Martha Ehrenfeld first connected to the Games in 1994 by volunteering at a skating rink at Brooklyn’s famous Coney Island; she still has her first Gay Games t-shirt from the event. Fast forward more than twenty years and Martha is now the officer of sports of the international Federation of Gay Games (FGG) board of directors. She has come a long way from a hesitant volunteer to an active promoter of the Games.
Growing up in New York City during the 1970s and ‘80s there were few opportunities for girls to play organized sports. Martha’s high school offered only volleyball and basketball and she started playing tennis at an after-school tennis club. Exposed to lacrosse and field hockey in college, in her senior year she joined a late-night ice hockey club. Once she realized she could buy hockey skates and play, she became captain of the Brooklyn Blades women’s ice hockey team. But she was neither out nor connected to any organized LGBT sports organization.
Martha had been aware of the Gay Games but didn’t feel comfortable attending them alone since she wasn’t part of an organized team. That all changed when she moved to San Francisco in 2002 and stumbled on a tennis tournament being held by the Gay and Lesbian Tennis Federation, an affiliate of the Gay and Lesbian Tennis Alliance (GLTA). She immediately joined the club, volunteered for the board, created the first women’s director position, became vice president and eventually was voted into the club’s Hall of Fame.
Now part of Team San Francisco, she found tennis partners interested in training for the Chicago Gay Games in 2006. In fact, she fell in love with her women’s doubles partner in what she calls her “figure skating pairs moment.” “We were out dancing after winning our silver medal in tennis and we had our first kiss. We figured we already had the matching outfits, let’s make this more than a partnership on the courts.”
Martha and Carla McKay were married in 2010 and honeymooned at the Cologne Gay Games that year where they won the gold medal in women’s B doubles tennis. Martha also attended her first annual general assembly (AGA) as her team’s representative. Having served on the Cleveland 2014 steering committee guiding the host city, she worked alongside Rob Smitherman, a veteran of operations for three previous Games, and that experience now guides her current work.
At the AGA in Bulgaria in 2012 she joined the FGG Board as the women’s sports chair. Hoping to continue her role through Paris 2018 Gay Games 10, Martha strives to encourage international LGBT sports organizations to work closely with the Gay Games host while having realistic expectations for their sports. As Martha often tells people, “We are trying to put on an Olympic-like event with a non-profit budget and mostly volunteers.”
Reflecting on her love affair with gay sports, Martha says that “being a participant in three Gay Games has been a life-changing experience. Marching in the opening ceremony and meeting athletes from around the world has been fantastic. I love that I have Facebook friends who are guiding LGBT sports in their cities and we connect every four years.” She admires the young people that she has met from Russia and South Africa who have come alone to Gay Games. When asked by gay athletes in their twenties why she feels the need to have a separate event, Martha replies that coming together in one place with a huge group of LGBT athletes is a uniquely positive and powerful experience. “It inspires you to reach out and help others who think they are alone.”
Martha and Carla have been active donors to the Gay Games Scholarship Fund which provides travel and registration for underrepresented individuals. The couple has now offered a $20,000 challenge grant to the FGG. Their hope is to inspire people to give so that others may enjoy what many take for granted.
At Paris 2018 – Gay Games 10, Martha will run the 5K, 10K and half marathon as well as play some tennis on the red clay. Retired from tennis due to injury, Carla now competes in triathlons and will be participating in the Olympic distance triathlon. As Martha says, “ I feel so lucky and grateful for the Gay Games. How could I not give back to them?
By Doug Litwin
Doug Litwin is Officer, Marketing, Federation of Gay Games.
Photo courtesy of Federation of Gay Games