Get in the DeLorean and let’s go back in time 37 years to 1982 on the eve of the first Gay Olympic Games. The era was marked at the very beginning of the HIV/AIDS crisis and religious conservatism that threatened to derail what little progress the LGBT rights movement had made up to that point. The organization of the very first Gay Olympic Games by Olympian Tom Waddell and his team from the San Francisco Arts and Athletics Association (SFAA) was well underway but just a few days before the opening ceremonies, they hit quite a big roadblock.
The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) filed a lawsuit and preliminary injunction against the SFAA and Tom Waddell specifically over the use of the word “Olympic” in the namesake event modeled after the Olympic Games. Despite the use of the world “Olympic and Lympic” in the naming of other organizations and events (Junior Olympics, Special Olympics, Police Olympics, etc.) the USOC cited a policy as well as a clause in the Amateur Sports Act prohibiting the use of the world “Olympic” in the name of the “Gay Olympic Games.”
This came only days before the opening ceremonies that put the whole event at risk. Despite an appeal, the SFAA was required to censor or remove the word “Olympic” from all merchandise, posters, shirts, pins, flyers and other items. Resulting in the “Gay Olympic Games” to become the “Gay Games.” The case went all the way up to the Supreme Court and included arguments regarding the First Amendment and Anti-Gay discrimination. Ultimately, the SFAA lost the case and a lien was placed on Waddell’s house that stayed with him for the rest of his life.
The case has led to a lot of resentment from Gay Games organizers and board members with frustration over the seemingly targeted discrimination against the Gay Games specifically despite other violations of the cited law in non-gay events. The USOC was criticized for allowing the use of the word for other events yet drawing the line over usage of the word in the context of an LGBT specific event.
Following Waddell’s passing in 1987, the USOC lifted the lien off his house and it seemed that the bad blood between the USOC and the successor to the SFAA, the Federation of the Gay Games was in the past. This was best seen when the two organizations worked together to lobby the federal government to temporarily lift the HIV Travel Restrictions for athletes attending the 1994 Gay Games in New York City and the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. However, there was never any kind of formal resolution or mending of the wounds the lawsuit created. The USOC and the FGG have never had much of a formal relationship and even today there is still a lot of resentment still felt toward the USOC from organizers, athletes, friends, and supporters of Waddell’s vision of the Gay Olympic Games.
Return to 2019 and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex (LGBTQI) rights, awareness and representation have come a long way. Shows like Will and Grace, Queer Eye, Ellen, and of course RuPaul’s Drag Race have brought LGBTQI representation to the mainstream audience. Despite the divisive and toxic political climate, the resilience of the LGBTQI community has made it arguably safer to live openly. For companies, corporations, and businesses, it is safer to show support for the LGBT community. This is scene most often during Pride season when various corporations adopt rainbow pride logos and participate in LGBTQI pride events all around the world. Unfortunately, much of this support is quite superficial in that the companies (with a few notable exceptions such as Nike) talk the talk of LGBTQI acceptance, yet they don’t walk the walk-in terms of supporting LGBTQI rights and causes outside of Pride.
It is noted that for the first time this year, the USOC under “Team USA” branding, has chosen to adopt a rainbow logo for Pride Month this last June as well as releasing a Pride line of merchandise with proceeds going to support “LGBTQI initiatives in the Olympic and Paralympic movements.” While this isn’t exactly remarkable considering it is part of a trend of other major corporations doing the same. What is notable however, goes back to Season 11 of RuPaul’s Drag Race (RPDR).
RPDR is a reality competition show that follows RuPaul’s search for “America’s Next Drag Superstar” and consists of a competition in which a group of drag queens participate in a variety of challenges and contests for a grand prize and title. It is one of the first major reality shows to centered around drag queens that has become popular across more mainstream audiences. It has made history by bringing the art of Drag more into the public spotlight.
One of the episodes of this last season included a challenge in which two groups of contestants competed against each other in a fun event themed after the Olympic Games. The episode was appropriately titled “Draglympics” and had a frequent use of the word “Olympic” and “Draglympics” throughout the episode. The episode also included guest appearances by Olympians Adam Rippon and Mirai Nagasu as judges, it also featured events such as “Voguing” “Fanography” and “Shablam.”
So, what is remarkable about this? Well, it shows that the USOC is willing to permit usage of the “Olympic” trademark by the LGBTQI community today, more so than it did in 1982. According to the Team USA Brand Guidelines:
“Federal law also prohibits unauthorized use of simulations of OLYMPIC tending to falsely suggest an affiliation with the Olympic Games, such as AQUALYMPICS, SKYLYMPICS, CHICAGOLYMPICS, BROLYMPICS, RADIOLYMPICS, MATHLYMPICS, etc.”
So, for RPDR to be able to use the term “Draglympics” in Season 11, they would have to receive special permission from the USOC as the holder of the trademark. In addition to the use of the term for the episode title, it was prominently featured in dialogue and onscreen graphics during the episode. Fans of RPDR would know that RuPaul and the producers of the show are very stringent about ensuring they have usage rights for copyrighted works given the vast array of music, celebrity likenesses, brand names and other trademarked things regularly featured on the show. It stands to reason that the producers would ensure that permission was granted from the USOC for the usage over the name as well.
This doesn’t seem obvious or even particularly remarkable. In fact, only a few people within the community associated with the Gay Games would understand the significance of this relationship in the usage of the “Olympic” branding and trademark in an LGBTQI specific context. No doubt a lot has changed since 1982 including attitudes toward the LGBTQI community but also the leadership of the USOC which might consider the history of the lawsuit against the FGG as ancient history. Yet, for those members and supporters of Waddell’s vision, scars are still present, and wounds are easily reopened. Perhaps, RuPaul’s Drag Race “Draglympics” might just be the first step toward healing those wounds and establish a relationship between the USOC and the FGG for both organizations to work together moving forward.
By Dirk Smith