By Dirk Smith, M.Sc, SDL (He/Him)
As we celebrate Memorial Day and honor those soldiers and members of the military who have given the ultimate sacrifice. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was finally struck only a few years ago and the recent attempt to bar transgender athletes from serving has also been struck, LGBTQIA+ people who serve in the military are only now finding their way in serving their country while also living as their authentic selves.
While many of the soldiers we would honor for Memorial Day have not been able to serve openly. We would like to celebrate all those brave and courageous individuals who served despite the limitations that existed during their time. One of the most well-known LGBTQIA+ athletes who served in the military is Tom Waddell, the founder of the Gay Games.
Before Gay Games, Tom Waddell was a hot young man training in Track and Field, he originally went to university for physical education but then opted to attend medical school. During this time, Waddell’s athleticism was at his peak, and he was competing internationally in his main event, the Decathlon. In 1966, at the onset of the Vietnam War, Waddell was drafted into the army as a preventative medicine officer and paratrooper. He was originally going to be sent to Vietnam which he protested, and surprisingly ended up being sent to train as a decathlete for the 1968 Olympics. Representing both the Army and Team USA, Waddell went on to compete at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. In 1972, he officially retired as an elite athlete following an injury at a track meet in Hawaii.
Of course, during this time, Waddell never shared his sexual orientation, but that did not stop him from pursuing romantic relationships, having met his first lover in the summer of 1959. He was discharged from the army shortly after the Olympics and went on to become a successful physician, establishing his practice in the Castro in San Francisco and event serving as the team physician for the Saudi Arabian Olympic Team. After Waddell retired from his athletic career in 1972, Waddell returned to San Francisco and joined a gay bowling league. This experience help inspired him to create an LGBT sporting event modeled after the Olympics. Of course, the story of the creation of the Gay Games has been well told, including here on Compete Sports Diversity.
Tom Waddell succumbed to HIV/AIDS in 1987 and for this Memorial Day, we would like to honor him and all the other LGBTQIA+ soldiers who have served for us all.