From the closet to the stadium

  • by Roger Brigham
  • Wednesday April 13, 2011
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Gays and lesbians have always played sports and always will.

Contact sports. Finesse sports. Team sports and individual sports. Objectively measured sports and subjectively scored sports. Endurance sports and sprint sports. Sports that make you sweat and sports that chill your bones: queers have been bashing and brawling and running and jumping with the best of them throughout eternity. When Gilgamesh and Enkidu epically battled in the streets of Uruk more than 5,000 years ago, it's even money one of them eyed the other as something more than just an adversary and best bud forever.

And yet, it is only within the last four decades that we've had out athletes battling out athletes. Today, LGBT sports teams and leagues are something we take for granted, like hot dogs and Key lime pies, but they really have existed only in the last blink of an eye – and international organizations linking teams and hundreds of thousands of LGBT athletes across the globe are even younger.

The story of that explosive growth in the Bay Area is told not just in the numbers of clubs and teams that have come into existence of the past four decades, but in the stories of the athletes who helped forge the way ... and remain active to help new generations of queer athletes come out of the closet and into the locker room. After thousands of years of silence, we suddenly started to speak up and say, "Play ball!"

So, what were you doing in 1971?

Allen Wood said he was "8 years old and living in Richmond. I was not at all athletic. I was the chubby, uncoordinated kid who was picked last for the kick-ball team. I clearly remember the disappointed cries of the team that was left with me: 'Ahhh, we have to have Wood on our team?'"

Tyler Cole was 10 years old in Medford, Oregon, and already something of a sports junkie, starting with Little League baseball in fourth grade; football, track, and basketball the following year; and tennis in seventh grade. Oh, yeah – and a bit of skiing and snowboarding along the way. Oregon, you know.

Rick Thoman was a senior in Sunnyvale and already competing in track and soccer. Tony Jasinski was finishing his first year of college at Tennessee Technological University and did not yet identify as gay. Gene Dermody, coaching and teaching in New Jersey but living in Greenwich Village across from the International Stud, was wrestling at Manhattan's West Side YMCA and had decided he was gay after getting picked up by a trick on the A train.

But he hadn't decided to come out of the closet. Not yet.

Jasinski had started playing street basketball while in high school and was interested in continuing after college when he moved to the East Coast.

"There was a great newspaper in Boston in the 1970s called the Gay Community News," Jasinski recalled. "I saw a notice for gay basketball at a government building once a week, so I attended. It was run by a sweet hippie guy who played in his underwear – I guess he thought that was sexy or risque. He was really nice but really not quite the right person for the role. I quickly took it over and continued until I moved to San Francisco. We hosted possibly the first gay basketball tournament in 1979, when we hosted a team of players from New York in a couple of informal games."

Wood had started doing a little biking when he was 13 and "inadvertently lost weight. This encouraged me and I began to jog and lift weights." At 15 he started training in Chun Kuk Do karate and by the late 1980s had his third-degree black belt.

In the closet, of course.

The Gay Games

But with gay liberation in full swing in the 1970s, more and more LGBT athletes in different cities were reaching out to each other to compete in single-sport tournaments. Bowling. Basketball. Softball. And when the 1980s came, the event that changed everything arrived: the Gay Games.

More than a thousand athletes, 17 sports, 10 countries. Tom Waddell, Paul Mart, Mark Brown, Sara Lewinstein, Hydie Downard, Bob Ross ... a seemingly endless army of folks who had been active in Bay Area gay and lesbian sports started to organize and spread the word for people to come to San Francisco to 1982's Gay Olympic Games, a multisport and multicultural festival. An event that would provide the "critical mass" of competitors and inspire more and more would-be LGBT athletes to come out on the field.

"My introduction to LGBT sports was as a member of the track and field team for San Francisco," Thoman said. "I got 'recruited' by Dr. Tom Waddell to be a part of San Francisco's track team at the 1982 Gay Games. We started training as a team the year before."

Jasinski helped organize his team from Boston to attend. Dermody saw a poster on a utility pole on Christopher Street and, although he did not know of any other gay athletes in New York City, decided to fly west and try it, fully expecting to return home with a gold medal to hang in his closet.

Wrong on two counts.

He was ticked off he earned "only" a bronze ... but he was transformed.

"The 1982 Gay Games were a major eye-opener," Dermody said. "I stayed and never came back to New York City: gave up tenure, my 73rd Street co-op, and three hot Broadway dancers I was juggling. It changed my closeted existence and changed my low self-esteem."

"I doubt I would be living in San Francisco today if it wasn't for the first Gay Games," Jasinski said. "That week was my first week on the West Coast or San Francisco, and I knew instantly that I wanted to live here. The Games became my every-four-year goal, and I participated in every one through Sydney (2002). It seems to me to be especially impactful to people from smaller cities and other countries. For example, I hosted a party for basketball players in 1986, and some of them from Australia cried as they saw themselves on the evening news that night."

The novelty of queer and open athletes squaring off in a week of sports hadn't worn off by the time the Gay Games were held in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1990: the first time the event was held outside of San Francisco. Seven thousand participants, this go-round, with more cultural events and 27 sports competitions.

"I put an ad in the local gay newspaper in Portland, Oregon in 1989 to form Team Portland for the Vancouver Gay Games," Cole said. "I was with that organization for six years. I was on the local gay tennis and swim team. We organized the team for Vancouver Gay Games. We signed up 150 people, organized uniforms and places to stay. There was a need and I decided to go for it."

Wood was already here, already queer, but just beginning to come to terms with it.

"In 1989 I was with a friend at the Castro Street Fair," he said. "The Federation of Gay Games had an information booth regarding the upcoming Gay Games in Vancouver. I was recently out of the closet and had a third-degree black belt in Chun Kuk Do karate. The gay friend I was with noted that the Vancouver Games had a martial arts competition and he jokingly said, 'You should enter. You'll win. It's a bunch of fags.' So much for internalized homophobia.

"I entered the martial arts competition and my husband entered the tennis competition. Our participation in those games changed our lives forever. Having only been out for a year or so, I went from feeling like I was the only gay in the village, as it were, to walking into a stadium filled with cheering gays and lesbians. The feeling was indescribable.

"The competition was fierce. We were one tough 'bunch of fags.' So much for stereotypes."

"They were so new and exciting in the beginning," Cole said of the Gay Games. "It was an incredible feeling to just be there. People were still scared to tell friends, family, and co-workers. Some would not even use their own names. Now gay people in general are much more accepted in all aspects of society. Businesses court us, professional organizations and associations embrace us. The ease of maneuvering is easier, not so scary. The need for the Games may have decreased for some, but not the want of the Games."

The dedication of the Gay Games organizers inspired athletes to step up and give back. There were battles still to be waged – acceptance from mainstream sports organizations, access to public facilities – and events still to be organized.

"The same people were involved in pre-Gay Games I as were post-Gay Games I," Dermody said, "and we owe them all a great debt of gratitude for what they accomplished with no money, no government money, and overt hostility from mainstream sanctioning bodies. Jack McGowan, Rikki Streicher, etc. The political success of Gay Games I is still being felt as Cleveland Gay Games IX in 2014 looms as probably the greatest LGBT athletic event of the new century. Today LGBT sports is the conscience of mainstream sports, as we influence their policies more than they influence ours."

They became disciples spreading the word.

"Getting involved with the Gay Games and a gay sports organization like the SF Track and Field Club has enabled me to embrace both being gay and being athletic," Thoman said. "I marched proudly in my first Gay Pride Parade in SF with the Gay Games contingent. I've had great personal athletic success as a member of the SF Track and Field Club, and made some very close and enduring friendships over the years. Being involved in sports has enabled me to keep fit and continue to challenge myself athletically. I'm so proud of the family of friends I've made on our track team and throughout the gay sports community.

"The Gay Games were extremely important in mobilizing gays and lesbians to get openly involved in sports and to help them discover, recognize, and challenge their athletic abilities. After a lifetime of being told you can't be athletic and gay, the Gay Games showed the extent, the diversity, and the skills the LGBT community had in athletics. I believe this notion that gays were starting to put claims on the world of athletics was one of the reasons the 'straight' world sued over the use of the word 'Olympics.' The 1982 Gay Games motivated gay athletes around the world to begin organizing their own teams and clubs in many different sports and that impetus continues today. Every time there's a Gay Games, the number of athletes getting involved in sports organizations grows and grows, the world over."

Vancouver extends early bird registration

Organizers of the July 25-31 Vancouver North America Outgames have announced the early bird registration period for this year's event will end Friday, April 22. Seventeen sports from dragon boat racing to dance will be offered as well as a human rights conference.

Base sports registration is currently $100 for athletes who are not members of the Gay and Lesbian International Sports Association and will increase to $125; GLISA members pay $25 less in both time periods. Individual and team sport fees will also see increases of about $15 to $25 per athlete. Conference registration fees are separate.

For information, visit