The All-American sports fantasy gone gay. The sports world would never be the same.


Renee Richards was barred from U.S. Open Tennis.

Computers run on binary code; humans do not. The genius of evolution is that sex is an imprecise mechanism resulting in generally consistent patterns but always with variations. And Richards simply did not fit into the binary sexual code on which the sporting world ran.

Richard Rankins had been one of the brightest lights in men's amateur tennis in his youth, served as a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy, became an eye surgeon, and continued to play tennis, reaching the men's national 35-and-over championships in 1972. But after considering sexual transition in the mid-1960s, Rankins decided to follow through in the 1970s, and in 1975 became Renee Richards.

From the outcry when she tried to play in the 1976 U.S. Open women's tournament, you'd have thought she was trying to swim for the East German team. She fought the U.S. Tennis Association's requirement that she undergo chromosomal testing before playing and won the right to play and skip the invasive test in 1977.

Chromosomal testing and "gender verification" have always perplexed sports leaders, and the issue of transgender athletes has raised hobgoblins of suspicions for other athletes who say a male-to-female athlete has an "unfair" advantage. But studies are inconclusive about any advantage or disadvantage a trans athlete may or may not have, and nobody has ever proved that there is an inherent advantage worthy of trumping the right to human dignity. Richards forced a dialogue in athletic circles that through fits and starts finally cast off reliance on chromosomal testing and focused far more on personal gender identity.


The North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance is formed.

Gays and lesbians had begun forming leagues and teams in bowling, softball, and basketball in the mid and early 1970s, creating safe, competitive social outlets beyond the bar scene. In 1977, NAGAAA was formed to unite American and Canadian teams in softball; in 1980, the International Gay Bowling Association was started at a softball and bowling tournament in southern California. A gay running club in San Francisco adopted the name Front Runners in 1978, inspired by the groundbreaking Warren novel, and International Front Runners was born in 1986.

Three things to note about the formation of these early leagues. First, they showed that gay and lesbian athletes were not occasional freaks, but that gay and lesbian jocks were abundant and committed enough to sports to organize. Second, leagues of teams were numerous enough to come together internationally, but there was not yet a "critical mass" of athletes in the smaller individual sports to organize globally. And third, different sports had different interpretations of how to create a safe and accepting environment.

Front Runners, for instance, has always included members who did not identify as gay or lesbian. Many members were closeted and fearful of the political climate at the time, in which institutionalized discrimination was the norm rather than the exception. NAGAAA, on the other hand, adopted a rule limiting the number of straight players who could be in the Gay Softball World Series. That exclusionary policy would come under attack years later after the passage of public access laws barring discrimination based on orientation or identity.


Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova come out.

Very publicly and very differently, two of the brightest stars of women's tennis almost overnight became the two biggest lesbian celebrities in the world.

Less than a year after King and Navratilova teamed up to beat Pam Shriver and Betty Stove for the U.S. Open Women's doubles championship (King's 39th and last Grand Slam title), King's sexuality became a matter of public record when a palimony suit was filed against her in May 1981 by her secretary, Marilyn Barnett. At the time, King was married to Lawrence King, with whom she had founded World Team Tennis.

It was ugly as these things can get, costing King her endorsements and her life savings and straining her relationship with Navratilova. Navratilova had come out first as bisexual, then as lesbian, and although she already had nine career Grand Slam titles, she had not yet approached her peak athletic years.

And Navratilova approached those years as no women's tennis player had before. Training with basketball superstar Nancy Lieberman, Navratilova dominated not just with sheer talent, but with a determined workout regimen that elevated women's tennis to a new level.

In short, Navratilova was aggressive, unapologetic and successful. With her numerous battles with the oh-so-photogenic Chris Evert Lloyd, sports fans for the first time were witnessing a great competitive battle between a straight athlete and an openly gay athlete – again and again and again. In a way few had ever done before, Navratilova gave women the license to be strong: physically and mentally powerful.

And if the heterosexists did not love her, at least they had to respect her. The fact that she was able to survive and excel out in the open gave hope for generations of lesbian athletes to follow.

King's coming out was not by choice; Navratilova's was. Ultimately, the work and advocacy both chose to undertake after coming out has made this a better place for all.


The launch of the Gay Games signals the start of the gayest sports decade in history.

Just as the queer community was first being hit by the mysterious onslaught originally called "gay cancer" before being identified as AIDS, LGBT sports were revolutionized by the start of the Gay Games.

Never before had multiple LGBT sports disciplines been brought together globally for one umbrella sports event. Not only did the quadrennial festival begin bringing athletes from different disciplines together, it also eventually drew leaders from smaller sports together, providing a critical mass of athletes necessary for the formation of more and more international LGBT sports organizations.

Sued by the United States Olympic Committee to drop the use of the word "Olympic," the Gay Games were forced to seriously ponder their distinctiveness, redefining what set them apart from mainstream recreational sports. The trademarked motto "Participation, Inclusion, and Personal Best" set elitist principles on their heels in an ongoing war against barriers. Proactive policies to guarantee inclusion of all orientations, scholarship outreach programs to repressed geographic areas, progressive transgender and gender inclusion policies that anticipated the Olympic Games by decades all paved the way for hundreds of thousands of LGBT individuals to take to the playing fields.


Former major league baseball player Glenn Burke dies from AIDS complications.

By all rights, Burke should have been one of the best-supported and most celebrated gay men of his era. After a record-breaking all-sports career at Berkeley High School, Burke went on to play in the major leagues for the Los Angeles Dodgers (where he was credited with popularizing the "high five") and the Oakland A's before leaving professional baseball in 1979. In 1982 he became the first major league baseball player to come out of the closet and he medaled in track and field and basketball in the first two Gay Games.

But the effects of living a lifetime cursed by racism and homophobia manifested themselves in the seemingly eternally cheerful Burke in dark, self-destructive behavior. He became addicted to cocaine, stealing to support his habit. He became infected with HIV, and died penniless and withered away at his sister's home in Oakland, far from the adoring crowds of the Oakland Coliseum or the streets of the Castro that had cheered his Gay Games exploits.

Burke's life has been recounted in the movie Out: The Glenn Burke Story and those of us who saw him play have stories to share of his athletic greatness and infectious smile. But it is impossible to think of his life without thinking of the senseless waste of so much life and talent, of the high cost of homophobia and racism even within our own community, and the blindness we all suffer at times when our compassion and insight are needed most. Burke's legacy is a legacy of what could and should have been.


Gay rugby player Mark Bingham and his fellow passengers on United Flight 93 fight terrorist hijackers, then crash in a Pennsylvania field.

Sports is more than a frivolous pastime. Now and then, it teaches us the tools to live our lives successfully and heroically. This rings especially true for LGBT individuals, surrounded by homophobic fear and hostility. More than most they need to know how to survive, how to fight for justice at any and all costs.

Our nation was still in its first decade of a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy in the military when terrorists launched their fatal 9/11 attacks against New York City and Washington, D.C. The decision of the passengers on Flight 93 to fight back sealed their already doomed fate, but averted greater tragedy. They thwarted the objectives of the terrorists and sent a message to the world that we would stand together and fight back when attacked. Among the stories of the plane's heroes that were told in the coming days was that of Bingham, who had mastered the art of direct physical confrontation on the championship rugby pitches of UC Berkeley. His loss was mourned with an impromptu shrine on the corner of 18th and Castro, but nowhere was his loss felt more deeply than among his fellow gay ruggers on the SF Fog Rugby team.

Opponents of allowing gays and lesbians to serve in the military have always relied on two heterosexist sentiments: that straights are not willing to fight alongside gays, and that gays do not have the guts to fight. On a tragic day the country will never forget, Bingham dispelled both notions once and for all.

The queer community has never lacked for martyrs; now it had an immortal no one could argue was not a hero in every sense of the word.


Montreal walks out on negotiations to host Gay Games VII, creating a deep political fracture in the sports community.

Ever since the Gay Games moved out of San Francisco after Gay Games II in 1986, there have been struggles in virtually every cycle to get the host cities to understand that the Gay Games are a sports festival with culture, not a mildly sport-themed Pride party week designed to line the pockets of the tourism industry and event planners. The cultural dissonance between athletic believers and event profiteers reached a climax when the Federation of Gay Games, passing a resolution vowing to stick with the sports and cultural formula that had been successful at attracting more 10,000 athletes to its previous three incarnations, suddenly found itself without a signed host. Montreal 2006, publicly portraying the FGG as an imperious organization without a solid business plan, stalled negotiations over the Gay Games VII license for two years, then pulled out and announced it would stage the Outgames in virtually direct competition. They announced the Outgames would have a full slate of paid speakers to host a human rights conference, Montreal would be rocking with parties, the sports events would draw 18,000 athletes, and the event would leave a rich financial legacy. The FGG quickly signed Chicago as its replacement host and said it believed it would finish in the black.

In 2006, Gay Games VII Chicago drew 12,000 participants and barely finished in the black. The Outgames drew a disputed 8,000, many smaller sports had insufficient athletes for legitimate tournaments, and the event finished bankrupt with a debt north of $4 million.

For all that has been written about the two events, or about the hopes for a "reconciled" single quadrennial event in 2018, the division has never been about human rights or financial control or business models or any other straw men floated out there, it has been and continues to be a difference between people committed to the future of LGBT sports and diversity of opportunity for a diversity of athletes, versus people who would create a less sports-intensive event with a smaller but whiter and more affluent constituency while building their resumes at the athletes' expense. The legacy of 2003 is not yet written; what the legacy will be will be determined by how committed the Gay Games remains to those athletes who need them most.


Chris Morgan wins the world championship in drug-free powerlifting.

In the mid-1990s, Morgan, a successful professional rugby player, was sidelined from his sport with injuries and sidelined from his love life by the growing acceptance that he was gay. He delved into drugs and partying to deal with his depression and despondency. Then a coach at a local gym in Great Britain told the kid to stop messing up his body and head and start lifting weights. Morgan threw himself into powerlifting with a passion and a mission: to compete as an openly gay man in a sport in which homophobic taunts are common tools used by competitors trying to get into each other's head.

The Gay Games are founded on a principle of personal best, and in Morgan's case that turned out to be the world's best. Along with his haul of medals at the next four Gay Games, Morgan set the powerlifting world on fire when he won the world championships in Turin. Not bad for a pretty boy.


South African runner Caster Semenya wins world track championship.

The ugly specter of gender testing in elite sports raised its ugly head again when fellow runners began to question whether Semenya was actually a woman. As jock journalists raced to educate themselves and the masses on intersex issues, testosterone levels, and the suspicion by many of inherent biological advantages, Semenya's basic dignity and privacy were sacrificed in the media frenzy following a dominating victory in the World Championships.

The International Association of Athletics Federations said at the time it had dropped mandatory gender verification years earlier, but retained the right to require an athlete to undergo it. Uh, they really might want to look up the word "mandatory." In any event, after the initial airing of grievances of fellow competitors, the sports world rallied around Semenya and her competition eligibility was restored. All around, a victory for gender identity and human dignity.


Wrestler Donna Rosen wins spot in World Team Trials.

Rosen, under the surname Rose, has been a well-known transgender activist for years, but in her youth she was a promising competitor in Canadian men's wrestling. In 2006 she returned to the sport of her youth, competing in Gay Games VII in Chicago. Planning to compete again in the 2010 Gay Games, she decided to train seriously and entered the U.S. Open Women's Freestyle Championships in Cleveland. She made history, not only becoming the first transgender woman to compete in a USAW event, but actually pinning her first opponent despite being the oldest competitor in the tournament by several decades. That landed her an automatic berth in the World Team Trials later that summer.

Rosen credited her return to wrestling to the support she received from Gay Games wrestling organizations such as Golden Gate Wrestling Club. Wrestling has long been perceived as one of the most homophobic sports, but it is the only sport that has been officially sanctioned in every Gay Games and the interaction between Gay Games organizers and USAW officials have led to greater acceptance and support in the sport.


The Gay Games votes to ban across-the-board drug testing at future events.

Gay Games VIII in Cologne was well organized and praised as an athletic success, but a global recession and an ill-advised anti-doping policy pursued by the host organization, which raised suspicions that HIV individuals were at risk of having their right to privacy violated, led to a drop in attendance at 9,500: the smallest Gay Games since 1990. Immediately after the event, the FGG voted to disallow any such policy in the future, and said it would rather risk letting cheats get into the event than risk keeping HIV-positive athletes out.

It is the first time a major sports organization has publicly taken a stand against the protocols used by the World Anti-Doping Agency on the grounds that the protocols do not realistically take into account everyday health issues recreational athletes face. Specifically, the FGG took its action because it felt it was the only organization that would stand up for poz athletes.

What the legacy of the FGG's stand will be is unwritten. The Gay Games led the way on more opportunities for women in sports and more sensitive transgender policies. Perhaps once again, the LGBT jocks will show the world how to do it right.


Add New Comment

Comments on Facebook