“You can’t win a championship without gays on your team – It’s never been done before, ever. That’s science right there”. These words were uttered by World Cup hero and queer icon Megan Rapinoe. She was referring specifically to the women’s USA soccer team. But we imagine her comment could be applied to most sports teams throughout history. In honor of the Soccer teams incredible victory a few weeks ago, we decided to give a brief history of gays in sports. As well as a short list of some of the most incredible queers to ever play the game. This episode will be shorter than most and some of these players will be covered individually in the future. But for now, let’s dive into a loose timeline of queer sports.
And of course we head all the way back to the original games, the Olympics. You’ll be hard pressed to find a gayer place than Olympics of early Greece. The games were basically a tribute to the male physique and the collosseums were packed with men eager to watch other men – oiled, sweaty, and naked – participate in various sports. Anthropologist Greg Laden said of the early Olympics:
“Everyone knows that the original Olympics… were all about watching naked men. Sure, it was a sporting event, but it was also a softly pornographic group voyeuristic tournament.”
Of course, nudity wasn’t taboo as it is today. But the Greeks took things to a new level. In fact, the word gym comes from this era and the word gymnos which is interpreted simply as naked. One author, Tony Perrottet, got right to the point and wrote a book titled Naked Olympics. Here he describes the rituals of naked athletes parading up and down the stadiums as adoring fans wrote beautiful poetry to the athletes. One writer stated, “Happy is the lover who, after spending time in the gymnasium, goes home to sleep all day long with a beautiful, young man.” Pottery and images of the naked athletes were also made so that individuals could continue to take in the muscled and bare forms of their Olympian heroes.
But the artwork still couldn’t compare to the real thing. During the games athletes often had to tie their penises to their bodies to protect them. Which made the appendages seem erect. The Closet Professor wrote about this tactic.
[I]n order to protect their penis during wrestling matches and other contact sports, the men would tie a string around the tip of their foreskin enclosing their glans, thus keeping them safe. The kynodesme was tied tightly around the part of the foreskin that extended beyond the glans. The kynodesme could then either be attached to a waist band to expose the scrotum, or tied to the base of the penis so that the penis appeared to curl upwards.
But if you’re just thinking this sounds gay but doesn’t mean it was gay, well we have further proof. There are plenty of stories of men enjoying sexual encounters in the locker rooms or during practice. The men also indulged in crude locker room grafitti in and outside the gym. On the temple Apollo in Thera the words Here Crimon penetrated Amotion appear on a corner. And the entire entry to the stadium Nemea is filled with love letters from one athlete to another. At the Dioclean games the final round of a game was judged by the competitor who gave “the sweetest kisses”. And one town held an entire event specifically in honor of a hero who died protecting his boyfriend on the battlefield. Yes the Olympics were pretty damn gay. And ultimately that would be their undoing. Historians have speculated that when Emperor Theodosius Augustus banned the Olympics in 393 C.E. it was done to establish Christianity. It cannot be ignored that he also criminalized homosexuality at this time. Which made him one of the first rulers in history to formally do so.
The Olympics wouldn’t return until 1894. And while they would still celebrate men for the first century, this time the games were meant to reinforce the idea of masculinity. Some people believed that men were becoming too soft. The 1930’s -50’s really drove home the concept of hyper-masculinity to compensate for so-called effeminate men. This was the era of the crack down on communism and homosexuality. While many feared being labeled a fairy, and the social and legal consequences of such, men were pushed to exaggerated forms of masculine behavior. However, the posters for the Olympics during this time were still gay as hell. As homoerotic overtones sizzled off the pages. And while Olympic organizers denied that queers had anything to do with sports now, more athletes beginning to show their rainbow colors.
In 1932 Babe Didrikson Zaharias exploded on the Olympic scene. Babe was an American athlete from Port Arthur, Texas. She has been named the greatest female athlete of the 20th century. She excelled in basketball, baseball, tennis and golf. And at the 1932 Olympics, she set four world records in track and field. Eventually Babe would go on to establish the LPGA (Ladies Professional Golfers Association) and would later be inducted into the Golfing Hall of Fame. While Babe did marry a man, wrestler George Zaharias, it seems her main love was fellow golfer Betty Dobb. “I had such admiration for this fabulous person. I never wanted to be away from her even when she was dying of cancer. I loved her. I would’ve done anything for her.” Betty would later say about Babe. She would move in with Babe and George in 1950 and live with the couple until Babe’s death in 1956.
A decade later, Tom Waddell would place sixth in the Olympic Decathlon. Waddell was an openly gay man and began training for the next competition. But just before 1972 tryouts, Waddell injured his knee and would never return to professional sports. However, he had a vision. Tom began working on the Gay Olympics. A competition specifically for the queer community. During this time he began to gain more national recognition and in 1976 he and his partner at the time, Charles Deaton, would appear on the cover of People’s magazine. They were the first gay couple to grace the cover of a prominent publication. In 81 Waddell would officially launch the Gay Olympics. He was promptly sued by the United States Olympic Committee for using the word Olympic. The committee eventually won the suit and the name was changed to the Gay Games.
The Olympics weren’t the only sport for the queers. In 1975 NFL star David Kopay came out as gay after retiring. Kopay had played for the 49er’s for 8 years and was in position to become a head coach when he came out. The offers for coaching were withdrawn after David’s orientation was revealed. He went on to write a best selling book The David Kopay Story. In the book he reveals he had an affair with NFL star Jerry Smith. Who set a record for most touchdowns by a tight end and would pass away of AIDS in 1986. Smith’s story would later be covered in the 2014 documentary A Football Story.
As gay rights movements took off around the world, more players began to come out and more began to be outed. In 1977, tennis star and transgender woman Rene Richards sues the US Tennis Association for barring her from the U.S. Open. She wins the lawsuit. Four years later, another tennis star, Billy Jean King is outed by her ex girlfriend who was suing King for palimony. Or as coyly titled by the media, “galimony”. That same year Martina Navratilova – another tennis star – voluntarily outs herself to the New York Daily News. All three women were professional players and all were successful. But Billie Jean King is by far the most successful with 39 Grand Slam titles and the former holder of World’s Number 1 player.
While it seemed the world of sports was alive with queerness, the stigma still hung thick. In 1985, a lineman from Pittsburgh University named Ed Gallagher threw himself off a dam. He did this just 12 days after his first sexual encounter with another man. Gallagher survived the fall, though he was paralyzed, and would later admit the attempted suicide was from his shame at being homosexual. Years later he would say “I was more emotionally paralyzed then than I am physically now”. Sadly, this was and still is a reality for many athletes, especially male athletes. Even as recently as 2014 when college football star and openly gay man Michael Sam was drafted, harsh homophobia and bigotry soon drove his career into the ground.
But in spite of the harsh uphill battle and pressure for secrecy, more athletes continued to come out. In 1987 bodybuilder Bob Paris – who had won the 1983 Mr. America and Mr. Universe bodybuilding competitions, came out as gay. The following year National League umpire Dave Pallone is fired on the false grounds of teen solicitation. Later it would be revealed that the charges were fabricated after Pallone came out to the League president. That same year, in ‘88, Justin Fashnau of England would become the first openly gay athlete currently playing. Sadly, pressure and false rumors would eventually Fashnau to commit suicide.
As the 1990’s dawned it seemed that real progress was being made for LGBTQ athletes. And of course, this sparked a backlash from homophobes. In 1991 Penn State Coach Rene Portland proudly announced that she forbid lesbians from playing on her basketball team. This blatant bigotry would hinder the careers of dozens of lesbians and bisexuals who passed through Penn State and forced countless others to hide their orientations. In 2006 Jennifer Harris sued Coach Portland and Penn State for a “hostile, intimidating, and offensive environment”. The documentary Training Rules further follows the Rene Portland controversy. Almost half her players (46%) left after just two years at Penn State. This is double the national average.
Throughout the 1990’s more and more players came out. Though usually after the athletes had retired. Competitors all around the world and across varying fields began to show their queer side. From Australian rugby player Ian Robers in 1995 to Canadian skater Brian Orser in 1998. That same year ESPN aired the special World of the Gay Athlete. The following year Jock Rocker of Sports Illustrated is suspended by the MLB (Major League Baseball) for homophobic remarks. This is one of the first times public action is taken in support of the LGBTQ community. By 2000 gay athletes were all the rage with one headline after another bearing some story about a local queer competitor. In Slovakia, openly gay figure skater Andrej Nepela is named the Athlete of the Century. But homophobia dies hard. That same year a lesbian couple is kicked out of Dodger Stadium for kissing.
There is still a battle in the world of queer sports – as evidenced from the rubbish thrown at the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team. After Megan Rapinoe’s outstanding performance during the world cup, commentator Ben Shapiro had the audacity to say she was only receiving attention because she is an “outspoken lesbian”. Completely ignoring the awards she won as best player, best scorer, and tournament MVP. Yes, over 2,700 years since the start of the Olympics we’re still battling homophobia in sports. However, the queers continue to come through. Proving again and again that you really can’t win championships without gays.
Your recommended resource for today is The Naked Olympics by Tony Perrottet and the documentary Training Rules available on Amazon Prime and YouTube for $1.99. As well as any other resources we mentioned in this episode. We also encourage you to check out the online resource of outsports.com. It is a fantastic website about everything queer and sporty.
- Olympics 1 – https://jezebel.com/a-brief-history-of-homoeroticism-and-denial-in-the-ol-1517740220
- Olympics 2 – https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-super-gay-history-of-the-olympics_b_4737346
- Timeline – https://www.glsen.org/sites/default/files/LGBT%20Sports%20History%20Timeline.pdf
- Babe – https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/sports-and-games/sports-biographies/babe-didrikson-zaharias
- ESPN – https://www.espn.com/otl/world/timeline.html
- Billie Jean King – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billie_Jean_King#Personal_life