Gay pioneers in the pool

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Thursday July 26, 2018
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One of the last bastions of homophobia to be overcome is in competitive sports, including the stereotype that all gay people hate athletics. Logo-TV's latest documentary "Light in the Water" tells the untold story of a LA competitive swim team that became a force in the LGBTQ sports movement. It plays through July, and is streamable beginning July 20. The West Hollywood Aquatics Team ("WH2O") were pioneers in gay sports. With a current roster of more than 180 individuals, the organization grew out of a group of athletes training for the first quadrennial Gay Games in 1982, founded by the late Dr. Tom Waddell, an Olympic decathlete, in San Francisco. Many of the original founding members interviewed in the film had a similar experience of being on a swim team in high school, then identified as a "fag" and persecuted or removed since "gay was the kiss of death, it was so stigmatizing."

WH2O had only two months to train, but wound up receiving 38 medals (32 gold) in those inaugural games, providing 73 athletes of the 7,300 who competed. The documentary tells the story of this pioneering group who prized inclusion and dignity to combat stigma, and in the process became a family. Bonding as the team became a way to socialize outside bars. Wanting to continue competing, they became founding members of the International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics (IGLA) for non-Gay Game years. The group is sanctioned by U.S. Masters Swimming, meaning records were kept as teams participated in regional, national, and international meets and tournaments.

WH2O sent members to attend regional governing boards and was instrumental in fighting for a non-discrimination policy that added sexual orientation. "At the beginning there were only four national gay and lesbian delegates, and we were pariahs. No one would eat with us. Now when we go to banquets, everyone wants to sit at the gay table." The team battled prejudice in the early years of the AIDS epidemic, with people afraid they could contact the disease from swimming in public pools. But in 1984 West Hollywood was incorporated, and with a openly gay/lesbian majority of the Council, the city allowed WH2O to use the public pool.

"Light in the Water" serves as a history of the first five Gay Games, showing its exponential growth despite the Olympic Committee successfully suing to prevent them from using the word Olympics, costing them $30,000 in unusable souvenirs. WH2O refused to comply, buying the commemorative T-shirts, ripping off the masking tape covering the word Olympic, and wearing them proudly in the streets of SF. The best parts of the film are the interviews with senior members, revealing how transformative the team was in helping them be proud to be LGBT. Coach Morri Sprang tells how her teaching contract wasn't renewed when the Principal discovered the master of a Gay Olympics flyer in a copy machine. "It made the mission of the Gay Games clear to me. We will be strong if we are in numbers. We will only be in numbers when we come out. That's when I decided I'm not going to hide anymore." Though WH20 promoted itself as a gay team, the roster of members was confidential, and newsletters were sent in blank envelopes.

AIDS eventually claimed 38 team members. WH2O had sewing parties to make panels with blue background and black lines like a swimming pool, with names of those who died, for the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Many survivors felt swimming kept them alive. Jim Ballard, perhaps the star of the documentary, became the first HIV+ athlete to break a world record in the short-course 100-meter backstroke.

Today the team welcomes athletes regardless of skill, gender, race, sexual orientation, or disability, and 20-30% of the current team is heterosexual. The documentary concludes with the wedding of two younger members, one of whom had gone to a City Council meeting in his Speedo to lobby for a new pool deep enough for water polo championships. It worked, and an AIDS memorial will be erected on the site of the old pool. "Light in the Water" documents how everything this trailblazing team did made history. The LGBT equality movement has much to thank for WH2O, proving that gay athletes are not oxymorons.