Homophobia and transphobia in sport was first identified through research in 1971. Over the decades that followed, thousands of studies have attempted to analyse the extent of this discrimination and the results have been consistently startling. In one of the largest international studies of nearly 9500 gay and straight people, it was found that 80 percent of them had witnessed or experienced some form of homophobic behaviour in sport. Such rampant prejudice and discrimination have led to huge disparities in sport participation rates among the LGBTQ+ community. The space of sport continues to exclude and diminish the experience of the queer community through their toxic environments.
The establishment of the Gay Games (also referred to as the ‘Gay Olympics’) in 1982 was a response to decades of marginalisation of the LGBTQ+ community within sports. In an inspiring act of defiance and liberation, athlete Tom Wadell, who was gay himself, came up with the idea of the Gay Olympics that would be held every four years, similar to the modern Olympic Games. Wadell was disillusioned by the Olympics Games that had grown to become racist, sexist, homophobic and elitist. A need for inclusion drove Wadell to envision the Gay Games that would welcome people from all walks of life. In fact, you don’t need to identify as LGBTQ+ to participate; heterosexual individuals are also encouraged to partake in the sporting event.
Since its inception in 1982, the quadrennial Gay Games has become a site of solidarity and resistance. It has consciously moulded itself to be an open, welcoming sporting event that offers a means for the LGBTQ+ community to partake in sports without the fear of being sidelined and discriminated against. The first Gay Games was held in San Francisco and has since taken place in nearly seven countries (including Canada, Europe and Australia) with thousands of participants belonging to over 100 countries. The Gay Olympics in 2022 will take place in Hong Kong, making its debut in Asia.
The Gay Games are governed by the international Federation of Gay Games (FGG) that ensures its continued production. The event has been a pioneer in several spheres, including drafting a transgender inclusion policy that the Olympics and other sporting events now follow. In the area of women’s sports, the Gay Games have gone on to offer women multiple wrestling weight classes nearly 10 years before the Olympics did. Their nuanced anti-doping policies have allowed athletes on medication to continue participating in the games and realise their sporting potential. Participants with HIV/AIDS are also wholeheartedly welcomed to participate in the event. The Gay Games have constantly strived to create policies that support and include instead of diminishing the potential for opportunities within the LGBTQ+ community.
Aside from their revolutionary work within the realm of the main event, fundraising and charity work has remained at the core of the functioning of the Gay Games. Since 1986, nearly 1,000 underfunded individuals from 70 countries have been awarded Gay Games Scholarships. Additionally, the Gay Games ensures to give back to non-profit organizations in host cities. The FGG has also designed a ‘RedBook’ that governs all the important details of the sports and cultural events that take place during the event. Member organisations use the ‘RedBook’ as a guide for their events.
Shiv Paul, Vice President of External Relations at FGG, highlights the importance of the ‘Red Book, “For 2022 Gay Games HongKong, the FGG and Wrestlers Without Borders has expanded its RedBook (RULES) to accommodate ‘Genderless’ Categories in the Unique Medal Events (Official Registration). While traditional, official Male and Female categories will still be offered under sanctioned policy, the ‘Genderless’ Category will operate legally like carefully monitored exhibitions, relying on the proven good will of the athletes to practice Tom Waddell’s Mission.”
The Gay Games have grown to stand for individuals having the complete freedom to express their sexuality. It has managed to reclaim the space of sports and create an environment that allows that LGBTQ+ to be out and proud. There are no barriers here, no definitions that limit. With the next Gay Games taking place in Asia, Shiv Paul elaborates on how the event is working on Asian representation. He says, “Since awarding the 2022 Gay Games to Hong Kong in 2017, we have received increased interest in membership from all over Asia. We have an International Development Committee that is busy working with groups in underrepresented areas like Asia, Africa and South America. While we are not currently reviewing any membership applications from India, we do have twelve groups from Cambodia, Nepal, Taiwan, Thailand, Laos, Singapore and Hong Kong that we are working with towards membership.”
This event has been a major leap forward for LGBTQ+ representation but the sports community at large still operates within systems that discriminate and marginalize. How do we envision a future where these myriad forms of discrimination can be tackled? Shiv says, “We need the press to continue highlighting discrimination where they see it. But we also need to celebrate and publicize the hundreds of sport and cultural events hosted by LGBTQ+ clubs around the world each year. Each produced without discrimination and welcoming all participants.” The continued relevance of the Gay Games is a testament to how far the LGBTQ+ rights movement has come but it also highlights the many ways in which inclusivity still needs to be made the norm within our society.