Gay Pioneers in Sports

By Patricia Nell Warren

Let the Games begin! And let the gay pioneers in sports not be forgotten! As America glues itself to the TV, ten percent of that 20-percent drop in video rentals is due to non-straight fascination with all things athletic.

Many people think of the first Gay Games in 1978 as the "beginning" of gay athletes coming out. Not so. In 1969, as one of the first woman marathoners and an AAU official, I saw gay male, lesbian and bisexual athletes already taking their first reckless peeps out of the closet.

Gay liberation in sports was a natural spin-off of the rebellions against overweening constraint and authority that had marked the Sixties. Previously, there were the lone individuals -- like golfer Babe Didrickson -- whose looks or lifestyle hinted "queer". But by the late '60s, in sports where individualism was tolerated, our brothers and sisters were inching towards a bolder visibility.

Long-distance running certainly qualified as a "individualist sport." It was still shunned by many coaches and officials, who deemed it dangerous to health. While track stars had to be monkish in everything from dress to sex life, long-distance runners took every opportunity to thumb their noses at the sports establishment. Males toed the starting line in hippie headbands and (shudder) long hair. Many women competed bra-less. Everybody gossiped endlessly about sex, and its effect on performance. Traditional hetero machismo and sexism was refreshingly absent -- male and female distance runners trained together, competed together, even shared locker rooms. In short, our sport was wildly inclusive. The long asphalt roads where we raced were relentlessly level as social playing fields.

So distance running was one of the first sports where pairs of women, and pairs of men, made themselves more visible. They weren't "out," in the sense that we understand today. But they openly wore that different sexual vibe around them. "Vibe" was that Sixties word about energies being sent between the lines. I wasn't out myself, then. But I knew what I was, and I knew what I was vibing in others.

There's no doubt that the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion impacted the sports world. If drag queens had the guts to engage in hand-to-hand combat with the New York City police (it was reasoned) then jocks had better catch up to the queens in showing guts.

Indeed, by 1969, a transgender issue entered sports, when the International Olympic Committee demanded chromosome testing for women. Their aim: to screen out females who had anything but a "normal" XX sex-chromosome configuration. (The fact that some men also have extra sex chromosomes seems not to have occurred to the IOC).

Through the early '70s, as a reporter for Runner's World, I vibed out runners, officials and coaches, and had cautious off-the-record talks with some. For example, one evening in late 1972, a young guy buttonholed me at a Road Runners Club party in Manhattan. Maybe he vibed that I was safe to talk to. He shared the heartbreak of being gay and a gifted athlete -- he was an NCAA national track champion. He'd had to choose, he said. Be out and lose his shot at a medal, or be in the closet and stay on his university team. So he'd opted to come out. Now the only place he could run, and be accepted, was in long distance.

That this conversation spurred publication of my 1974 novel about homosexuals in sports is only part of the story.

As the 1970s passed, we became visible in other sports. In show jumping (which I also knew), a few horse-owners and amateur riders were rather openly out. In Canada while booktouring for "The Front Runner", I met the gay jockey who had the racetracks in an uproar. In 1976, the subject finally exploded into national profile when the Washington Post published its series on real-life gays in sports. With time, we heard about umpire Dave Pallone, football player Dave Kopay, many women golfers and tennis players. Eventually there was Greg Louganis.

Olympian athlete Tom Waddell was a pioneer who knew that homosexuality sometimes steps secretly onto the victors' podium. When Waddell launched the Gay Games, it was an idea whose time had come.

Today, international stars like Rudy Galindo stand on the peak of a pyramid of visibility. Beneath them, and supporting them, are all those hundreds of thousands of athletes, officials and coaches, going back over decades. Most of their names have never been in print. They include a pair of grinning girls who held hands as they crossed the finish line of the first New York Marathon in 1972. All of them, idols and also-rans, were bringing in a new age of athletic -- and sexual -- discovery.

Patricia Nell Warren wrote "The Front Runner," "Harlan's Race" and other best-selling novels about gay life. She lives in Los Angeles, where she serves on the Gay & Lesbian Education Commission of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Her publisher is Wildcat Press. Visit her Web page here.
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