Bay Area Reporter
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The life and death of the Gay Games, 1982-2018

The Gay Games were launched in San Francisco in 1982 on a shoestring budget, thousands of volunteer hours, and a revolutionary dream to raise the visibility of, and respect for, gays and lesbians through participation in an inclusive first-class sports and cultural festival. Now, after having transformed the lives of tens of thousands of LGBT athletes from across the globe for more than three decades, it appears the mission and the quadrennial event itself will be dead after Gay Games X in Paris in 2018. The family of the man who founded the Gay Games wants nothing to do with what comes next.

The Gay Games obituary was delivered earlier this month in the form of a notice from the board of the Federation of Gay Games that it had signed a memorandum of understanding with the Gay and Lesbian International Sports Association, producer of the rival World Outgames, to host a joint quadrennial event starting in 2022.

Unlike the Gay Games, GLISA's World Outgames have not had robust bid competition from prospective hosts; choose event sites by a process that allows for proxy voting; and rely on holding conferences and workshops rather than sports and culture to advance human rights.

A site selection process is scheduled to begin this year and end in 2017 even though such details as to how a host's sports programs would be overseen by the newly formed licensing body or even what the name of the event will be have not yet been worked out. An executive agreement to drop the Gay Games name from a proposed merged event was made several years ago in what was called the Manchester Declaration, but was hastily withdrawn after vociferous objections from Gay Games supporters.

Gay Games loyalists say they do not know which they dread more: the Gay Games name being dropped, or the name being kept but the mission skewed away from its historic focus on sports – in which athletes pay for the honor of participating – in favor of human rights conferences with paid speakers. Either prospect apparently stands to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in pledged support from those who have been most intricately involved with the Gay Games.

San Francisco's Gene Dermody, winner of last year's male Tom Waddell Award, the Gay Games' highest honor, has competed in every Gay Games, served the FGG as president twice, and overseen the technology and sports committees for many years during decades of board service. He is currently an honorary lifetime member (HLM). He said many of his fellow HLMs have been in contact with him in recent years to talk about removing the Gay Games from their wills as the FGG has dabbled with talks to drop the Gay Games in favor of holding an event with GLISA. He said he has warned the FGG board about having already lost $300,000 in bequeathals with the likelihood they are about to lose much more.

"Without naming names, based upon my personal conversations and dealings with HLMs specifically to bequeathals, I would say the FGG stands to lose conservatively today about $400,000," Dermody said. "About seven years ago, the amount of bequeathals was about $700,000. But previous talks about 'One Quadrennial Event,' specifically the Manchester Declaration in which the presidents proposed dropping the Gay Games name, took a toll. Now this 1WE (One World Event) nonsense will finish it off to zero. I removed the Gay Games from my will years ago, and that was worth about $60,000. I am sure there will be a lot more money removed from FGG bequeathals as word gets out that the Gay Games brand and mission will be gone. I have been warning the FGG for years about this issue, but there is no FGG discussion with those who question this mindless merger."

Another one of those HLMs who said he has removed the Gay Games from his will is Oakland's Derek Liecty. Liecty served as a soccer official in Gay Games I, helped secure venues for Gay Games II, and served on the FGG board for many years. He won the male Tom Waddell Award in 2006.

"I know I removed the Gay Games from my will years ago when these talks started," Liecty said. "The MOU is an absolute travesty. If this plan goes through, it will be the end of the Gay Games as [founder] Dr. Tom Waddell envisioned them."

Nothing in his work for the Gay Games has made Liecty prouder than his work on the FGG's scholarship committee, which has brought hundreds of needy athletes from a battery of underrepresented, repressed countries to the Gay Games.

"As a member of the Gay Games Scholarship Committee for years, my biggest inspiration from the Gay Games was always seeing those recipients walking into the opening ceremonies and realizing for the first time that they are not alone," Liecty said. "The Gay Games have done so much to help the lives of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender athletes through the years. It is absolutely absurd that some organization with no legacy to speak of in the gay sports movement, GLISA, should be allowed to co-sponsor the Gay Games, which has established its legacy through the years and which is a proven entity for improving people's lives through sports, not conferences. They bring nothing to the table."

Also at stake is the primary ongoing source of scholarship money. Gay Games veteran Jeffry Pike administers funds that are dedicated solely for Gay Games scholarships. "Should the Federation of Gay Games be dissolved, the Coe family and I would meet to discuss the future of the Roy M. Coe Scholarship Fund," Pike told the Bay Area Reporter .

The FGG said it was guided by a survey last year to undertake the steps for a merged event with conferences being included. That survey was actually from a broad range of people in and out of the Gay Games movement, including many who had never been to a Gay Games or who believed sports were not an important component.

The most comprehensive true survey of Gay Games participants was taken after the 2002 Gay Games in Sydney. In it, participants overwhelmingly rejected the idea of using host resources to stage conferences, workshops and parties; and affirmed a program emphasizing inclusive sports with a minor cultural component. Those results were the basis of a 2003 white paper called the "Image of the Gay Games" that dictated the parameters under which subsequent Gay Games have been held.

Although later Gay Games have not had the success of the initial Gay Games with regard to gender parity, they have had some remarkable, even historic, moments when it comes to building a more inclusive sports world. In 1982, the staid New York Times, which refused to use the word "gay," reported the officially sanctioned wrestling results of the "Homosexual Games."

In 1990, the Vancouver Gay Games introduced a martial arts tournament in which individuals from different martial arts disciplines could compete against each other.

In 1994 figure skating was added to the program and, in a direct challenge to the heterosexist International Skating Union, same-sex pairs skating was offered. That was the same year the Gay Games introduced women's wrestling with 10 weight classes (10 years before the Olympic Games had women wrestling in just four weight classes) and Olympic diver Greg Louganis came out publicly in a video message greeting his fellow athletes.

In 2002 the Gay Games allowed transgender athletes to enter without undergoing the draconian gender testing policies being used at the time by the Olympics.

In 2006, two Chicago residents donated the funds to bring an entire lesbian South African soccer team to the Gay Games.

In 2010, the Gay Games voted to reject World Anti-Doping Association drug testing protocols because they discriminate against HIV-positive athletes.

The marketing challenges of staging a new event with a new name should be stiff. Organizers of the 2009 Copenhagen World Outgames said they faced enormous difficulties trying to market a new and relatively little known brand name and had trouble selling folks on the idea of an event that was so multifaceted rather than being focused on sports. If both GLISA and the FGG stick to the letter of the law, they would be precluded from using their current contact databases to market an event that is neither the Gay Games nor the World Outgames. Similarly, they could not use images from past Gay Games to market a new event because that would violate the release agreements participants sign when registering for the Gay Games.

"I am 100 percent opposed to this proposal," said Sara Waddell Lewinstein, an original Gay Games board member, the widow of Gay Games founder Waddell, and the winner of the female Tom Waddell Award in 2010. "The Gay Games have always been about individuals and families being able to participate in sports regardless of their athletic ability. They have not been about conferences. If Tom wanted conferences, he would have put them in. If they go through with this, I want Tom's name taken off of it. I want our pictures taken off, everything. And I want to see financial statements from each of the Gay Games and from the World Outgames before we talk about adding anything."

Financial statements have been released for every Gay Games, four of which have finished in the black. The first World Outgames lost more than $4 million, the second WOG made a modest profit, and no financial statement of WOG 3 in 2013 has been released.

Waddell Lewinstein said she thought the Gay Games should work on improving its product, not deserting its mission.

"Truthfully, I'm disgusted with this taking up so much time," she said. "Take the time that's been spent with the Outgames and work on making the Gay Games better. We need to be reaching out to more athletes. We need to bring in more athletes from around the world. We need to get the next younger generation and they don't want to come for conferences. If you want to piggyback conferences alongside, do that and have your own entity."

Of course, this could be a Princess Bride scenario and the corpse of the Gay Games could prove to be only mostly dead, not completely dead. It is possible that the FGG board will realize before it's too late that making decisions about its sports mission based on a poll of people outside of sports may not be an intelligent thing to do and certainly not within the spirit of its legal duties to safeguard the brand and mission.

But for now, the mission is dead. The obituary is in the MOU, which does not value the passion, commitment and volunteerism that united LGBT individuals from across the globe. So RIP, baby – it was a great ride and a great mission while it lasted. We are forever indebted to you.