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The Gay Games, Cologne 2010

July 31, 2010

There was a tidbit in the Guardian yesterday that caught my eye about the 8th annual Gay Games, to be held in Cologne. It was a short piece, giving only the bare bones, and I have a cynical suspicion that if this weren’t July – the summer months, aka the ‘silly season’, traditionally being devoid of ‘real’ news, at least in Britain – it might not have made it in. Certainly not made the front page of the website.

The article is . . . okay, though it misidentifies the gay Australian athlete Matt Mitcham as a gymnast (he’s actually a diver) and makes an utterly inexplicable reference to ‘transgender ballroom dancing’. Dancesport is on the GG programme, but is not – indeed, none of their sports are – restricted to participants of a particular sex, gender or cis/trans status. From their Mission Statement:

. . . no individual shall be excluded from participating on the basis of sexual orientation, gender, race, religion, nationality, ethnic origin, political belief(s), athletic/artistic ability, physical challenge, age, or health status.

The only explanation I can think of for this bizarre aside is that GG does not require dancesport pairs to be man/woman; I haven’t found this stated anywhere on their site, but it would seem in keeping with their ethos. Notice to the Guardian: gender-neutral =! transgender (and your subeditor should be ashamed.)

Anyway, failings of the article aside, it did fulfil its most basic purpose, to spread awareness that the Gay Games even exist. I hadn’t heard about them at all until yesterday, and it seems like the kind of event that could do with more publicity.

The world of sport is lagging far behind other major spheres in terms of the number of openly gay and bisexual people active in it. For an (admittedly unscientific) comparison, I can think of five sitting gay MPs – Ben Bradshaw, Angela Eagle, Stephen Twigg, Alan Duncan, and David Laws, plus Peter Mandelson, who isn’t an MP but is still distressingly ubiquitous in UK politics. By contrast, as far as openly gay British sportspeople are concerned, there’s Gareth Thomas and that’s pretty much it – and there are far more professional sportspeople than there are professional politicians.

The Cologne Gay Games are expecting around ten thousand competitors, which is about as many as you get at a modern Olympiad – there were 10,500 athletes at Athens ’04, and 11,028 at Beijing two years ago. Now, to be sure, not all of the athletes at the Gay Games will actually be gay: their mission statement specifically says they do not discriminate on grounds of sexuality. However, even if half their attendance were heterosexual allies, that would still make around five thousand gay athletes.

There were ten openly gay and bisexual Olympians at the Beijing Games.

Gareth Thomas has been on the receiving end of homophobic abuse from fans since coming out. That’s bad, to be sure. But the club in question, the Castleford Tigers, got fined £40,000 by their governing body the RFL for failure to adequately deal with the abuse, and both the Tigers and the RFL have made it abundantly clear that this will not be tolerated.

Gareth Thomas didn’t face government persecution (or, for that matter, prosecution) when he came out of the closet. He kept his old trophies, he maintained his career, his teammates shrugged their shoulders and got on with the game. Many, maybe most, of the athletes who travel to the Gay Games won’t, or wouldn’t, be able to say the same. The most telling sentence in the Guardian article is the one noting that “many of the participants have adopted false identities because of fears that they will be persecuted on their return home.”

It’s wonderful that an event like this exists, to allow gay athletes from all over the world the chance to play the sports they love without having to conceal their sexuality.

It’s sad that we need it, though.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 1, 2010 12:36 am

    The number of openly LGB athletes at the Olympic Games honestly shocked me. I know sport is notoriously homophobic, but 10? Out of 10,000? I would never have guess that it was that few – especially since, like you say, thousands of LGBT people are taking part in the Gay Games.

    I’m glad that transgender competitors are just as eligible as anyone else. It’s pretty much the only sporting championship they’re allowed to enter, since every other sport divides players by gender under the guise of dividing them by sex (the Caster Semenya fiasco shows how flawed the current system is).

    How to fix this in mainstream sport without putting people who are biologically female or have androgen insensitivity at a disadvantage is one that people haven’t solved yet (personally I’d like to see a system a bit like weight classes in boxing, based on the concentration of testosterone and other steroids in the blood, though granted it would be a very awkward and clinical way of doing things), but that there is somewhere for trans athletes is a start. It’s just a shame it’s ringfenced like this.

    (I have your comment on my blog to thank for sending me down this line of thought)

  2. Paul Skinner permalink
    August 2, 2010 10:52 pm

    “There were ten openly gay and bisexual Olympians at the Beijing Games.”

    What didn’t help is that it was held in China for that one. Obviously, even so it’d still be low.

    I completely disagree in that I think having a “Gay Games” is a bad and damaging idea. It reinforces Gay people as being different (not to mention the name doesn’t actually cover those who participate; the LGBT Games would be far more accurate). Try to force your way in to mainstream sport; don’t start your own sect.

    What is difficult with the current Olympics system is clearly highlighted with the current Caster Semenya “problem”. There isn’t really an easy way of solving that one. Clearly she has an advantage over other female competitors (by a considerable margin). I have no idea personally how you can compensate for this, but it’s something that would and indeed does need to be fixed in order for mainly the T of LGBT folks to compete in the games.

    From what I’ve seen, a clear majority of people don’t care what sexuality people are* but as always there’s a vocal minority making everyone else feel uncomfortable. However, as the Olympics is multi-national you are relying on multiple nations to be accepting of LGBTness. It’s going to be a problem. There’s no possible way around that other than sticking with it and gradually challenging and changing ideas. Some cultures are deeply based in religions that are opposed to LGBT concepts. That’s how life is at the moment. Concepts don’t change unless there is a strong push against them.

    *I’m only talking about gay and lesbian here. Transgender is still a difficult one. I admit I do still find myself occasionally well… phobic I suppose… of transgender people who don’t fully move from one gender to the other. (for example Woolley from University Challenge last year). To be completely honest it makes me feel uneasy, but unfortunately I have no good explanation as to why. I’m working on it.

    As usual, I’m not sober, and I sincerely apologise if anyone is offended by my comment. If you deem it inappropriate I fully understand if you choose to remove it.

  3. August 3, 2010 12:38 am

    @Paul: I sort of understand your point; and no doubt there’ll be a few assholes who go “Well, compete at your own games, you freaks” when asked about integrating the Olympics. These things are inevitable. But you seem to be of the opinion that maintaining safe spaces for marginalised people and working towards mainstream equality are somehow mutually exclusive ends. They absolutely aren’t. Maintaining a separate and safe space for whoever – in this case, gay and transgender athletes – is something that’s eminently useful and arguably even necessary while the fight to get rid of prejudice is still going on. It’s unfair to expect sportspeople who happen to be gay and/or trans to simply not compete, or compete in the closet, until the IOC and assorted other world governing bodies (including, as you point out, many from countries that are pretty crap on the human rights front) get their shit together.

    I honestly don’t think China’s attitudes were the issue. The Olympics are under the jurisdiction of the IOC, and China were very much on their best “Human rights violations? What human rights violations?” behaviour for the extent of the Games. At least on TV. For comparison, there were only eleven out gay/bi Olympians at Athens 2004, and Greece is bound by EU nondiscrimination regulations. Of course the situations re gay and trans rights in some countries are far worse than others; but the problem of homophobia in sport is endemic, and that of transphobia is built right into the system. (It’s worth noting that pretty much the only exception to the Gender Recognition Act 2004, which codified gender reassignment in law and made discrimination on cis/trans status grounds illegal, concerns sport. The ‘Equality’ Act 2010 is geaing up to shit all over the GRA, unforgivably, but that’s a separate issue.)

    The fiasco about Caster Semenya is a different, though kind of connected, issue. Semenya isn’t transgender; she may have some kind of intersex condition (the results of the IAAF ‘gender test’ were rightly never made public), or a different sort of hormone-affecting condition. Whether her hormonal makeup gives her a ‘substantial advantage’ is not clear; she’s a very good athlete, to be sure, but there are plenty of women competitors on the same level who weren’t subjected to the same kind of scrutiny. I would also bet real money that at some level there was racism involved – would a white woman from a First World country, with a conventionally ‘white’ body shape and facial bone structure have been faced with the same accusations of being ‘really a man’? I doubt it, somehow.

    Which brings me to the final point. It was great to see Olivia Woolley on University Challenge last year, because how often, exactly, does one see trans contestants on TV in anything? Ever? And I remember thinking how brave she was, because while putting oneself in any kind of public eye is always liable to attract unwanted attention, for trans people that attention is disproportionately likely to be abusive, violent or even fatal. I have to wonder how the other contestants treated her. And Paxman, for that matter.

    Your phrasing there is pretty damn problematic, as neither you nor I have the slightest clue how far along in her transition Woolley is (or was at the time of UC). I’m pretty sure that what you actually mean by ‘not fully moved from one gender to the other’ is ‘doesn’t quite pass’. But the concept of trans people ‘passing’ as cissexual is rooted in the fallacy that there’s some way that cissexual people look that trans people don’t, or vice versa.

    Especially in the case of women, determining whether someone ‘passes’ or not is based on a very, very particular idea of what a cissexual woman – a ‘real’ woman – ought to look like. It is not written in letters of fire on a hillside somewhere that Real Women don’t have strong cheekbones, or a tenor voice, or a flat athlete’s chest. The Western ideal of female beauty is a social construct, and it’s very narrow. There’s nothing inherently uneasy-making about Olivia Woolley’s face or Caster Semenya’s; but they both fall outside our white, thin, fragile beauty norms.

    I’m not going to delete your comment, because the big red button is reserved for the unrepentantly bigoted. Admitting that your transphobia (that’s the term, btw) is a problem, and that it’s your problem, is at least a preliminary step in the right direction, and . . . well, I’m generally inclined to be more charitable with people I know personally. Not in the sense of letting you lot get away with shit, but in believing that people I know to be mostly decent are more amenable to being educated than your basic drive-by troll.

    If you’re serious about working on this, and I hope you are, then Questioning Transphobia is still my go-to source for educating myself. Try especially the Trans 101 section – right-hand sidebar, down a bit. There’s also this 101/general questions thread at Feministe, old but useful; and of course, Google is your friend.

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