By Andrew D. Linden and Lindsay Parks Pieper
The first five men to cross the stage ranged in age from 60 to 69. As the caller announced the required bodybuilding positions—“front double biceps” or “back lat spread”—the men flexed, leaned, turned, tightened, and contracted on cue. After finishing the group poses, the individual athletes performed solo routines, highlighting different parts of their muscular physiques. While this contest followed the policies of most bodybuilding competitions, some uniquenesses emanated. “This (event) is nurturing and supportive,” explained Jon, a gold medalist in pairs and bronze medalist in the 50-59 age category. “Everyone backstage is ‘here, let me help you with that.’ Or, ‘you wanna borrow this?’” When contrasted against other events, he suggested that the Gay Games have “a lot more camaraderie.”
Jon and twenty other men, plus two women, competed in bodybuilding during the 2014 Gay Games. From August 9-16, Cleveland and Akron, Ohio, hosted the quadrennial event, held since 1982. Although Jon worried that people in the two Rust Belt cities would be hostile or unsupportive, he was pleasantly surprised. “The city is really amazing with its acceptance,” he noted. With over 9,000 participants in thirty-seven sports, the Games reportedly brought over 40,000 people to the region.
With a vast array of athletic and cultural events, we could not document all of the activities conducted during the week-long festivities. This post outlines the history of the Gay Games, along with various accounts of the Games we witnessed while in Cleveland and Akron.
Tom Waddell and the “Gay Olympics”
Tom Waddell first recognized the power of sport as an adolescent. Born in 1937 to a strict Catholic family, he realized that participation in physical contests granted him an unquestioned masculine countenance. “When I was a kid, I was tall for my age, and I was very thin but very strong,” he remembered. “I was totally closeted and very concerned about being male.” Coming of age in the fifties, Waddell also understood another reality—sexuality mattered. Against a Cold War backdrop, heterosexuality was the assumed and “correct” orientation in the United States; most Americans stigmatized and condemned all other relationships. The 1950s were “a terrible time to live,” explained Waddell. “Everything was stacked against me.” Unfortunately, as U.S.-U.S.S.R. animosities heightened, many increasingly viewed same-sex sexuality as abnormal, deviant, and treasonous. “I realized that I had to do something to protect my image of myself as a male,” he noted. “So I threw myself into athletics.” Cold War gender norms circumscribed sport as the preserve of strong, masculine (heterosexual) men; as such, it provided Waddell an avenue to conceal his sexuality. He consequently excelled in ballet, football, gymnastics, and track and field.
Although Waddell initially used sport as a tool to mask his sexuality, he nevertheless cultivated an impressive athletic career. With a track and field scholarship, he attended Springfield College in Massachusetts, a YMCA school and stronghold of masculinity. Waddell competed as a three-sport athlete, earning accolades in football, gymnastics, and track and field. He found tremendous athletic success; however, he also experienced the darker side of sport. Homophobia tarnished—and continues to tarnish today—many athletic competitions. Due to the prevalent and pejorative stereotypes about gay men, Waddell maintained his use of sport as a means to reconcile his sexual orientation with masculinity. “I think a lot of men go into athletics for the same reason I did,” he suggested. “To prove their maleness.”
Waddell’s sporting prowess also earned him a position on the 1968 U.S. Olympic team. He competed in Mexico City alongside a cast of historical greats, including Bob Beamon, John Carlos, Tommie Smith, and Bill Toomey. As his teammates broke records and protested inequalities, Waddell finished sixth in the decathlon, setting personal bests in five events. Upon concluding his Olympic career, he engaged in San Francisco’s 1970s gay culture, wherein he stumbled upon a Bay Area gay bowling league. The event inspired Waddell to consider creating his own sporting event, one which would focus on acceptance and tolerance.
In 1980, Waddell conceived the Gay Olympics. He envisioned the multi-sport event as fulfilling three purposes: to shatter the negative stereotypes of gay men, combat homophobia, and dignify the gay community. Although Waddell mirrored the blueprint of the Olympics, he remained disillusioned by the elitism, nationalism, racism, sexism, and homophobia he witnessed as an Olympian. The Gay Olympics, therefore, prioritized inclusivity.
Waddell deemed the 1982 San Francisco Gay Olympics open to all, regardless of ability or sexual orientation–an eligibility policy still in place for the Cleveland Games. According to Tony, a 2014 soccer participant, the Gay Games are “a chance for you to be able to play with like people.” Formerly a professional athlete, Tony attended the Games in Sydney, Chicago, and Cologne, prior to traveling to Northeast Ohio. He played and coached during the four events, and also served as an ambassador from Philadelphia for the Gay Games. “It’s been an experience because for so many years a lot of these people had to hide,” Tony explained. “It’s more acceptable.” While many similarly applauded the progressive nature of Waddell’s creation from the onset, the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) was unmoved.
A mere nineteen days before the opening ceremonies of the 1982 San Francisco Gay Olympics, the USOC convinced a federal court to issue an injunction against Waddell and the event organizers, the San Francisco Arts & Athletics, Inc., claiming their use of the word “Olympics” violated copyright law. Responding in a letter, Waddell angrily argued that the injunction was “a glaring hypocrisy and a grave violation of the ideas you are supposed to safeguard and promote.” He supported his claim by highlighting the numerous organizations that frequently deployed the “Olympics” without USOC contestation, including the Armenian Olympics, Crab Cooking Olympics, Pastalympics, Rat Olympics, and Xerox Olympics. “The bottom line is that if I’m a rat, a crab, a copying machine or an Armenian I can have my own Olympics,” he noted. “If I’m gay, I can’t.” Ignoring the implications of homophobia, USOC Executive Director Don Miller demurred that the use of “Olympics” in connection with the Gay Olympics would “dilute the meaning and significance” of the Games. The injunction thereby remained in place for 1982 and the legal battle continued for five years. The Supreme Court eventually heard the case in 1987 and ruled in favor of the USOC.
Upset with the injunction, yet refusing to succomb, Waddell and the San Francisco Arts & Athletics, Inc. hastily changed the Gay Olympics to the Gay Games. Despite the momentary setback, the Games commenced as planned in Kezar Stadium, the previous home of the San Francisco Forty-Niners. During the Opening Ceremonies, Waddell provided the welcoming remarks:
Welcome to a dream that is now a reality. Welcome to a celebration of freedom. These Gay Games, the first of their kind, are offered to Gay and enlightened people from all over the world. They are a departure from other events of this scope and magnitude in that the underlying philosophy is one of self-fulfillment and a spirit of friendship.
Many shared Waddell’s enthusiasm. Over 1,300 athletes from twelve countries competed in seventeen events.
The 1982 San Francisco Gay Games constituted a new sporting paradigm. Unlike other competitions, the Gay Games encouraged participation and privileged personal best, two ideals that have persisted. A 2014 Cleveland competitor remarked that the Gay Games were unique because “you don’t have to be the best, it’s all about competition and camaraderie.” Unfortunately, between the First Gay Games in 1982 and the second in 1986, Waddell–and thousands of gay men–received devastating news.
AIDS and the 1986 San Francisco Gay Games
In March 1981, medical practitioners identified Kaposi’s Sarcoma (KS), a rare form of cancer that typically plagued the elderly, in at least eight young men in New York City. A few months later, popular media outlets described a similar outbreak in both New York and California. According to the reports, eight patients died within 24 months of the diagnosis. Devastatingly, the later stories attached the illness to the gay community. For example, the New York Times’ headline declared “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals,” while the Chicago Tribune noted that although KS primarily affected men older than 50, medical centers in New York and California diagnosed younger men, “all of whom said in the course of diagnostic interviews that they were homosexual.” Due to this supposed connection, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) informally identified the illness as the “4H Disease” as it seemingly affected Haitians, hemophiliacs, heroin users, and “homosexuals.” The press constructed a different label, however, describing the ailment as GRID, Gay-Related Immune Deficiency. While the CDC declared GRID a misleading title in 1982, the damage to the gay community was already done. Many Americans classified the Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) as a “gay cancer.”
Sport was one way for those with AIDS to help improve their health; however, opposition to the 1986 San Francisco Gay Games surfaced. Some worried that both the funding and volunteer assistance needed to curb the crisis would instead be diverted into the Games. Others feared that gathering a large number of gay athletes in one location would inevitably lead to a further spreading of the disease. Finally, a few people pointed out the poor timing of the event. As historian Caroline Symons explained in her book The Gay Games: A History (2010), some believed “the staging of the Gay Games during a time in which the gay community of San Francisco was at one of its lowest points was a bit like dancing on the graves of the dead and the dying” (p. 78).
Yet, Waddell viewed the situation differently. Diagnosed with AIDS in 1985, he argued that “the Gay Games are the antithesis of the AIDS crisis. In many respects our community needs a psychological boost, and this will provide it” (Symons, p. 80). He also noted the physical benefits of sport, a message that has continued to encourage participation in the Games. For example, a 2014 competitor started bodybuilding after learning he was HIV-positive. “I was HIV-positive and I worked out to keep fit, keep healthy,” he explained. He entered his first bodybuilding competition in San Francisco and was immediately hooked. The contest in Cleveland marked his fifth time participating in the Gay Games.
Furthermore, Waddell also suggested that the 1986 San Francisco Gay Games served as an opportunity to provide education and elevate the conversation surrounding AIDS. Therefore, during the Games, volunteers handed out condoms, safe-sex literature, and informational packets. Over 3,500 athletes from seventeen countries competed in San Francisco, including the founder. Waddell checked out of a hospital and won a gold medal in the javelin. He died within a year. His legacy, however, continued.
Expansion of the Games: 1990-1998
After the first two events in San Francisco, the Games went international. Also during this time, the Federation of Gay Games (FGG) emerged as the Game’s institutional body. The 1990, 1994, and 1998 host cities seemed logical, as the locales aligned with the principles of the Gay Games. Similar to San Francisco, many recognized the 1990 host city, Vancouver, as a safe haven for members of the Canadian LGBT community. In 1994, the Games flourished in the media capital of the world. In fact, scholars have referred to the New York City Gay Games as possibly the “largest gathering of gay tourists” in history. Four years later, the Games traveled to what Symons referred to as “probably the most gay-tolerant cosmopolitan city of the world–Amsterdam” (p. 147).
Along with the use of gay-friendly cities, the Gay Games increased athletic options for participants throughout the 1990s. The seventeen sports from the original two Games burgeoned to twenty-eight in 1990, thirty-one in 1994, and thirty in 1998. Organizers also incorporated components that enhanced the political nature of the event. For example, at the 1998 Amsterdam Games, a “Gay Games Business Plan,” made efforts through outreach programs to help further the cause of human rights. One component of the initiative was to pay for 328 people to attend the Games that did not have the means to travel to Amsterdam (Symons, pp. 159-160).
Concurrently, the Games became more institutionalized. For example, in 1990, the Federation Internationale Natation Association (FINA) sanctioned the swimming events–a change that increased competition. Dan Cox, director of swimming for the 2014 Gay Games, described the resultant implications of accreditation. With FINA’s approval, swimmers were able to use times achieved during the Gay Games for U.S. master’s qualifications. Cox, therefore, followed all regulations established by the international federation. In addition, to ensure everything ran smoothly, he required over thirty volunteers at the pool per day, which made swimming the largest, most complicated, and most popular event. Yet, the event also maintained some disparities from other FINA meets. “The difference is that this crowd is a lot more lively and much more team oriented,” Cox explained. “In terms of team spirit, these guys blow the doors off of everyone.”
The Gay Games also experienced financial growth in the 1990s. Overall sponsorship contributions reached 1.5 million dollars. Part of the increased commercialism was attributed to what Symons referred to as the normalization of the “gays as good consumers” mindset, or the “pink dollar.” Some companies started to view the gay community as a viable market to target because “[g]ays and lesbians were portrayed as the models, even the fashion-leading citizens, of consumer-driven society” (p. 103). But as she pointed out, the target market often only included the “high earning, white, urban, professional gay male” (p. 103). Tellingly, even with the new affluent market, no major sponsor signed up to endorse Gay Games III.
Inclusion, which remains the leading attribute of the Gay Games, has also been scrutinized. According to Symons, the Games in Vancouver maintained inclusivity as a key tenet; however, organizers attempted to present a conservative gay and lesbian appearance. The “inclusive and participatory atmosphere,” she argued, did not “appear to have been extended to the more gender non-conforming segments of the gay and lesbian community” (p. 108). For example, she cited the exclusion of the “drag” community from one of the celebration parties in Vancouver.
The Games in 1994 took on special significance, hosted by New York City on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Stonewall 25, a celebration of the anniversary, along with Gay Games IV, allowed for the global reach of the LGBT movement. For example, participants from a more diverse collection of countries came to the Games while media coverage expanded. Additionally, “[a]ll Gay Games and Stonewall 25 participants were engaged in what was the largest and most international gay and lesbian pride event and parade ever staged” (Symons, p. 145).
Growing Pains: The 2000s
The Games in the 2000s expanded in numerous ways. First, the FGG made an effort to increase its diversity. Symons noted that Syndey “broke new ground” by highlighting and including “indigenous peoples, especially from the Pacific region, and their Western and non-Western ways of thinking and living” (p. 192). However, the Games also underwent a “watershed moment,” when the mission came under question. Some FGG officials and LGBT advocates believed too much focus was given to certain aspects of the community. She explained:
For some Directors there was clear discrepancy between projecting a “respectable” public image of the LGBT community and unashamedly celebrating the flamboyant, the colourful and courageous aspects of queer culture during the main ceremony. (p. 199)
Because of these concerns and additional financial difficulties, following the Sydney Games, an FGG document titled “The Image of the Gay Games” reemphasized the original mission of the Games, showing the organization’s “desire to return the Gay Games to their beginnings” (Symons, p. 200).
In line with the FGG’s attempt to present a more “respectable” image, the organization simultaneously grappled with gender inclusivity. In particular, the leaders questioned how to incorporate transgender participants into various competitions. Prior to the 2002 Sydney Games, the FGG followed the examples set by other sport bodies and enacted a variety of restrictive stipulations. For example, the rules implemented for the 1994 New York City Games stemmed from conservative medical and psychological ideologies. The FGG not only mandated a legal name change, but also required transgender participants to provide a letter from a medical practitioner that described hormone treatments, ongoing for at least two years. More offensively, prior to competition, transgender athletes had to submit a document from a mental health professional that chronicled the nature of their therapy. Many lambasted the exclusionary requirements and argued the procedure was oppositional to Waddell’s initial vision. The FGG, therefore, outlined a new “Gender Policy” for Sydney, which focused on the socially constructed nature of gender. While the FGG permitted access without proof of identity in 2002, a caveat explained that sex could be verified if a competitor lodged a complaint, subsequently criminalizing transgender competitors.
For the 2014 Games, the “Gender Identity Policy” outlined two avenues for identification. First, the FGG accepted legal gender as denoted on government-issued identification. Second, the organization recognized some “alternatives to legal proof of their gender,” including: certification from a medical practitioner that documented hormone treatments, ongoing at least one year prior to the Games; certification that the individual in question lived as the chosen gender for two years; evidence of employment; “substantive personal letters”; testimonials; bank accounts; or property-related documents. The Gay Games may have enhanced its inclusivity; however, those who competed in sports sanctioned by international federations, such as swimming, were required to follow the stipulations put forward by the leading body. In many cases, the international federations proved far less accepting than the FGG.
Although gender inclusivity is a goal of the Games, gender equality remains a problem. Gender equitability started as one of the central aims of the Games. Waddell, in fact, believed the Gay Games could bring together gay men and women, who were oftentimes at political and social odds. According to Symons, “they existed in separate worlds” throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. Yet, it was not until Amsterdam that gender equality was monitored. The 1998 Games did achieve more parity, as women comprised forty-two percent of the competitors.
Unfortunately, some women at the 2014 Games noticed stark gender disparity. Anne, a soccer play from Toronto, explained: “We’re the only women’s team, so that’s pretty hard.” Other all-female teams registered for the tournament, but dropped out at the last minute. “More women would have been helpful,” added Toronto teammate Rebekka Hammer. “I think it takes active outreach. I don’t think it’s enough to just say women are welcome.” Nevertheless, the team still attended, played against men’s teams, and enjoyed the ambiance.
Discrepancies also extended into organizational concerns. Consequently, the Games in 2006 commenced concurrently to those at the 2006 Montreal World Outgames in Canada. According to Symons, “[t]he two separate events were the result of an acrimonious breakdown in relations between Montreal 2006 and the FGG over their failure to negotiate the licensing agreement for Gay Games VII” (p. 217). Furthermore, the two forums maintained different aims. Symons argued that because the FGG and Chicago wanted “to ‘keep alive the legacy of Waddell,’” along with mid-2000s “[a]nti-American sentiments, principally fuelled by opposition to the international and anti-gay domestic policies of George W. Bush,” the Montreal delegation “went all out to stage the largest and probably the most significant LGBT Human Rights’ Conference ever to be held and a multi-sport programme that proudly emulated all the professional and commercial trappings of major mainstream sport events.” (p. 218) The Chicago and Montreal Games, collectively, however, brought over 20,000 participants to the region in the summer of 2006.
The Games in Cologne continued the idea of a tolerant host city. One journalist called the metropolis a “gay mecca for Germans and visitors to Germany.” Indeed, as Bay Area Reporter Roger Brigham detailed “2010 will be remembered as a triumphant incarnation of the Gay Games dream, awakening the queer inner athlete in newcomer and veteran alike.”
While the Cologne Games proceeded smoothly, many expressed hesitancy about the next host city.
A Bid for the Rust Belt
Before the Cologne Games opened, the FGG decided the fate of the 2014 Games. At the FGG’s 2009 annual meeting, held in Cologne, delegates announced that Cleveland earned the opportunity to host the 2014 Games. After a year of consideration, the Great Lakes city won the bid over Boston, Massachusetts, and Washington D.C. Cleveland’s bid intrigued the FGG because of a two-million dollar contribution from city officials, coupled with its substantial enthusiasm. According to Time, a party to encourage the Gay Games to choose Cleveland attracted over 7,000 guests, while Boston’s and D.C.’s parties only brought in a few hundred supporters.
According to Brigham, “[t]he LGBT world was shocked. . . . when FGG voters selected Cleveland to be the host of Gay Games IX.” But FGG officials maintained that they continued its historic vision, explaining that Cleveland “understood the mission of the Gay Games and our principles.” They were also “highly impressed by the facilities and infrastructure, the widespread community sport, their financial plan and the city’s experience in hosting large-scale sports and cultural events.”
Cleveland wanted the Games, though, for specific reasons, something that perhaps is a new trend in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Not only did officials believe that the event would add sixty million dollars to the city’s coffers, but also that the Games would “change Ohio forever,” according to Cleveland City Council member Joe Cimperman. City officials included the Gay Games as part of an agenda to reshape the image of the Rust Belt town. As Cleveland (in Ohio, which remains a state that bans same-sex marriage) has been nationally considered a “blue collar factory town in a conservative farm state” which Time described as not “particularly innovative or gay-friendly,” officials believed hosting the Games would help the progression of the city. In fact, the two-million dollar donation to the Games came on the same day that Ohio’s House of Representatives ruled discrimination based on sexuality illegal in housing and employment. Added Cimperman after the announcement that Cleveland would host the Games: “You’re damn right this is about an agenda. Because if this doesn’t improve human equality, then why do it?”
Leaders in the LGBT movement also saw heading to Cleveland as a way “to boldly go to a place that is perhaps not recognizable throughout the world as a gay center, but where real change is starting to happen,” reported Darl Schaaff, the head of the Gay Games site-selection committee. Furthermore, said co-founder of Outsports.com, Cyd Zeigler in 2010: “I’m glad [the FGG] picked Cleveland. Part of the FGG’s mission is to change minds and be a visible agent of change. That’s a huge part of why Tom Waddell started the Gay Games. . . . And I’m glad the FGG is taking their message to Ohio.”
Even with difficulties in keeping the Games in Cleveland–the original group that was awarded the Games disappeared after a breach of contract settlement with the FGG in 2011–the Games successfully occurred in August, 2014.
Conclusion and Gay Games X
At the Opening Ceremonies of the 2014 Gay Games, a recorded message from U.S. President Barack Obama surprised the audience. “It’s been remarkable to see the Games thrive over the years. . . . We’ve also seen America change in that time.” While much work needs to be done in the United States and elsewhere–currently only nineteen of the fifty states in the United States grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples, violence toward transgender individuals is far too widespread, and workplace discrimination toward the LGBT community persists–there has been positive social change within the past quarter century. Certainly with the continuation and growth of the Gay Games, recent social movements, and prominent sport icons discussing their sexuality, the environment for LGBT athletes and the larger community has improved.
The Games continue to advance the vision of Tom Waddell, and adhere to their “guiding principles,” “Participation, Inclusion, Personal Best.” In 2018, these principles, along with the thousands of participants and spectators eager to enjoy athletic participation will arrive in Paris, France, for Gay Games X.
Andrew D. Linden is a Ph.D. student at the Pennsylvania State University. He is the co-editor of Sport in American History. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and can be followed on Twitter @AndrewDLinden. He maintains his own website at www.andrewdlinden.com.
Lindsay Parks Pieper is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Lynchburg College. She can be reached at email@example.com and can be followed on Twitter @LindsayPieper. She maintains her own website at www.lindsayparkspieper.com.