I was a tall, skinny kid - a bit too uncoordinated to be much good at sports. It was also pretty obvious to everyone that I was gay, which seemed to result in me being picked last for teams, as well as the normal sort of merciless teasing that schoolchildren dish out to anyone that seems slightly different.
Over 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 swim-briefs 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.
Perhaps what isn’t surprising that my experience is not unique. Around the world, LGBTQ people 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 poor health outcomes and discrimination.
There’s two key events that have acted as catalysts for the organisation 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 organisation. The novel feels a little dated these days, but for many years it was a powerful and moving force for helping gay men understand that it was okay to be themselves.
In 1982 in San Francisco, Dr Tom Waddell organised 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.
The Gay Games were designed to: ‘…bring a global community together in friendship, to experience participation… and to dispel the prevailing attitudes in sport regarding ageism, sexism and racism.’
It’s difficult to get a handle on exactly how many LGBTQ sports clubs there now are around the world, but a little bit of desktop research demonstrates that since the 1980s, clubs have been established in every conceivable sport, and the numbers are continuing to grow.
Like any community-based activity, establishing an LGBTQ sports club is hard work - it takes an enormous amount of energy, and requires a number of passionate people to give the club focus and momentum.
Making a club sustainable beyond that initial core group of people is equally challenging, and it’s not uncommon for clubs to have a short lifespan if they’ve been unable to build a strong membership-base or the infrastructure required for future growth.
Washington DC’s Capital Splats racquetball club was established in 2010, and has a membership of 90 players. Captain Mark Storey confirms that a lot of focus has been on trying to formalise the club:
"We now have elected officers with division of responsibilities, whereas in the first year, the club’s activities were mostly organised and funded by me with the help of a couple of others."
The Rainbow Squash club in Amsterdam has 25 members, and was established in 1997 in preparation for the Gay Games that were held in that city the following year.
Chairman Graham Rhind sees the biggest challenge for the club as being maintaining a critical mass of members:
"Interest in playing sport with other gays and lesbians fluctuates, and squash is a niche sport. Finding younger people wanting to play is a challenge for us."
For Gavin Mears of the Sydney Rangers Football Club, challenges also include changing the perception of the LGBT community:
"A lot of people still think we just kick and giggle before having an orgy in the locker-room, but we’re playing in Sydney’s toughest district competition and proving to everyone that a bunch of poofs can play football well and seriously."
Finding the right facilities for clubs to play their sport appears to also be a problem around the world, with few cities set up with the type of infrastructure required for today’s intensive training.
Mark Storey of Washington DC’s Splats racquetball club, confirms that access to facilities is their biggest challenge:
"Our biggest challenge is finding facilities to play in, since most racquetball courts in DC are part of local gyms that require membership, and it’s difficult to get them to agree to let us host a league that is open to non-members of their gym."
Access to facilities is also an issue for the Toronto Triggerfish water polo club, as vice-president James Mullen explains:
"There’s only one pool in Toronto that is deep enough for us to play matches, and as our membership continues to grow, this is further impacting our player-to-pool ratio."
The Triggerfish club was formed in 2001, and now has nearly 90 members. The club is continuing to see quarterly growth through effective promotion and recruitment in the Toronto community.
However not all community-based sports clubs are growing. The UK’s Sport and Recreation Alliance recently conducted a survey of 1,942 UK sports clubs across 40 different sports.
This research included, but was not exclusively focused on LGBTQ sports clubs, and indicated that around a quarter of the clubs surveyed are running at a loss, and a further 25% are just managing to break even.
Questions about the future of gay and lesbian sports clubs goes wider than just the pure economics of attracting a sustainable number of members. There is a wider question of what is the purpose of the club. Sports clubs in any community have always been much more than just a place to play sport.
As James Mullen of the Toronto Triggerfish water polo club explains:
"In addition to being a water polo club, the team is really a very large group of tightly-knit friends. For most of us, our teammates also constitute a large portion of our social life."
But for the Fins Aquatics Club in Philadelphia, established in 1988 and now with 125 members, the purpose is less clear.
President Jan Elsasser is contemplating how much longer there will be a need in Philadelphia for an LGBTQ swimming club:
"Younger LGBT individuals are more comfortable than older generations in integrated environments, and don’t necessarily need a safe place to be out and proud. While our membership is growing, that growth is being driven mainly by straight women who like our city centre location."
Perhaps the most compelling testimony about the value of gay and lesbian sports clubs comes from the stories of the people involved. Out To Swim, an aquatics club with over 400 members in London, produced a video as part of its 20th anniversary celebrations.
The video, below, tells the story of former Olympic swimmer Peter Prijdekker who vividly brings to life why events such as the Gay Games and why LGBTQ sports clubs generally continue to play such an important and positive role for people around the world.
This is why queer sports clubs have changed the world for gay men like me
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