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

“There isn’t an easy answer,” said author Patricia Nell Warren, who has spent much of her life writing about LGBTI athletes. “I think it comes back to this notion that there has to be a nice, easy, clear-cut division between the genders. There are large numbers of religious-right conservatives who refuse to understand that there are these complexities out there that they’re unwilling to look at. They want to preserve the notion that you are the gender of your genitalia at birth. They manage to ignore the scientific exploration of these issues that are on record. 

“I’m not sure there are easy answers for any of this. Obviously, the issue is out there, and there has to be a way to get through it and allow athletes to live their lives, and allow elite athletes to compete. It shouldn’t be based on embedded notions that have been around a long time.” 

Middle-distance runner Caster Semenya was the latest victim. The South African lit up the track in 2009, but her life was turned upside down when questions were raised about her gender. Semenya was forced to undergo gender testing, during which she was prevented from competing for a year. While the findings of the test were not officially released, she was ultimately exonerated and won a silver medal in the 800 meters at the 2012 London Games. 

The IOC’s gender policy now revolves around testosterone levels and how the athlete’s body reacts to them. It falls in line with the IOC’s policy on trans athletes, which requires a regimen of hormone therapy in cases of post-puberty gender-reassignment surgery. 

No trans athlete has ever competed in the Olympics as openly trans, though hammer thrower Keelin Godsey came close in 2012. Having competed in the Pan American Games and at a previous US Olympic Trials, Godsey finished fifth at the 2012 women’s trials, just eleven inches away from a spot on the team. The trans male would have competed against women in the Olympics, as he had not taken any testosterone or had gender-reassignment surgery.

“I think it is progressive that they have these policies,” Godsey said. “I do believe the hormones should match, and I do think as a competitor that it is important. But at the same time, I think the policy is dated and doesn’t focus on quality and equality of sports. I think to put a requirement of surgery is not appropriate, as it doesn’t change the ability of the competitor, and it is not something that all transgender people want or can afford. I find that to be a policing of gender, in that the chests and genitalia have to match in order to make people feel comfortable enough to allow us to compete. They want us to help other people feel comfortable by not allowing for some fluidity of gender.” Since the 2012 trials, Godsey has begun his physical transition and is now competing against other men.

Gay and Lesbian Olympians Rack Up the Hardware

As with so many other areas of the LGBTI rights movement, women have led the way in the Olympics. Lesbians make up the biggest chunk of known LGBTI Olympic athletes, including some of the greatest of all time, dating back to Babe Didrikson Zaharias. The professional golfer, named Top Woman Athlete of the Century by the Associated Press, brought home two gold medals and a silver in track and field at the 1932 Olympics. 

More recently, tennis legend Martina Navratilova took to the Olympic court in 2004, years after coming out, and American soccer player Megan Rapinoe played an integral role on the gold-medal-winning US team at the London Olympics in 2012, shortly after she came out publicly. South African archer Karen Hultzer took the bold step of coming out during the London Games, where there were twenty-three Olympians competing as publicly out. Ten of them—over 40 percent—won a medal. If Team LGBTI had been a country, it would have beaten the medal count of 178 others, including South Africa, Ireland and India—and that’s just including the out athletes. In fact, of the 170-plus out LGBTI Olympians Scupham-Bilton has identified, over half have won a medal. That’s way over the average.

Not a single male Olympian has ever competed in the Winter Games after coming out publicly. Johnny Weir certainly flirted with it during his two Olympic appearances. When he burst onto the scene in 2006, NBC famously aired a personal profile about him titled “He’s Here, He’s Weir.” He appeared in interviews wearing Ugg boots and designer sunglasses. This was on top of being a dramatically flamboyant figure skater.

Sports like figure skating and diving have long played into gay stereotypes. When gold medal figure skater Brian Boitano came out publicly in late 2013, it was met with a collective ho-hum. But Weir took the stereotypes to an extreme, playing into every one of them and daring people to label him anything but gay. Even so, until he publicly uttered the words “I’m gay” in 2011, many still refused to label him as such. 

All told, according to Scupham-Bilton, fourteen gay men have been Olympic figure skaters—more than any other Winter Olympics sport. All were closeted while competing, including Slovakian champion Ondrej Nepela, who in 1964 competed in his first Olympics just a week after his thirteenth birthday. Kiwi speed skater Blake Skjellerup, who came out publicly after the 2010 Winter Games, came close this year to being the first publicly out gay male to compete in the Winter Olympics, finishing one place away from a spot at Sochi. 

“The world of sports is perceived as a masculine-dominant environment,” Skjellerup told us. “Being homosexual is not a weakness, nor are you less of a man because of it. Unfortunately, in order to break that perception, star athletes need to come out to show that we are as brave and as strong as our heterosexual competitors.”

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