Gay Games history

  • by Roger Brigham
  • Wednesday March 30, 2011
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Author Caroline Symons
Author Caroline Symons

As we sit sidelined one dreary rained out afternoon after another, our playing fields stretched out submerged and soaked before us, Bay Area LGBT athletes need something to entertain our minds.

Might I recommend a rather academic book that takes a look at the things we do when we do the things we do? The Gay Games: A history , by Caroline Symons, is a scholarly text examining the quarter-century history of the Gay Games through 2006 that shows the event in its context as mover and movee in sports, social, cultural, and political worlds.

Like any good history, it offers dramatic tensions and furious battles and, after tantalizing with a number of possible bright or gloomy outcomes, leaves the future an undiscovered country waiting to be tackled.

Symons, a senior lecturer in the School of Sport and Exercise Science and the Institute of Sport, Exercise and Active Living at Victoria University, Australia, conducted dozens of interviews with participants and organizers and examined hundreds of documents, synthesizing her work in chronological and thematic order. The book is an expansion of her doctoral thesis published last year, which was dedicated to her life partner, Jenny Bonney.

In her introduction, she calls recent Gay Games the world's "largest international participatory lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex event," then follows as the mission to demolish homophobic barriers through sports participation grows ever larger. Emerging splinters in queer community and politics play out in disagreements on how best to build an inclusive playing field in a sports world built largely on exclusive power hierarchies. The dueling roles of the event in changing perceptions in inward, personal directions and outward, public perceptions are examined as is the seemingly oxymoronic effort to bring inclusive unity to diverse expression.

In Symons's balanced telling, each Gay Games rendition had its victories mixed with shortcomings. The Games launched with a theme of inclusion, but initially made a conscious decision to exclude leather and drag. Gay Games II came as the world was being rocked by the onset of AIDS and provided a sense of relief and fighting back, but avoided direct mentions of the illness. Gay Games III expanded the cultural vision of the event but for the first time generated massive debt. Gay Games IV were the first major multisport event to develop a transgender inclusion policy but drew criticism for making the event "too commercial." Gay Games V had the highest female participation but was knocked for giving women too much favoritism during registration. Gay Games VI had the best sports competitions of any Gay Games but created a bad local legacy for gay events because of its financial bankruptcy. Gay Games VII in Chicago miraculously finished in the black but the Gay Games staggered forward with an uncertain future as the rival World Outgames siphoned off European registrations but ended more in debt than all the previous Gay games hosts combined.

Symons documents the disagreement over how the apartheid-inspired boycott of South Africa could be reconciled with the Gay Games mission of inclusion helped spur development of the international Federation of Gay Games when founding San Francisco Arts and Athletics handed the Gay Games off, as well as the landmark efforts the Gay Games have made to create models for the fair and inclusive integration of transgender and intersex athletes in gender-divided sports.

As I came later to Gay Games politics, I found Symons to be very illuminating in her discussions of the early years and for the most part dead-on in her accounts of more recent events and issues. I did think her discussion of the drug-testing policies for 2006, in which I was a participant during development, was slightly bungled. As the Gay Games continued to seek mainstream sanctioning for sports, drug-testing was sporadic in Gay Games starting in 1994. She writes that in 2006 World Anti-Doping Agency protocols were used in three sports (wrestling, powerlifting, and physique), with powerlifters having the option of being untested "guest lifters" not eligible for medals.

A shame she did not spare a few paragraphs for wrestling and physique, because Chicago actually showcased four possible approaches to drug-testing and how to balance "fair play" competition concerns with the mission of including HIV-positive athletes. The majority of the sports had no testing; in wrestling, officials announced they would visually screen candidates and that led to a few substance abusers to drop out so no testing was actually done; and in physique, competitors had their choice of Tested and Untested groups, both eligible for medals, no questions asked. No one is or was entirely satisfied with any of the approaches, but what makes the Gay Games unique is that it is the athletes themselves who are shaping the policies, experimenting with approaches, and making the effort to be inclusive.

It is that participatory empowerment, not sheer size, that makes the Gay Games different " and important.

"The Gay Games have been an alternative Games," Symons writes. "In a largely homophobic and heterosexist world the staging of the Gay Games, the implementation of progressive participation policies and the development of an extensive international lesbian and gay sports movement have been significant achievements. Inclusive policies and practices along with their affirmation and celebration of LGBTIQ sport and culture make the Gay Games unique."

Gay Games is offered by Routledge Taylor and Francis Group ( with a steep publish-on-demand textbook price of $138. The publisher is offering a discount for bulk orders of up to 50 percent, so folks interested in purchasing might want to contact longtime Gay Games supporter Derek Liecty, who is collecting orders. He can be emailed at