There’s more to gay sports clubs than just the sexual tension in the showers

Gaydar Blog

Gaydar Blog
04 February 2024

You probably haven’t heard of IGLA. It’s  the International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics association.

What IGLA does is it coordinates an annual championship for the world’s LGBTQ aquatics clubs. The annual championship features professionally run and highly competitive events in all the aquatic disciplines  -  swimming, water polo, diving, open water swimming, and synchronised swimming.

Each year, the annual championships are held in a different city  -  in recent years the host cities have been Cleveland, Stockholm, Edmonton, Miami, Paris, New York City, and Melbourne. The 2021 championships were planned to be held in Salt Lake City, however they’ve been cancelled due to ongoing disruption caused by the pandemic.

Hundreds of people take part and compete in the annual IGLA championship.

If you’re not part of the LGBTQ sports world, you may not realise that all around the globe there are community-based aquatics clubs where queer people are training and competing. The annual IGLA championships are an opportunity for everyone to come together and go for gold.

Of course, the annual IGLA championships are not the only opportunity for the members of these LGBTQ aquatics clubs to compete  -  water polo teams play in local leagues, swimmers and divers enter masters events on a regular basis, and most countries welcome men who want to compete in synchro meets.

What makes the annual IGLA championships a bit special is that they’re one of the few occasions where LGBTQ athletes get to compete and socialise with other LGBTQ athletes. It’s a queer competition. Pretty much everyone there is queer. If you’re there, everyone will assume that you’re queer. The officials will be queer. Everyone competing will be queer. The people handing out the medals will be queer. It’s totally queer.

That may sound a bit separatist or unnecessary. Why does it have to be queer?

Minority Threat Syndrome

In most respects, the queerness of the event doesn’t make any difference whatsoever. The quality of competition and the level of performance is no less than any other competition that these athletes might enter. When you play sport, you want to do your best  –  sexuality doesn’t come into it. What makes queer sporting events like the IGLA championship important is linked to a phenomenon described as Minority Threat Syndrome.

At the mainstream competitions and events that LGBTQ athletes participate in, they’re always and inevitably a minority. Whatever country you go to, or whatever culture you’re part of, LGBTQ people will always only ever be a small minority of the population.

Being part of a minority, in any situation, brings with it a constant subliminal level of stress. Research has shown that this often presents as high blood-pressure or anxiety, building up over time and contributing to both mental and physical health issues.

To be at an international-level competition, doing the sport that you love, where pretty much everyone there is somewhere under the broad LGBTQ umbrella, is incredibly liberating.

You still swim the same. The rules and regulations are still the same. But what’s different is that you don’t have to second-guess or edit yourself. It’s hard to explain the sensation, but it makes perfect sense when you hear elite-level LGBTQ athletes talk about how their performances have improved once they feel confident about being open about their sexuality.

If you’re at an event where everyone is queer, where you have that in common with everyone that is there, where you are no longer a minority, then you can relax, you can just be you. That’s incredibly empowering.

LGBTQ people in sport

A lot of LGBTQ people opt out of sport at an early age. Locker-rooms and straight sports clubs can be fairly intimidating places when you’re trying to figure out who you are.

The health benefits of participation in sport are fairly obvious, but mental health outcomes are particularly important for LGBTQ people  -  who, for a range of complex reasons, seem to be more at risk of mental health challenges. We know that participation in sport will mean longer and happier lives for queer people.

There is a perception that the only reason that people would join a queer sports club would be for a bit of action in the showers and a chance to explore those locker-room fantasies. However, talk to anyone in an LGBTQ sports team and you’ll quickly realise that this is completely wrong. Instead of sexual tension in the showers  after training, most people are too tired to think of anything apart from cleaning up and heading to the pub for a beer and some food.

LGBTQ sports clubs matter. They help keep us fit. They help us get back into sport, and back into participation in physical activity. LGBTQ sports clubs help us meet other people, they help our social life, they help our self-esteem. LGBTQ sports clubs also give us the opportunity to participate in events such as IGLA’s annual championships  -  one of the few moments in our lives when we no longer feel like a minority.

The history of IGLA – a timeline

  • 1982 – the world’s first gay swim team was formed in Los Angeles. The squad began holding dedicated training and coaching sessions in preparation for the first Gay Games that were being organised for that year.
  • 1982 – The Gay Games in San Francisco. There were 125 swimmers competing at the first Gay Games. Most competitors were from Los Angeles and San Francisco, but there were also representatives from across the United States and Canada. At the Gay Games, swimmers exchanged contact details and informal network of LGBTQ swimmers emerged.
  • 1986 – the second Gay Games in San Francisco. There were over 400 swimmers competing at this event. It was seen as such a success that competitors didn’t want to wait a further four years before getting together again. San Diego’s gay swim team offered to host an LGBTQ swim-meet in 1987.
  • 1987 – San Diego. About 120 swimmers competed in the San Diego swim-meet. It was called the West Coast Gay Swim League Championships.
  • 1988 – San Diego. The second West Coast Gay Swim League Championships was held, adding water polo to the event.
  • 1989 – Vancouver hosted the Gay Swim League Championships, in preparation for the Gay Games that would be held in that city in 1990. The name IGLA was adopted to reflect that the championships had grown beyond the West Coast.

Gay sports clubs

Perhaps what isn’t surprising that my experience is not unique. Around the world, LGBTQ people are establishing teams and clubs, increasing participation in sports and physical exercise, and delivering significant health and social benefits for a community that often seems defined by poor health outcomes and discrimination.

There’s two key events that have acted as catalysts for the organisation and creation of the gay and lesbian sports movement.

In the mid-1970s in San Francisco, the Frontrunners running club was established by Jack Baker, Gardner Pond, and Bud Budlong. Named after a Patricia Nell Warren novel – The Front Runner – about a gay track coach, the concept of a gay running club quickly spread across the US and then the world. There’s now over 100 clubs worldwide who all belong to the International Frontrunners organisation. The novel feels a little dated these days, but for many years it was a powerful and moving force for helping gay men understand that it was okay to be themselves.

In 1982 in San Francisco, Dr Tom Waddell organised the first Gay Games. When you look at the history of some of the oldest gay and lesbian sports clubs, it’s clear that the experience of participating in a large, multi-sport event that also celebrated being gay or lesbian, had a huge impact on the people who took part – they came home and started working towards the next one. Held every four years, the Gay Games now attracts around 10,000 participants, and is one of the world’s largest sporting and cultural events.

The Gay Games were designed to “bring a global community together in friendship, to experience participation, and to dispel the prevailing attitudes in sport regarding ageism, sexism and racism.”

It’s difficult to get a handle on exactly how many LGBTQ sports clubs there now are around the world, but a little bit of desktop research demonstrates that since the 1980s, clubs have been established in every conceivable sport, and the numbers are continuing to grow.

Like any community-based activity, establishing an LGBTQ sports club is hard work – it takes an enormous amount of energy, and requires a number of passionate people to give the club focus and momentum.

Making a club sustainable beyond that initial core group of people is equally challenging, and it’s not uncommon for clubs to have a short lifespan if they’ve been unable to build a strong membership-base or the infrastructure required for future growth.

Perhaps the most compelling testimony about the value of gay and lesbian sports clubs comes from the stories of the people involved. Out To Swim, an aquatics club with over 400 members in London, produced a video as part of its 20th anniversary celebrations.

The video, below, tells the story of former Olympic swimmer Peter Prijdekker who vividly brings to life why events such as the Gay Games and why LGBTQ sports clubs generally continue to play such an important and positive role for people around the world.

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