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A People’s History of LGBTI Olympians | The Nation

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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? 

“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.”

A Movement Begins to Take Shape

The two Olympic Games in 1976 were the first after the most important coming-out in the history of sports: NFL running back Dave Kopay’s post-retirement announcement in 1975 that he was gay. By ‘76, there was a movement afoot, although most gay Olympians were still closeted. The Montreal Games that year saw the first LGBTI team-sport Olympian, with women’s volleyball captain Betty Baxter taking the court in front of a home crowd. Diver Greg Louganis, one of the world’s most well-known gay Olympians, competed in his first Summer Games at Montreal, winning a silver medal. 

The Saudi Arabian team’s doctor in Montreal was Tom Waddell, who had competed for the United States in the decathlon in Mexico City, finishing sixth. Waddell, who was a doctor in San Francisco as the AIDS epidemic descended on the city, became increasingly frustrated with the Olympics’ failure to address the visibility of gay athletes. So in 1982 he created the Gay Olympic Games, to be held in San Francisco. He convinced a couple of Olympians to carry the torch, and that summer he held the first of what years later would become the largest multisport event the world had ever seen. 

The IOC turned its ire on Waddell. Along with the USOC, it sent a team of lawyers to stop him from using the word “Olympics” for the Gay Games, despite allowing other events, like the Special Olympics, to use it. The IOC and the USOC were not about to let a bunch of gays in the throes of a terrifying epidemic use the moniker—particularly not the troublemaker Waddell. Volunteers had to spend days covering up the word “Olympics” on banners, fliers and postcards to avoid a court injunction. Even so, more than 1,000 athletes competed that year, and the quadrennial Gay Games—now held the same year as the Winter Olympics—were born. Waddell, whose quest to use the word ultimately failed in court, died of AIDS shortly after the second Gay Games.

What Waddell didn’t get to witness was the growing parade of Olympians coming out publicly and performing at the highest levels. Some, like Sweden’s six-time Olympic medalist Anja Pärson, have come out after their final Games. Others, like Britain’s equestrian rider Carl Hester, have been out and proud while competing. Olympic hero Greg Louganis—who won back-to-back diving double golds in 1984 and ‘88—used Waddell’s Gay Games in 1994 to come out publicly for the first time.

The Dive Heard Round the World

The seminal moment for LGBTI Olympians came in 2008 in Beijing, as the closet door of the sports world was being kicked open. The Chinese, hosting their first Olympics, had their sights set on a clean sweep of gold in men’s and women’s diving. They were closing in fast, having won the first seven events. Only one remained: the men’s ten-meter platform. Heading into the final dive, Zhou Lüxin was leading the pack when a young diver from Australia named Matthew Mitcham climbed to the top of the platform for his last chance. Mitcham had come out publicly just months before the Olympics, a rare declaration for an elite athlete just entering the most crucial span of his career.

Mitcham was trailing Zhou by 32.5 points, roughly equivalent to trailing by thirty meters in the final stretch of the 400 meters in track and field. He needed a stumble by Zhou and a perfect dive for himself. He got the first part, as Zhou flubbed his final dive, scoring in the 70s. Suddenly, the hopes of Australia and the entire LGBTI community hung on Mitcham’s last leap into the water.

It was flawless—the highest-scoring single dive in Olympic history. And it was performed by one of the very few publicly out LGBTI athletes at the Games. Mitcham had broken the Chinese stranglehold on diving, and he’d done it in Beijing. 

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“Other gay men have won Olympic gold, but we only discovered their sexual orientation after,” said Outsports’ Jim Buzinski, who has written extensively on LGBTI Olympians for years. “Here we had this out jock, with boyfriend watching in the stands, hit an insane dive under pressure to win the title. Interest was so huge that the Outsports server crashed twice—once when the dive was shown on the East Coast and again three hours later, when it was aired in the West. We all got to root for one of our own, like other social minorities have for years. It was special.” Mitcham’s dive, like Babe’s medals, Walsh’s revelation and Waddell’s battles, was a defining moment for LGBTI athletes and their Olympic history.

Now, finally, in Sochi, LGBTI issues are at the forefront of the Olympic conversation. We know that out athletes like Brockhoff and Wüst will be competing on the slopes and the ice. We know that straight participants like Brian Burke, the US men’s ice hockey director of player personnel, have said they’ll be publicly pro-gay in Sochi, much like sprinter Nick Symmonds’s medal dedication to his gay friends at the track and field world championships in Moscow last summer.

Sochi will add an important chapter to the LGBTI history of the Olympic Games. What that chapter looks like will be up to the coaches, journalists, police officers and more than 2,500 athletes who descend on Sochi in February.

Also In This Issue

Dave Zirin: “The LGBT Movement Takes Aim at Sochi

Dave Zirin: “John Carlos, 1968 Olympian, Speaks Out on LGBT Rights

Alec Luhn: “The Hidden Environmental and Human Costs of the Sochi Olympics

Alec Luhn: “How Serious Is the Terror Threat at the Sochi Olympics?

Andrew Jennings: “Meet the IOC, Ideal Candidates for a Perp Walk

Samantha Retrosi: “Why the Olympics Are a Lot Like The Hunger Games

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