By Dirk Smith, M.Sc, SDL (He/Him)
December 1st is recognized as World AIDS Day, a day of honor and remembrance for people who are living with and for people who have succumbed to HIV/AIDS. More importantly, it’s a day to continue the fight against HIV/AIDS in pursuit of a cure. Starting in 1988, World AIDS Day has inspired organizations, communities, and people all over the world in fundraising for a cure, promoting education and awareness of preventative measures as well as testing and other resources available.
A lot has changed in the world since the beginning of the HIV/AIDS pandemic began. At the beginning, the disease primarily affected gay men and was considered a death sentence. In the United States, little to no action was taken during this time as the religious conservative government was keen to stand by and let this “gay cancer” run its course. Leading the LGBTQ+ community to rally together and self-organize to raise money, build awareness and work to combat the fear and misinformation surrounding the disease.
Some of the most prominent athletes of this generation had shown that you can live with HIV/AIDS and still be successful as an athlete. Athletes like Magic Johnson who publicly shared his status in 1991 and Greg Louganis who publicly shared his status in 1995. Before these athletes though, a swimmer named Michael Mealiffe, competing at the 1990 Gay Games showed that not only can HIV+ athletes still compete, but they can also break world records too.
The 1990 Gay Games, held in Vancouver was the third edition of the quadrennial event and the first one held outside of San Francisco. Created in 1982 by Tom Waddell, who himself was HIV+ and succumbed to the disease in 1987, the purpose of the Gay Games is to foster an accepting, diverse, and inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ athletes to compete in sports safely and openly. Even more so, the Gay Games serves as a platform to help educate the greater community about LGBTQ+ athletes and to diminish stereotypes that have long been used to degenerate LGBTQ+ people. There is no greater example of this than Michael Mealiffe.
Mealiffe’s story is chronicled in the LGBTQ+ swimming documentary, “Light in the Water” which talks about the history of LGBTQ+ swimming, specifically West Hollywood Aquatics (WH2O). Mealiffe stepped up to the starting blocks at the 1990 Gay Games to compete in the 100m Butterfly. During the race, Mealiffe’s team members were cheering him on and coming into the wall, he finished to a loud roar of people in the crowd cheering him on. Unsure of what was going on at first, one of Mealiffe’s teammates told him he just broke a world record. The first time an openly gay, HIV+ person had ever accomplished such a feat.
The 1990 Gay Games were the first time the swimming competition had been officially sanctioned by Masters swimming, which regulates competitive swimming for adults. This was an important factor has it added an extra level of legitimacy to the Gay Games as well as ensuring that Mealiffe’s world record is considered official. For Mealiffe and all the athletes at the Gay Games, as well as the hundreds of thousands of LGBTQ+ athletes who have walked, ran, jumped, swam, raced and competed in Mealiffe’s footsteps, that world record had a big impact in showing that HIV/AIDS was not a death sentence or something that makes you weak. More importantly, it showed that even with a positive diagnosis, you can still live and thrive in sport and in life.