Gay Issues in the History of Sport 3000 words essay 2.1

Gay issues in the history of sports


When the Olympic Games were re-established in 1896, there was an overt attempt on the part of the Greek organisers to portray an image of the games which personified a clear division between sport and politics.   Given this, the intrinsic outlook of this most prominent of sporting events assumed a position which denoted the idea of sport as being something distinct, both from political influence and wider social developments (Riordan & Kruger, 1999).  Thus, in the hope of propagating a purist vision of sport, generally based on the outlook of a small number of organisers, major sporting events like the Olympic Games have generally been heralded as something which exemplifies unity and homogenisation, as opposed to difference and diversity.

However, regardless of the fact that large-scale sporting events have often been viewed as distinct, both from the political and social realms, in practice this has never been the case.  With regards to the former, political considerations have invariably impacted upon major sporting events (Riordan & Kruger, 1999).  For example, from the 1950s up until the late 1980s, large-scale sporting events were inevitably conceptualised on the basis of the Cold War standoff between the United States and Soviet Union.  The Olympics is a pertinent example of this tendency for politics and sport to interact at a fundamental level.  In addition, as suggested, the connotations of major sporting events often mirror the societal processes which occur in general society.  For example, in the case of racism, the 1936 Berlin Olympics were staged on the backdrop of the racially motivated policies of Nazi Germany.  The success of the Black American athlete Jesse Owens can thus be conceptualised within the broader framework of political and social discrimination (Riordan & Kruger, 1999).  Moreover, it is equally important to note that segregation in the United States during the 1930s also personified the racial divides in America, something undoubtedly propelled by Owens’ Olympic success.

Therefore, the above discussion clearly highlights the fundamental interaction between sport, politics and society.  Given this, the purpose of this work is to examine the historical progression of gay issues in sport.  As with other social classifications, gay issues in sport have a direct correlation with wider social processes.  Thus, it is essential that one views gay issues in sport on the same basis as other social indicators such as gender, race and disability.  Given this, this work will examine the development of gay issues in sport and highlight the degree to which discrimination against gays at the social and political level has been historically personified in sport.  However, it is essential to remember that the gay community has responded in measure to this structural discrimination in sport.  Thus, this work will also detail and assess the measures and actions undertaken by gay groups, aimed at highlighting gay issues and using sport as a means of combating innate social discrimination.

It is important at the outset to emphasise the degree to which discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation has historically been engrained into the social and political fabric of the modern era.  Paradoxically, the Ancient Greeks were well disposed to homosexuality and in fact, the presence of homosexuality in the social processes of Ancient Greece was widely accepted and often actively endorsed.  As such, the overtly heterosexual basis on which the modern Olympic Games was formed in somewhat ironic.  However, this alteration merely serves to personify the nature of anti-gay feeling in modern society.

The basis of anti-gay discrimination runs throughout the history of modern society. For example, the reunification of Germany in 1871 resulted in homosexuality being made illegal. Furthermore, in Britain, the Victorian focus on morals and ethical behaviour precluded the acceptance of homosexuality (Adam, 1987).  Furthermore, it was not until the 1960s that anti-gay legislation was repealed.  As such, it is essential to note that in pure legal terms, the legality of homosexuality is relatively recent.  In wider social terms, the unwillingness to accept difference on the basis of sexual orientation is an inherent feature of the general societal outlook.  Even so, movements aimed at combating this overt discrimination have a fairly long historical tradition in the modern era.  Numerous gay movements developed in Europe during the latter 19th century, and indeed, increased organisation in the gay community personified the practical approaches undertaken to highlight gay issues (Adam, 1987).  One key development in this regard was the formation of the Scientific Humanitarian Committee in May 1897.  The committee was founded by the German Physician Magnus Hirshfeld and aimed to established social recognition for gays at the time (Adam, 1987).  This institutional establishment thus exemplifies the general process which has seen the gay community actively attempt to combat the discrimination emanating from the political and social realms.  However, in order for this assessment to be fully explored, it is essential to first outline the structural and social discrimination to which the gay community has been subject over the last century.

It is first essential to emphasise the fact that discrimination against gays throughout the twentieth century has transcend political ideologies and national boundaries.  During the first half of the 20th century, two World Wars served to divide the leading nations of the world.  However, in terms of internal policies towards gays, there existed a significant amount of concurrence in terms of domestic policy.  In Germany the Nazis passed a plethora of anti-gay legislation and actively sought to victimise the gays openly.  As such, like Jews and Gypsies, Gays were overtly oppressed by the Nazi regime, with many being killed in the mass exterminations of minorities between 1941 and 1945 (Riordan & Kruger, 1999).  Discriminatory tendencies in far right Germany were mirrored by actions of the far left authorities in the Soviet Union.  In particular, during the 1930s Stalin established a number of anti-gay laws which punished homosexuality with hard labour.  Moreover, during the Second World War, Soviet propaganda attempted to portray the Nazi leadership in Germany as being homosexually inclined (Riordan & Kruger, 1999).  Thus, the polarised political extremes of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union certainly engendered significant similarities in relation to their internal policies towards gays.  In addition, in the western democracies, the tendency towards overt discrimination against gays was equally apparent.  Britain has already been utilised as a case study example above, however, in the United States, the FBI established processes aimed at discovering gay tendencies among public officials.  In terms of active gay legalisation, President Eisenhower even banned gays from taking public office and leading posts in the federal government (Marcus, 2002).

As such, the above discussions highlight the general trends which have historically directed the outlook of governments towards gays.  Such trends personify the fact that discriminatory tendencies have historically formed the foundation on which many governments have undertaken policies in relation to gays.  As suggested above, the political foundation of anti-gay sentiment has served to directly interact with similar tendencies in wider society.  As such, social structures have invariably mirrored the anti-gay sentiment which emanated from the political realm up until the 1960s.  In terms of the present examination, this interaction between the political and social realms is paramount.  In particular, it is essential to highlight the impact social processes in wider society have on the formation of opinions and assumptions regarding minority (Anderson, 2005).  Moreover, the formation of such outlooks often assumes practical connotations which can be clearly highlighted and accounted for.  Thus, it is at this point that one needs to address the issue of discrimination against gays in terms of its sporting connotations.

As hinted above, sport acts as a central social process.  Sporting activity in itself represents a clear form of social interaction and collaborative partnership (Caudwell, 2006).  As such the presence of discriminatory tendencies in a social activity as important as sport is hugely problematic, not only for those who are the object of the discrimination, but also for general social harmony.

Regardless of how problematic homophobia in sport may be in terms of social harmony and understanding, it is nevertheless the case that anti-gay sentiments have historically pervaded sporting activity.  During the 20th century, anti-gay assumptions were reinforced by the political realm in terms of the type of anti-gay legislation outlined above.  However, even in more recent times, social investigations undertaken in sport have highlighted a continued anti-gay sentiment which pervades a plethora of sporting activities.  For example, Caudwell (2006) suggests that in the United States, young males who participate in American Football invariably harbour anti-gay sentiments.  In addition, such sentiments are reinforced by the parents of these young men.  Thus, Caudwell (2006) highlights how anti-gay sentiment towards coaches and sports tutors has been witnessed across the United States in a variety of different high school sports.  As such, the investigations carried out by Caudwell (2006) indicate a clear structural tendency in sport which is based ultimately on anti-gay assumptions.  In many respects the macho heterosexual outlook dominates much sporting activity.  As such, this in many respects accounts for the anti-gay assumptions which have historically pervaded sport in general.  However, regardless of the assumptions made within sports, the wider societal impact of anti-gay assumptions serve to enhance and propel the discriminatory tendencies already suggested.  Thus, it is once again important to emphasise the fact that the history of anti-gay assumptions in sport have direct connotations with general societal trends.  Given this, the assessment of anti-gay feeling in sport must take place in collaboration with the examination of social processes.  This requirement thus accounts for the discussions undertaken above.

The various assessments undertaken above have aimed to highlight the social basis of discrimination in sport on the basis of sexual orientation.  Above all, what is clear is that anti-gay sentiments in sport are based on a societal understanding of moral sexuality which has a long historical tradition.  However, although the gay community has been subject to severe discrimination and at times overt attack by anti-gay elements, there has nonetheless been a concerted response.  As such, it is essential to detail the actions and activities undertaken by gay movements in response to the discrimination they have suffered.  This assessment first needs to outline the general attempts made to highlight gay issues and problems relating to discrimination and oppression.  Following this, it will then be possible to conceptualise the actions of gay movements within sport on an effective foundation.  Above all, this delineation is vital because the activities of gay movements within sport serve to exemplify the wider actions which have historically been undertaken in the social and political realms.  Thus, in this understanding, sport can essentially be viewed as a mechanism thorough which gay movements have sought to both highlight and combat discriminatory tendencies, both within sport itself and wider society as a consequence.

During the 1960s, a counterculture emerged in many western countries as a response to the perceived failings of deference which had prevailed in the decades before.  Although this counterculture was evident in many developed western countries, Marcus (2002) suggests that the clearest example of this social development can be seen in the United States.  Above all, the emergence of an American counterculture centred essentially on the efforts of certain groups to counter what they viewed as destructive government tendencies and policies.  Therefore, the wide-scale popular demonstrations against the Vietnam War came about as a result of the emergence of an anti-establishment counterculture.  In addition, the development of Black awareness and demonstrations against anti-racial tendencies in both the United States and Britain serve as a further indicator of the counterculture development (Marcus, 2002).

As such, the development of gay movements in the 1960s must be understood on the basis of the wider social changes and anti-establishment activities which personified the decade.  However, it is nonetheless essential to point out that gay movements throughout the 1960s and 1970s attempted to dispel and counter the popular social myths regarding their sexuality and outlook.  One key event in this process was the Stonewall Riots which took place in New York in 1969, where widespread rioting took place in response to police aggression at the Stonewall Inn Gay Bar (Carter, 2004).  Riots and demonstrations by gay groups continued throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s.  Above all, such demonstrations centred not only on ensuring equality in terms of law, but also social equality.  Therefore, returning to the pivotal issue of social assumptions, Gay movements over the recent decades have attempted to change social attitudes towards homosexuality and lesbianism, in addition to lobbying governments for active changes in the law (Carter, 2002).  The various assessments undertaken earlier in this work highlighted the intrinsic link between social assumptions and sport.  Given that sport is the quintessential social activity, then any attempt on the part of gay groups to counter negative social assumptions would inevitably require action in the sporting realm.  Thus, such actions have indeed been undertaken, particularly over the last two decades. In light of this, it is essential to this work that such activities and processes are fully explored and accounted for.

Numerous examples of gay movements in sport can be highlighted.  However, in the interest of analytical precision, the foremost example which is best capable of exemplifying the efforts of the Gay community to counter negative social assumptions are to be found in the Gay Games.  However, even in this example, it is possible to account for discriminatory tendencies wider sporting strictures and institutions.

The Gay Games was established in the early 1980s by the former American Olympian Tom Waddell (Symons, 2009).  The institutional structure on which the Gay Games is based is the Federation of Gay Games.  The federation has a number of stated objectives and aims, however, in general terms the overall objective is to celebrate diversity through the use of sport (Rimmerman, 2008).  Moreover, it is important to note that the Federation of Gay Games aims to engender respect for socially based differences such as race, gender, ethnicity, religion, age, disability and nationality.  However, the essential focus of both the federation and the Gay Games are to highlight gay issues in a clear and overt fashion.  Thus, the federation states that its primary objective is to “foster and augment the self-respect of lesbians and gay men throughout the world and to engender respect and understanding from the non-gay world, primarily through an organized international participatory athletic and cultural event held every four years, and commonly known as the Gay Games” (Federation of Gay Games, 2011 [online]).

Therefore, the Gay Games represents an attempt on the part of the global gay community to engender self-reflective respect, and also counter the negative assumptions which pervade general society in relation to gays and lesbians.  McKay et al (2000) suggest that the Gay Games has been instrumental in countering many of the social misconceptions in relation to gays which have historically pervaded sport in general.  However, although since the first Gay Games in 1982 significant progress has been made in this regard, it is nonetheless essential to outline the problems and difficulties to which the Gay Games have been subjected.

The foremost problem experienced by Tom Waddell and other Gay Games leaders came at the outset of the Games.  Originally, the intended name was to be the Gay Olympics.  However, shortly before the first Games were to take place in San Francisco, the International Olympic Committee filled a legal action which prevented the use of ‘Olympic’ the name (Symons, 2009).  Thus, the official name became and has remained since the Gay Games.  However, it is vital to note that other organizations and groups have utilized the world ‘Olympics’ in their name without having to counter legal actions against international sporting authorities.  Symons (2009) suggests that notable examples include the Special Olympics and the Police Olympics.  As such, various gay groups including the Federation of Gay Games have argued that the unwillingness of international sporting authorities to allow the use of the word ‘Olympics’ constitutes clear and overt discrimination on the part of global sporting bodies.  Indeed Symons (2009) concurs with this assessment and highlights the extent to which international sporting bodies have distanced themselves from the Gay Games.  Therefore, it is certainly possible to see the degree to which innate discrimination in sport on the basis of sexual orientation remains a serious problem.

In addition, it is also important to highlight the fact that the Gay Games has suffered from a distinct lack of investment.  In particular, sponsorship for the Games has failed to result in the levels of revenue required to make a profit.  Symons (2009) points out that the Gay Games of 1982, 1986 and 1990 failed to make a profit.  Symons (2009) suggests that this unwillingness of large corporations to support the Gay Games financially stemmed from a belief that marketing in such an area was too risky and could potentially damage sales.  However, more recent Gay Games have attracted large investments and marketing revenue from leading global companies such as GlaxoSmithKline and Ernst and Young (Symons, 2009).  As such, it is possible to see the degree to which changing social assumptions have altered the opinions formed in the social and business realms towards gays in sport.  Indeed, the success of recent Gay Games personifies such developments, along with emphasizing the central role played by Gay groups in the attempt to counter social stigma and engender respect and understanding for social difference.

In conclusion, this work has aimed to highlight the general historical trends and issues which have been prevalent in relation to gays in sport.  What is clear from the discussions and assessments undertaken above is that discrimination on the basis of sexuality is a subjective phenomenon which transcends a variety of realms.  As such, in both the political and social realms, discrimination against gays has been an intrinsic feature of general assumptions.  Historically, the overt discrimination experienced by the global gay community has been protracted.  However, since the 1960s the gay community has attempted to directly counter the negative assumptions which pervade general society.  In this effort, sport has been central.  Indeed, sport in general can be viewed as being a structural base on which anti-gay discrimination has historically occurred and to a strong degree remains.  Therefore, events such as the Gay Games serve to highlight the continued agency of gay groups in their effort to dispel misconceptions and counter discrimination.











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Anderson. E (2005) In the Game: gay athletes and the cult of masculinity. New York: SUNY.

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