LGBT history in sport
October is marked as LGBT History Month in many countries of the world to acknowledge and commemorate the achievements and history of the LGBTQ+ community. It also highlights the struggles that people of the community have endured to protest for secure equal rights.
Commemorating LGBT History Month, we look at 10 significant events in sporting history that are pertinent to the fight for LGBTQ+ rights.
- Dora Ratjen’s arrest in 1938: Dora Ratjen was a German high jumper who finished fourth in the women’s high jump at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. However, they were barred from further competitions in 1938 after being discovered with intersex genitalia. Dora was arrested and sent for further tests, which resulted in their withdrawal from engaging in competitive sports. In 1938, they had also won a gold medal at the European Athletics Championship, which they had to return after being discovered as intersex. Dora's case is relevant even today, as it points to the binary and restrictive understandings of sex and gender, which continue to persist in sport, making it difficult for intersex and trans athletes to participate and compete.
- IOC’s decision to mandate sex testing in 1968: In 1968, the International Olympic Committee mandated sex testing for all female competitors taking part in the Olympics. This move was justified on the grounds of preventing male athletes to pose as females as that can create an unfair advantage for the female competitors. This involved a panel of medical doctors inspecting naked athletes to verify their sex. This was an affront to both female athletes and also made it difficult for trans women to participate in competitive sport.
- David Kopay comes out in 1975: David Kopay, a former American football player in the National Football League, became one of the first professional athletes in 1975 to come out. He went on to write a book called The David Kopay Story to document his experiences as a gay man in sports. Kopay inspired many other athletes to deal with the struggles around their sexuality and encouraged many to come out.
- Renee Richards wins a lawsuit against the US Tennis Association in 1977: Renee Richards is one of the first trans tennis players who won a lawsuit against the US Tennis Association, when they barred her from competing as a female player at the US Open in 1976. The New York Supreme Court ruled in Richards’ favour, stating that sport organisations cannot discriminate against trans women.
- 1982 Gay Games: The 1982 Gay Games was a landmark in the history of LGBTQ+ participation in sports. These were the first Gay Games and were held in San Francisco, United States. The Gay Games were initiated by Tom Wadell, an athlete and an activist, who wanted to promote inclusion of out and proud sportspersons. 1350 athletes from 17 different sports and 12 countries participated in the first Gay Games.
- International Olympics Committee (IOC) ends gender testing in 1999: In 1999, the IOC repealed its 30-year-old policy of mandatory gender testing. This move came after the IOC recognized the medical and functional inconsistencies and unnecessary costs of gender testing. This opened the doors for the trans community to participate and compete in Olympics as opposed to earlier, when they were required to go through humiliating tests to qualify for participation.
- Women’s Sports Foundation starts the Project to Eliminate Homophobia in Sport in 2000: The Women’s Sports Foundation initiated the Project to Eliminate Homophobia in Sport, with the help of fundraising efforts made by the renowned tennis player, Martina Navratilova. This project was a collaborative effort among many organisations such as the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the Gay and Lesbian Education Network. The initiative was later called It Takes a Team, which now develops high quality educational resources and material on LGBTQ+ issues in sport.
- IOC announces the Stockholm Consensus in 2004: The IOC approved the consensus proposed by the IOC Medical Committee specifying the conditions to be considered and respected for a person who has changed their sex to compete in sporting competitions. The consensus suggested that any person assigned male at birth undergoing sex reassignment before puberty must be regarded as a female and vice-versa.
- Jason Collins comes out in 2013: American Basketball player Jason Collins came out as gay in 2013 through a feature story in Sports Illustrated. He is the first openly gay player to have played in the regular season of basketball. His coming out has been one of the most influential and powerful moves in the recent times as it has helped other LGBTQ+ athletes open up about their sexuality.
- IOC’s Scientific Consensus Statement on Homophobia in Sport in 2020: IOC’s scientific panel released two consensus statements with regard to the LGBTQ+ community. The first statement defined homophobia as sexual harassment that sport bodies are obligated to prevent due to the physical and mental harm it can cause to the athletes. The second statement recognized that members of the LGBTQ+ community need special protection as they are at a higher risk of being at the receiving end of physical and mental abuse.
The events above are indicative of the remarkable progress made towards strengthening the representation of LGBTQ+ community in sports. Many athletes and activists have challenged the restrictive notions of sport and worked towards carving a space for the community in the field.
However, there is still a long way to go, as evident from the recent controversies around the trans weightlifter Laurel Hubbard’s selection for the Tokyo Olympics and the rampant homophobia that continues to be present in sport. Efforts to make sport an inclusive and accommodating space for the LGBTQ+ community should be consolidated at both the grassroots and elite levels internationally, to further propagate equal rights for the community.