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Gareth Johnson

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Changing the World of Sport - One Gay at a Time

Posted: 04/01/2013 00:00

Sports clubs and locker rooms used to be the place of nightmares for most gay men and lesbians - but through sheer force of enthusiasm that is slowly starting to change.

I was a tall, skinny kid - a bit too uncoordinated to be any good at sports and it was pretty obvious to everyone that I was gay, which seemed to result in being picked last for teams as well as the normal sort of merciless teasing that schoolchildren dish out to anyone that seems slightly different.

Through the years I limited my physical activity to a bit of swimming and working out in the gym - building muscles to try and look better naked rather than for any practical purposes.

It wasn't until I moved to London that I encountered the world of gay sports.

I was looking for a way to meet people and make friends - after a fair bit of fruitless Googling, I stumbled upon a directory of gay sports clubs, emailed one that I thought I'd be okay at (water polo - actually much harder than I imagined) and within days i was pulling on my Speedos and nervously signing up for a beginners session.

It sounds hyperbolic to say that joining a gay sports club has changed my life, but it's true. Not only have I made great friends, improved my social life, and sharpened up my fitness, but I've grown in confidence, and discovered a love of sport.

What I find surprising is that my experience is not unique. Around the world gay men and lesbians are establishing teams and clubs, increasing participation in sports and physical exercise, and delivering significant health and social benefits for a community that often seems defined by blood test results and suicide rates.

There's two key events that seem to have acted as catalysts for the organization and creation of the gay and lesbian sports movement.

In the mid-1970s in San Francisco, the Frontrunners running club was established by Jack Baker, Gardner Pond, and Bud Budlong. Named after a Patricia Nell Warren novel (The Front Runner) about a gay track coach, the concept of a gay running club quickly spread across the US and then the world - there's now over 100 clubs worldwide who all belong to the International Frontrunners organization. The novel feels a little dated these days, but for many years it was powerful and moving force for helping gay men understand that it was okay to be themselves.

In 1982 in San Francisco, Dr Tom Waddell organized the first Gay Games. When you look at the history of some of the oldest gay and lesbian sports clubs, it's clear that the experience of participating in a large, multi-sport event that also celebrated being gay or lesbian had a huge impact on the people who took part - they came home and started working towards the next one. Held every four years, the Gay Games now attracts around 10,000 participants and is one of the world's largest sporting and cultural events.

These clubs are much more than just places where gays and lesbians can feel welcome and safe to play their chosen sport, they become key influencers within their local community (undertaking outreach and charity work as well as developing commercial partnerships) as well as the mainstream governing sports bodies.

One of the things that I particularly like about being part of a gay sports team is the travel - beyond the Gay Games there seems to be an endless array of gay and lesbian sports tournaments and competitions that we can take part in. One of my highlights of 2012 was taking part in the annual championships of the International Gay & Lesbian Aquatics which was held in Reykjavik - the opening party at Iceland's iconic Blue Lagoon is what I'm hoping gay heaven will be like. 2013 already includes tournaments in Toronto, Paris, and Antwerp. The Copenhagen team are also suggesting that we visit them for a training camp.

Of course gay and lesbian sports people are an attractive demographic - a love of travel, disposable income, aspirational lifestyles - it's not surprising that city tourist boards now compete fiercely to host the major gay and lesbian sports events. The World Outgames are considering bids from Miami Beach and Reykjavik for their event in 2017; and the Gay Games are debating the merits of Amsterdam, Limerick, London, Orlando, and Paris to decide who will host their event in 2018.

Don't underestimate what a group of enthusiastic people can achieve.

 

Follow Gareth Johnson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@GTVlondon

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