First Gay Games Are Held in San Francisco

A San Francisco physician and former Olympic athlete conceived of an international sports competition for out gay and lesbian athletes and teams. The event quickly became popular and stimulated the growth of sports organizations within gay and lesbian communities worldwide. The Gay Games are held every four years in cities around the world.

Summary of Event

Lesbian and gay athletes competed in seventeen sports in Challenge 1982, the first Gay Games. The opening ceremonies, held on August 28, 1982, at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco, California, San Francisco;and first Gay Games[Gay Games] included carrying “the torch” into the stadium after it had crossed the United States with relays of runners from the site of the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion in New York City to San Francisco through Chicago, Illinois, and Salt Lake City, Utah. The games attracted the largest international public gathering of out gays and lesbians up to that time. [kw]First Gay Games Are Held in San Francisco (Aug. 28, 1982)
[kw]Gay Games Are Held in San Francisco, First (Aug. 28, 1982)
[kw]Games Are Held in San Francisco, First Gay (Aug. 28, 1982)
[kw]San Francisco, First Gay Games Are Held in (Aug. 28, 1982)
Gay Games
Sports;Gay Games
Athletes;Gay Games
[c]Sports;Aug. 28, 1982: First Gay Games Are Held in San Francisco[1550]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Aug. 28, 1982: First Gay Games Are Held in San Francisco[1550]
Waddell, Tom
Brown, Mark
Mart, Paul

The idea for the Gay Games (originally conceived as the Gay Olympics) originated with Tom Waddell, Athletes;Tom Waddell[Waddell] a San Francisco physician who had competed as a decathlete in the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, along with Mark Brown, Paul Mart, and a group of other friends in 1980. Their aim was to get past the limiting and stereotypical media images of gays and lesbians as marginal members of society, and to reframe the image of gay men as “sissies” who lacked physical strength or athletic ability. (The media has depicted lesbian and gay culture as one of drag queens and leatherfolk only.) The group believed that by staging a gay and lesbian athletic event, with skilled athletes whose identities went well beyond their same-gender sexual orientation, they would help counter the stereotypes of gays and lesbians as being defined solely by their sexuality. As athletes, in this case, they were clearly something more.

The eight-day event included gay and lesbian athletes competing in all types of sports. The games, however, ran into early opposition from the International and U.S. Olympic Committees, Olympic Committee, U.S.;and Gay Games[Gay Games]
Olympic Committee, International;and Gay Games[Gay Games]
Olympic Committee, International which criticized the use of the word “Olympics” in the original name of the Gay Games. The Olympic Committees opposed the use of the word “Olympics” by Gay Games organizers, although other large sporting events, including those for special-education children (Special Olympics) and seniors, had been allowed to use the term in their official names. The Olympic Committees argued that they had been granted exclusive use of the term by the 1978 Amateur Sports Act. They also believed that having a separate “Gay Olympics” would imply that out gays and lesbians were unwelcome in the Olympic Games. In August, 1982, a U.S. district court judge in San Francisco issued a restraining order, subsequently reinforced by an injunction, that barred the use of the phrase “Gay Olympic Games.”

Promoting the games as a serious sporting event initially went slowly, due in part to the failure of another large volunteer event in San Francisco earlier. The promotion gained momentum, however, as local athletes realized the event’s potential for unprecedented competition and positive publicity for gays and lesbians in all types of sports. The level of outreach and inclusiveness shown by games organizers was unprecedented as well, with special effort made to reach as many women athletes as possible; six hundred women, nearly half of all athletes in the games, participated in all sporting events except wrestling. Furthermore, games organizers expanded the age range for athletes, a move that countered the emphasis on youth by the Olympic Games. The Gay Games offered athletes in their third and fourth decades a chance to compete. Veteran athletes play a major part in many informal lesbian and gay sports teams and organizations in U.S. cities.


The Gay Games has helped unravel pervasive and longstanding myths about gays, lesbians, and sports: For gays, one myth has been that they are not sports-oriented and certainly not athletic. For lesbians, one myth is that they are one-sport athletes who play softball only. These beliefs reflect the values of an American sports culture unwilling to admit that the same-gender world of team sports and individual competitions also contain opportunities for same-gender emotional bonding. The first major and highly visible challenge to these stereotypes came with the publication of a memoir by professional football player David Kopay Kopay, David
Athletes;David Kopay[Kopay] in 1977, who gave a frank account in The David Kopay Story
David Kopay Story, The (Kopay) of the professional and personal costs of being a closeted athlete in one of the three major sports in the United States. In the absence of out gay and lesbian athletes in any sport, the stereotypes would survive. The unquestioned assumption that there are no lesbian and gay athletes of sufficient skill and ability to compete at the international level, let alone the Olympic Games, has been shattered, in part because of the Gay Games.

News of the games quickly spread outside the United States, with teams and individuals coming from nineteen different countries, including Australia, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. The roster of sporting events now include both the traditional events of the Summer Olympic Games—basketball, boxing, cycling, power lifting, soccer, softball, swimming and diving, tennis, track and field, volleyball, and wrestling—as well as events not commonly associated with Olympic competition, such as billiards, bowling, golf, physique, and rugby. The Gay Games also emphasizes personal health and fitness, a focus that would become significantly important in the early years of the HIV-AIDS pandemic, which had started about one year before the appearance of the first Gay Games.

More than ten thousand people attended the closing ceremonies on September 5, 1982. Writer Rita Mae Brown, who with fellow novelist Armistead Maupin served as master of ceremonies, told the assembled athletes that in their honor and integrity they represented the best that the gay and lesbian community could be. The Gay Games are held every four years. In addition to San Francisco, the games have been held in Vancouver, Canada; New York City; Amsterdam; Sydney, Australia; and Chicago. The games are scheduled for Cologne, Germany, in 2010. Gay Games
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Further Reading

  • Davidson, Judy Louise. “The Wannabe Olympics: The Gay Games, Olympism, and Processes of Incorporation.” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Alberta, Canada, 2003.
  • Kopay, David, and Perry Deane Young. The David Kopay Story: An Extraordinary Self-Revelation. Foreword by Dick Schaap. 1977. Updated ed. New York: D. I. Fine, 1988.
  • Krane, Vikki, and Jennifer Waldron. “The Gay Games: Creating Our Own Sports Culture.” In The Olympics at The Millennium: Power, Politics, and the Games, edited by Kay Schaffer and Sidonie Smith. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2000.
  • Kulieke, Stephen, and Pat Califia. “In the True ’Olympic’ Tradition: The Gay Games.” The Advocate, October 10, 1982, 29-35.
  • Trefzger, Paul. “The Gay Olympic Games: San Francisco, 1982.” The Advocate, August 5, 1982, 18-19.
  • Waddell, Tom, and Dick Schaap. Gay Olympian: The Life and Death of Dr. Tom Waddell. New York: Alfred A. Knopf , 1996.

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