There is a lot of discussion surrounding the role of activism and politics within the realm of sports. This is a discussion that has been happening for well over a hundred years and no doubt will continue well past our lifetime. With large scale events like The Olympic Games bringing together people for all over the world to compete in sport, often times people who don’t always get along and despite everybody’s best effort. There is bound to tension, discussions, arguments, boycotts and other conflicts. Human rights aren’t always political, but yet they are and often dominate political discussions on all levels. Everything from the NCAA hosting events in states that have adopted anti-trans legislation, NFL players kneeling to the national anthem to protest racial injustice, football (soccer) clubs with fans often chanting prejudicial things. The Olympic Games themselves are no stranger to these debates, everything from where the games are hosted, who should be allowed to compete, role of doping and many other discussions. Needless to say there is a lot to unpack to fully understand that sports and politics will often intersect, especially when it comes to human rights.
For #HumanRightsDay however, let’s look at it from a different angle. How has sport helped advance human rights? Specifically we’ll talk about the Gay Games and the role that the largest, non-Olympic, quadrennial, multi-sport event, has played toward helping to empower and advance LGBTQ+ rughts and causes since it’s inception.
The first Gay Games was held in 1982 in San Francisco, a very active city for LGBTQ+ activism and was the brainchild of Dr. Tom Waddell. Taking inspiration from his own experience as a decathlete at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City as well as the formation of early LGBTQ+ sports clubs (namely bowling) in the 1970s. Waddell wanted to bring the same feelings he experienced as an Olympian to the LGBTQ+ community while creating a place and event where LGBTQ+ people could participate and compete openly, without worry for homophobia and transphobia that were so prevalent in sport. Initially called the “Gay Olympic Games” the name was shortened simply to “Gay Games” after the International Olympic Committee threatened Waddell with a lawsuit regarding use of the word “Olympic” despite little action on the IOC against the use of the word in other (non-lgbtq+) events. Despite this set back, the first Gay Games was a success and each subsequent event continued to grow in 1986 and 1990. Inspiring and empowering LGBTQ+ people to come together outside of bars and clubs to take part.
The 1994 Gay Games were a turning point for the movement, scheduled to be held in New York City on the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. The Federation of the Gay Games worked with the IOC, setting aside their previous differences, to persuade the United States Federal Government to temporarily lift their ban on individuals who were HIV positive from entering the country. They succeeded in opening the door for athletes with HIV/AIDS to participate at both the 1994 Gay Games and the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, helping to break many of the stigmas about HIV/AIDs that still persisted.
In addition, Greg Louganis officially “came out” as an openly gay and HIV+ athlete at the opening ceremonies as well as took an active role in the diving competition. While Louganis was retired from the sport, his subsequent coming out led to him being blacklisted by the diving community. Although he was banned by the main stream community, he was embraced as a role model and inspiration for up and coming LGBTQ+ athletes around the world. The 1994 Gay Games set the record for the largest number of registered participants with over 15,000. Exceeding the size of both the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games.
In 2003 The IOC convened to establish and adopt it’s first ever set of transgender inclusive policies that ended the unethical practice of sex verification testing and opened the door for transgender athletes to participate openly at the 2004 Olympic Games. Their initial policy was based on that of the Federation of Gay Games policies which have encouraged transgender participation since it’s inception. These policies were recently updated in 2016.
In addition, with the Gay Games being hosted in cities and countries of various political backgrounds it has helped influence the local communities (LGBTQ+ and not) in “changing hearts and minds” towards LGBTQ+ people as the hosts of the 2014 Gay Games in Cleveland would say.
The hosts of the 2014 Gay Games held in Cleveland had two big goals they wanted to achieve, with Cleveland being a tough city to draw people to they sought to change people’s perceptions of Cleveland and showcase the city as a vibrant, growing, welcoming community. In turn, with Cleveland typically being more conservative, the organizing committee for the Gay Games also wanted to use the Gay Games as a way to challenge perceptions of LGBTQ+ people that the traditionally conservative population of Cleveland previously held. The Cleveland Gay Games was successful on both fronts.
With the 2018 Gay Games due to be held in Paris, the movement continues to look forward in helping to advance LGBTQ+ rights with sport with the 2022 Gay Games due to be held in Asia for the first time in Hong Kong. It has been actively showing the word that LGBTQ+ people don’t always fit the mode. Through participation in sport it has led the way in breaking the stigmas and stereotypes of LGBTQ+ people, especially athletes.
By Dirk Smith