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Gay Sports for a New Generation: Are Millennials Killing the Gay Games?

The LGB Community is evolving. No more are we confined to live our lives openly in the safety of bars and clubs. There hasn’t been a time in recent history, in the United States, that same sex couples can safely meet each other, express affection, and spend time together out in public that wasn’t a bar, club or gay ghetto. While there is still much to accomplish toward true equality, we are much closer. Gay people can socialize and meet other gay people in many places that straight people can without fear of getting beaten up. In the past, there have been limited places where openly gay people could safely congregate. Since the mid-1970s, sports have been one of the few outlets that gay people could congregate and socialize that didn’t involve alcohol or drugs. With the rise of large LGBTQ+ sporting events such as the Gay Games in the 1980s as well as events for individual sports, a movement grew to encompass a major part of the gay community that even now, is more popular than ever.

As a coach, personal trainer, athlete and overall exercise/ fitness buff. My career has been built up toward encouraging people to be more active, to exercise more and help people discover how exercise and sports can have a positive influence on the body and mind. So, it is very exciting to see so many more people embrace and become involved in recreational and competitive sports. There is everything from kickball, dodgeball, roller derby, volleyball, soccer, swimming, water polo and running, just to name a few. Every week, there is an LGBTQ+ oriented sports tournament, with large championship events happening for just about every sport you can think of. Annual, biannual and quadrennial multi-sport events continue to serve as the pinnacle of these sports that can often bring out thousands of athletes from all over the world together in ways that we haven’t seen very often otherwise.

It is truly amazing as to what this movement has achieved, but with a whole new generation of LGBTQ+ youth up and coming, facing a society that embraces equality more than ever and yet a different attitude that has been defined by economic struggles. While many of these events have seen record numbers of participation, other events have seen declining numbers of participants. Can the major organizations and sports teams part of the gay sports movement adapt?

Many LGBTQ+ sports clubs/ teams, specifically ones that aren’t connected to a specific league (independent sports such as swimming, running, etc.) have reduced or otherwise completely stopped participating in the larger LGBTQ+ sports events. Events like the International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics (IGLA) Championships have seen reduced participation in the number of clubs that have taken part. There are many clubs who just don’t see the value of traveling great distances to compete at a large LGBTQ+ swim meet and instead choose to focus on build their participation through their local and regional swim competitions. Athletes, especially Millennials and Generation Z can’t necessarily afford to make the trip. Even the Gay Games hasn’t been immune to this. While the Gay Games is held every 4 years, at least 1-2x per year, the Federation of the Gay Games board hosts a large gathering of all it’s members called the Annual General Assembly (AGA). The member organizations consist of sports teams and leagues who pay dues to the FGG to be part of the process which helps to organize and administrate the Gay Games. At the AGA, the board of directors and the member organizations come together to discuss changes to the sports and cultural events, talk about building participation and inclusion, as well as organizing the bid process and ultimately voting on the next host of the Gay Games.

A regular question brought up at the AGA as well as annual meetings for many other large sports organizations has been, “How can we get more young people involved?” and is a very good question. Without young people involved in the process, the organization itself cannot survive. So, what’s the deal? Why aren’t more young people involved?

There are many answers to that question, yet the biggest question to ask is how do these organizations adapt to serve a generation raised in a vastly different world than those before them? The biggest tool that every one of these organizations has that can help them to connect to a new generation is in the palm of your hand. Social media, the internet, computers, smart phones. While the Gay Games promotes “Participation, Inclusion and Personal Best.” It is time for them to embrace “connectivity.” Millennials often don’t participate in the AGA because they can’t afford the trip, not many millennials I know of have the expenses to travel halfway around the world for a week. Especially people from low income countries and areas that are eager to participate but simply don’t have the resources to make the trip.

The next generation of athletes are coming into a culture of mainstream sports more accepting than ever. Every day, the website Outsports is posting new articles about young LGBTQ+ athletes who have found acceptance and support when coming out to their teammates and coaches. LGBTQ oriented sporting events, teams and organizations need to understand that it’s not just about being gay anymore, because more and more outlets in youth, high school, college and masters/ recreational sports are building accepting and inclusive environments for their athletes. Being gay simply isn’t enough, it is time to find new ways to connect with new athletes and get people excited about the movement.

How can we increase representation from underrepresented minorities? Connectivity. Technology has grown so that we can interact with anybody, anywhere in the world. Social Networking has influenced everything from political elections to the Olympic Games. The future, is virtual. In the next 10 years we will see the rise of “e-sports” and increasing technologies used on the fields and arenas of traditional sport that already have and will continue to change the game. There are no reasons why gay sports can’t embrace this level of connectivity in order to move forward.

But are gay sports still relevant? Yes, they are. There are still many communities of LGBTQ+ people that face homophobia and transphobia that can still greatly benefit from what these events have to offer. What can the organizations do to build participation from those underrepresented communities?

More people than ever are looking to meet and connect with other people outside of bars and clubs, which is why LGBTQ+ sports leagues have continued to grow, at least on the local and regional level. Some organizations and events, such as the Gay Bowl and the Gay Softball World Series have grown on the national level too. Even started broadcasting their tournaments through a live stream, and connecting their teams, leagues and athletes from all over the world together on social media that has helped grow their attendance.

More people than ever are getting involved with those events on all levels and as a result, the North American Gay and Lesbian Flag Football League and the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance (softball) have seen participation and involvement grow from organizations all over the country. What do these organizations and events offer that are building their participation numbers from which others can learn? What is it that Millennials and Generation Z want out of these events that others don’t already offer?

Millennials aren’t killing anything. Every organization from FGG, IGLA, IGLFA, GBO, EGLSF, NGVA, and others that don’t become connected to embrace a new generation of LGBTQ+ athletes run the risk of becoming DIA (dead on arrival), just like GLISA and the Outgames.

By Dirk Smith

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