A People’s History of LGBTI Olympians | The Nation


A People’s History of LGBTI Olympians

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Dora Ratjen winning the high jump at the German Athletics Championships, 1937

Despite the long history of lgbti athletes in the Olympic Games, only now, in the run-up to Sochi, has their right to compete as proudly and publicly out been at the forefront of the Olympic conversation. For that, we can thank the Russian government, whose vicious attacks on gay people have steered the 2014 Winter Olympics on a collision course with the LGBTI community and the movement for gay liberation.

Social justice campaigns have affected the Olympics for decades. Examples include the push for gender equality, which started at the Olympics a century ago, during the women’s suffrage movement. John Carlos and Tommie Smith used the medal podium at the 1968 Mexico City Games to raise their black-gloved fists in protest against racism in the United States, and South Africa was banned from the Games for decades because of its apartheid policies.

Whether or not the Russian government wants to acknowledge it, there will be LGBTI athletes at Sochi, including Australian snowboarder Belle Brockhoff, Dutch speed skater Ireen Wüst and Canadian speed skater Anastasia Bucsis. There will also be LGBTI dignitaries; President Obama appointed three—Billie Jean King, Brian Boitano and Caitlin Cahow—to represent the United States. The mayor of Vancouver, the last city to host the Winter Games, is conspicuously staying home, opting to send a gay man in his place. 

These are just the latest additions to the rich LGBTI history of the Olympics. According to the LGBTI Olympic historian Tony Scupham-Bilton, at least 170 LGBTI athletes have competed as Olympians, dating back to at least 1928. That’s when a young German runner named Otto Peltzer took the track for Germany. 

“Otto the Strange,” as he was known, was one of the athletic glories of the Weimar Republic, setting both national and world middle-distance track records in the 1920s. Despite his success, he failed to medal in either the ‘28 or ‘32 Games. With his eyes set on winning the gold in front of the home crowd at the 1936 Berlin Games, Peltzer joined the Nazi Party in 1933, the same year it seized power. The problem: while anti-gay laws had been on the books in Germany for sixty years, no government had enforced them as harshly as the Nazis. So, even though he was the heart of the nation’s sports pride and now a member of the Nazi Party, Peltzer was arrested and convicted on charges that he fornicated with young runners. He walked out of jail after eighteen months, just days before the Berlin Games, his hopes to compete dashed. Peltzer spent much of World War II in concentration camps, forced to wear a pink triangle on his uniform.

While Peltzer was kept from competing for his country on its own soil, the swastika flags of the Berlin Games provided the backdrop for the beginning of a controversy that, eighty years later, is still not settled.

Stella Walsh was one of the greatest female athletes of her time. The Ohioan won two Olympic medals, including gold in the 100-meter dash in 1932 for her native Poland. She was the favorite to defend her title in 1936 until the sudden arrival on the scene of 18-year-old wunderkind Helen Stephens, a girl from a small farm in Missouri. Stephens beat Walsh in Berlin, quickly drawing accusations from Walsh and the Poles that she was a man posing as a woman. 

Gender testing has never been an exact science, and only recently has gender itself come to be regarded as inexact. For decades, athletes accused of competing as the “wrong” gender have been forced to undergo invasive physical examinations. Stephens suffered such an ordeal, was deemed a woman, and the controversy died down. 

Yet it was Walsh herself whose gender was out of the ordinary. After she was killed on the streets of Cleveland in 1980 (she was an innocent bystander in a robbery), an autopsy revealed that she had sex organs of both genders: a tiny penis and testicles and an opening below her scrotum. 

Walsh wasn’t the only gender-bending Olympian in Berlin. Dora Ratjen was Nazi Germany’s best hope in the high jump. She too was born with confusing genitalia that didn’t fit the binary construct of gender. Despite her athletic success (she finished fourth in the high jump in Berlin ‘36, but went on to set a world record in 1938), she was arrested by the Nazis after she was accused of being a transvestite. She was exonerated when doctors, also confused by her genitalia, deemed her innocent of intentional fraud. 

These incidents coincided with demands for gender-verification tests by US Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage, which however led to nothing formal till the 1960s, when the IOC instituted formalized testing. Early casualties included Austrian downhill skier Erika Schinegger, who was determined to have internal male sex organs, and Polish track and field athlete Ewa Kłobukowska, who had a chromosomal condition known as mosaicism.

Over the past sixty years, the IOC has struggled to find the most appropriate gender test. Stuck in sports’ binary competition structure, athletes born with an extra sex chromosome or genitalia of both genders are left in limbo.

“Stella Walsh lived as a woman her whole life,” said filmmaker Rob Lucas, currently producing a documentary about her. “Her family thought she was a woman; she thought she was a woman. And there was no point in her life in which she lived as a man. Socially, psychologically and competitively, she lived as a woman. Based on the autopsy, it was still ambiguous. She did have a tiny penis and testicles, but did she have an unfair advantage?” 

It’s hard to make such a case; after all, Walsh was beaten by a woman. And if having testicles so small that Walsh thought she was female is an “unfair” advantage, then why aren’t the height and mass of athletes like basketball star Shaquille O’Neal also considered unfair? 

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