Where Should Gays Do Sport?
22nd May 2014
Where should gays do sport? A silly question with an obvious answer: wherever they want, safely, and enjoyably.
But behind the question is an on-going debate among LGBT athletes and advocates: What is the purpose of LGBT sport? Isn’t it a ‘ghetto’? Shouldn’t the priority be to make mainstream sport more inclusive? It’s a question we often need to answer at the Federation of Gay Games. We often are asked: ‘Gays can compete in the Olympics, so why do you need ‘Gay Games’?’ Beyond the ignorance of the situation of LGBT people around the world, ranging from homophobic discrimination in even the most enlightened countries to violence and legal persecution in far too many other parts of the world, this question demonstrates a real lack of understanding about the Olympics and sport in general. It’s a question we thought would disappear after the publicity given to the issue during the 2014 Winter Olympics, but it’s a bit of a zombie, refusing to die, even in the face of clear example of Olympics where LGBT athletes are forced to remain silent about their orientation.
Our answer is usually something like: ‘The best gay athletes already compete in the Olympics; the Gay Games aren’t the ‘gay Olympics’, despite many journalists’ shortcut explanations; the Gay Games are for everyone, while the Olympics are for a tiny elite’.
The opening ceremony of Gay Games VII in Chicago, 2006
LGBT sport is indeed for some a refuge from homophobia. This is perhaps less the case in a place like Scotland or other parts of western Europe, but it remains a reality. The Gay Games were created with a dual message: to mainstream sport, that there are LGBT athletes playing; and to the LGBT community that sport is an important activity for many LGBT people.
Beyond those early principles, which remain vitally true today, there are other aspects of LGBT sport that make it important to develop and encourage: sport is part of life, and part of our experience as social beings. Paradoxically, because LGBT sport offers us a place to experience sport in an environment where it’s ‘normal’ to be gay, sport becomes the priority. LGBT sport also offers a venue for socialization that differs from the sex-focused bars and clubs. It’s a healthier place to meet new people, and a safe place to find friends and more.
Over its more than 30 years of existence, LGBT sport has developed distinctive values, embodied in the Gay Games motto “Participation, Inclusion, and Personal Best”. Straight people often join LGBT clubs or take part in LGBT events because they find a welcoming space where ability, body type, or competitive history are less important, and where people come first and foremost to have a good time.
Balloons form a rainbow in a bright sky over participants at the Closing Ceremony of Gay Games in San Francisco, 1982
For all these reasons, LGBT sport remains important. But as important as it is to defend and support LGBT sport, we must also work for greater inclusion in mainstream sport. In that task, we’re helped in many countries by an evolution in society that increasingly recognizes – and rejects – homophobia. Allies in many sports are standing up in solidarity with out players and to oppose homophobia among management, athletes, and fans.
But we cannot rely on allies to defend our cause. By creating an LGBT sport movement, by showing our own commitment to sport for all, including efforts for inclusion that go beyond our ‘market’ of LGBT athletes, we gain legitimacy to speak on behalf of the far greater number of closeted LGBT athletes in mainstream sport. And by working together in projects such as Pride House International, we speak even louder to the mainstream sporting community as we call for strong LGBT sport, and inclusive mainstream sport.
Pride House Glasgow will be an opportunity to send that message to the Commonwealth Games, a community with incredible disparities in terms of homophobia in sport. From models of inclusion like Canada or Scotland, to among the worst offenders for homophobia such as Uganda or Nigeria, the Commonwealth Games are a study in contrasts, and a promising venue for a strong LGBT sports movement to speak to mainstream sport and urge it to make concrete commitments to promoting sport for all.
Marc Naimark is Vice President for External Affairs of the Federation of Gay Games, a member of Pride House International. The 2014 Gay Games take place 9-16 August in Cleveland and Akron, Ohio.