The Gay Games is the world’s largest all-inclusive sporting event but many athletes face an uncertain journey towards competing.
Sean Fitzgerald has been swimming since he was five years old and says he knows he’s “probably been gay since about the same time”.
But he didn’t know how to tell his local pool what he was training for.
“When I told the manager I was preparing for my first Gay Games, I was fearful they’d say: ‘OK, we really don’t want you practising here, you can leave,'” says Fitzgerald from his home in Vancouver.
“Instead, we got the other end of the spectrum.”
The club were supportive, and it was the start of a long association with the Gay Games for Fitzgerald. He competed at the event for the first time in 1994, and has been involved with each one since. He is now the co-president of its organising body, the Federation of the Gay Games (FGG).
For nearly 40 years, the FGG has brought people from around the world together for a quadrennial celebration of LGBT+ sport and culture.
But to understand the origins of the Games, you have to go back to 1982 – and the dream of one American doctor.
‘You have people from countries where it’s criminal to be LGBT+’
Tom Waddell loved sport.
Born in New Jersey, he went to college on a track scholarship – and represented the United States in the decathlon at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, where he finished sixth.
Waddell’s work as a physician took him around the world, but it was his time in San Francisco that inspired the idea that was to become his lasting legacy.
Initially, he had hoped to stage a ‘Gay Olympics’ – but an injunction from the US Olympic Committee over the use of the word ‘Olympic’ meant he had to use ‘Gay Games’ instead.
But while the name changed, Waddell’s idea remained the same – to provide an inclusive, multi-sport event that was open to all competitors, regardless of sexuality.
Waddell did not want the Gay Games to be a competitor or alternative to the Olympics, but wanted to apply the ethos of the Olympics to an event where people of all sexualities and abilities could compete, in a style that mirrored the structure of the Olympics.
A total of 1,350 people took part in the first Gay Games in 1982. By the time of the next Games in 1986, that number had more than doubled.
Waddell was diagnosed with Aids in 1985, and died in 1987. But by this point, the event he’d created was well established – and getting bigger with each passing year.
In 2013, then-Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg lent his support to London’s unsuccessful bid to host the 2018 Gay Games – and in 2014, then-US President Barack Obama recorded a video message to welcome competitors to the Games in Ohio.
The Gay Games had achieved a scale that few involved in the original event could ever have imagined.
Yet as the Games grew, the principles of inclusion and participation that inspired their creation remained the same.
“What do the Games mean? I think they mean everything,” says Shiv Paul, who sits on the FGG board.
“Safety in many parts of the world is something we take for granted. But at the Games, you have people taking part from countries where it’s criminal to be LGBT+, and that’s a very moving thing to see.
“Having an event where some people, for literally seven days or nine days of that year, can be their authentic selves with no judgement is quite amazing.”
‘It felt defiant to say: No, I’m not going to be frightened’
No two Gay Games feel the same.
Like the Olympics, each host city brings its own style and flavour to the event. And sometimes, the social climate in which the Games are held can make them even more memorable.
The 1994 Games, in New York, were a particularly strong example.
Vicki Carter – a member of Out to Swim, the British organisation for LGBT+ people and their friends – took part in those Games, and remembers their significance.
They coincided with the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots – widely considered a key event in the forming of the LGBT+ movement in the USA – and took place at a time where discussions about HIV and Aids in sport were still rare.
“We had two swimmers who were out about their HIV status, and one broke a world record in their age group,” Carter says.
“It was amazing, because there was this terrible thing going on with HIV and Aids, and people talking about how sick it was to be gay, what a dreadful thing it was, and how we’re all going to die.
“And then you’ve got people who are sick who are breaking world records, and it was like: ‘Well, you might think we’re sick, but we’re actually strong and powerful and can do amazing things.’
“It felt really defiant.
“The whole thing was truly terrifying – so to overcome that terror and say: ‘No, I’m not going to be frightened. It is OK to be gay. It is OK to get on with my life, and we will live through this.'”
‘It was mind-blowing’
In 2022, the Gay Games will mark its 40th anniversary by going to Asia for the first time.
Hong Kong beat competition from Guadalajara and Washington DC to become the host city, and preparations for Gay Games XI are well under way.
“We’re really hoping to dispel any negative or stereotypical assumptions about the LGBT community,” says director of sports Jackie Vierow, one of the people organising the event.
“We want people to realise that when we’re all together, we can share sporting and cultural experiences. We want to show that sport brings us together, that it unites us.”
Charlz Ng is director of the Hong Kong Festival Village, and is just as excited as Vierow about what it means to have the Games in Asia.
“You don’t understand the Gay Games until you actually participate,” Ng says.
“I went to Paris in 2018, and it was so much bigger than I’d ever imagined. It was mind-blowing.
“Once you’ve been part of a Gay Games, it’s something you will never forget in your life!”