Gay Sports Exhibit Fills in the Blanks
By Gene Dermody 10 June 2005
Sporting Life: GLBT Athletics and Cultural Change from the 1960s to Today brings together the
works of more than 34 photographers, 49 collections, and 28 athletic groups. Guest-curated and
designed by syndicated sports writer and author Jim Provenzano, Sporting Life explores how San
Francisco Bay Area GLBT sports have challenged homophobia and created community. From early
1970s gay softball games versus the police to the launch of the now-worldwide Gay Games, the way
we play has transformed society. Today, over 4,000 openly GLBT Bay Area athletes participate
annually, breaking records and defying stereotypes. Sporting Life can be seen daily Tuesday
through Saturday 1-5pm at The GLBT Historical Society, 657 Mission St. San Francisco, through 2005.
The Missing Color
Like the Gnostic gospels, Jim Provenzano's latest project, Sporting Life is the missing (if not
heretical) chapter in San Francisco's colorful gay history. Instead of yet another victim chronology
of homophobia or another tired expose of stereotypes and fetishes, the exhibit celebrates the
‘other life’ of those San Franciscans who shaped an era, their “Sporting Life”.
The exhibit adds new dimension to the profile of those San Francisco revolutionaries: those
idealists who stood in Market St. traffic on election day with big Vote Harvey Milk signs, those early
Twin Peaks ‘guppies’ (gay yuppies) who transformed the Castro into the real Tales of the City, and
those devastated citizens who for the first time in their lives “lost it” in the White Night Riot. Who
knew that such a vast number of them were also so happily engaged in such subversive activities
as bowling, softball, and basketball as early as the ‘60s?
|A bust of Gay |
made in 1987.
A case of personal
Waddell used in
the 1968 Mexico
A photo from 1980
Mark Leno at a
Gay Run event.
|Heritage Complete |
It is Provenzano’s devotion to detail, a careful showcasing of a remarkable collection of pride and
joy, that finally lays waste the myth of hopeless sissies and proves that there were always ‘athletes
in our midst’. It is academic that there were always some athletes who were gay, or that the locker
room was never all that heterosexual.
However, it is the emotional impact of actually seeing the physical evidence, the personal sports
memorabilia of our community so proudly displayed, which will connect with a much wider audience
and secure this exhibit’s place in GLBT history.
A few years ago I had a similar experience when my father died. In going through his personal
belongings, I discovered a man I wish I had known better. The impact of seeing his high school
medals, his basketball shirts vs. skins buddy pictures, and his WWII Navy dog tags transformed my
fuzzy black and white image of him and kindled a kind of hero worship I had always reserved for
others. He obviously valued these objects enough to keep them so carefully preserved for half a
century. If only he had shared them with me when I was younger our relationship would have been
different. There is great power inherent in these symbols of our achievements.
Similarly, this exhibit is a treasure, a legacy to our community that documents the pride, tradition,
and connection we all must cherish as “our” family tree.
Mixing It Up
On entering the exhibit, the almost obligatory homage to the elite gay athletes who pioneered and
suffered for the “cause” seems at first to overwhelm. There is the black and white photo of my
absolute favorite Dave Kopay doing those rapid “foot-fire” drills in full gear. It was his ground
breaking book that gave me strength way back in the ‘70s when I was a nervous 140 pound rookie
high school wrestling coach. If he could do it with those giants in pro football, I could surely handle
a few dozen high school toughs. The challenge to excel in spite of the stereotype was also my
inspiration and motivation. There are photos and items of Jerry Smith, Rudy Galindo, Greg
Louganis, Billy Bean, and the tragic Glenn Burke. All are important representatives of our elite
When these elite images are juxtaposed with the images of recreational athletes, the message of
the exhibit becomes clearer and more provoking. It is precisely the spectacular diversity of sports,
skill levels, body types, and athletic achievements that catches your eye and teases your
testosterone laced mind.
By randomly mixing the images of “guys who throw like girls” with “guys who were Olympians”, the
common humanity shines proudly and validates our community’s rich and diverse athletic heritage.
Instead of a few freaks at both ends of the athletic spectrum, there is a huge middle ground. How
|Glenn Burke |
“One of the more evocative items is
a rare 1979 Glenn Burke Oakland
Athletics baseball card. Burke,
credited with inventing the "high
five," had been traded to the A's
from the Dodgers, largely due to
homophobia. On-going antigay
hostility and a knee injury led him
soon after to leave professional
baseball. Afterwards, he became a
celebrated member of San Francisco
gay softball teams. In 1982, he
became the first pro baseball player
to come out.”
(-courtesy the San Francisco
I already knew Glenn was a local, a
Berkeley High School super star
athlete who excelled in basketball,
football, and baseball. He could
have made it in any professional
sport he wanted, not just baseball. I
vividly remember his performances
in Gay Games, where his softball
team took the Silver, and his
basketball team took the Gold. His
sheer athleticism bordered on the
artistic. His team spirit was
legendary, especially amongst those
who ever saw him play basketball!
I stared at that Oakland A’s baseball
card for a while, remembering
seeing him so many times so many
years ago at the Eureka Valley
Recreation Center Gym (soon to be
renamed the Mark Bingham
Memorial Gym). The classic “batter-
up” black and white photo was
particularly striking, that cute face
with the winning smile. I wondered
why there was so little of his
memorabilia. There were no signed
pictures, no A’s cap, and not even
his glove. It seemed incongruous
that such an outstanding example of
what the exhibit was about was
given such short shrift.
But a Google search also turned up
little. Sheepishly I wondered if we
just took him for granted or if he was
just way ahead of the times. Is it
because he dared to come down
from Olympus to play with us mere
mortals that his achievements were
somehow diminished? Did he ever
get one of those ubiquitous political
proclamations from the Mayor?
Does Berkeley High School even
acknowledge him? There is no
doubt in my mind “Gay Sports”
achieved proper “athletic”
recognition when Glenn Burke
turned heads at the first Gay Games.
|Glenn Burke 1978-1979 (courtesy of the GLBT Historical Society) |
|The football case includes items from the SF Fog, Jerry Smith cards, and |
a 49ers team-signed helmet loaned by former trainer Lindsy McLean.
|My Heroes |
As I make my way past the GLBT Sports ‘Timeline’ in the entrance way, I
am flattered by a sizeable photo of my 1982 Gay Games match with Peter
Gomez in the same flow as another South Bay latino athlete, Rudy
Galindo. Peter was a brawler with a missing front tooth to prove it. He
had a rough life on the streets of San Francisco and wrestling was his
personal revenge on privileged Anglo guppies like me who thought we
Peter Gomez 1982
On the opposite wall is a photo finish of perennial flash Earl Bryant with
flared nostrils and puffed cheeks racing like a thoroughbred across the
finish line. Then there is the rest of the pantheon of track stars:
Carmen Morrison, Rick Thoman, Bernard Turner, Nancy Frost, Norma
Jean Lopez, and Frank Demby who set Gay Games standards for almost
a decade. San Francisco Track & Field was one of the earlier stalwart
Team San Francisco teams that became the model for camaraderie and
spirit. Rick Thoman deserves kudos for long managing that star-
studded team as well as competing as an elite level himself.
Rick Thoman 2005
Also on the wall opposite the ‘Timeline’ adjacent the Track & Field is a
rather large unremarkable black & white photo of a soccer player
leading some guys in a warm-up. His back is to us but there is no
mistaking the “soccer legs” of Josh Persky. I fondly remember Josh
from the late 80’s from the Muscle System where we both trained. He
was both a fireplug and a sparkplug, one of the original founders of the
San Francisco Spikes, and a real sweet heart of a guy. Together with
Carlo Togni, the Spikes were the creators and always the class act of
Josh Persky 1986
In between Earl Bryant and Josh Persky another enlarged black and
white photo shows Tom Waddell and San Francisco supervisor/state
assemblyman Mark Leno at a an early ‘80s ‘Gay Run’. Today Mark is
using his athletic skills twisting arms in Sacramento for a Gay Marriage
bill. Watch out Arnie!
|Part of the Martial Arts, Boxing, Judo, and Wrestling display. |
|Across the room is the rainbow belts display of the International |
Association of Gay & Lesbian Martial Artists (IAGLMA), which gives new
meaning to the perception of “Black & Blue” belts. In a tournament
photo, Allen Wood stands out head and shoulders tall in his crisp white
gi. He is the model warrior, a new age Siegfried slaying the dragons of
stereotype. Allen worked many years for Team San Francisco, IAGLMA,
and the Federation of Gay Games, especially in the area of drug testing
policy. Allen is the only doctor to ever successfully relieve the pinched
nerve in my back.
In the corner between Martial Arts and Wrestling is Basketball, and the
photo that catches my eye has Tony Jasinski, the “Godfather” of Gay
Basketball coaching one of his many championship teams. Tony and I
go way back. We were part of the Team San Francisco contingent that
in 1987 “persuaded” San Francisco Parks & Recreation to let the “fags”
use the Eureka Valley Recreation Center (EVC) in the Castro. Since that
time, volleyball, indoor soccer, basketball, wrestling, and martial arts
have flourished in that facility. We also both served on the EVC
Advisory Board which pushed having the gym renamed in Mark
Bingham’s honor after 9-11. Another basketball player in the picture
was one of the handsomest men to ever play basketball, Mike Gray. I
would sometimes watch him play from the wrestling room which
overlooks the gym.
Tony Jasinski 2005
In the opposite corner is Aquatics. San Francisco is blessed with about
three GLBT groups, only the overcrowded pools keep them from
growing even more. There is Duke Dahlin’s English Channel Swim
recognition, the Tsunami team photos, and tons of medals.
My eye is drawn to a small photo with Rick Windes in it. Rick was one of
the early Tsunami and International Gay & Lesbian Aquatics (IGLA)
competitors who also found time to coach and serve. Rick and I served
together on Team San Francisco for years. He was a big guy, a sweet
heart, almost a “Yogi Bear” before the term became chic fetish.
By chance I saw what had been donated to the exhibition by Rick’s
partner. I was literally blown away by the sheer number of medals,
recognitions, awards, not only from IGLA, the Gay Games, and Tsunami,
but from US Masters Swimming and FINA. The collection could be an
exhibit in itself.
Here was a true athlete who took his leadership responsibilities
seriously. He made a great transition from elite competitor, to coach, to
leader. A year before he died, he was at my home with IGLA’s Charlie
Carson still planning and writing policy for IGLA and the Gay Games.
Rick’s legacy is the success story of Team San Francisco, Tsunami,
IGLA, and the Gay Games.
Rick Windes 1990
Nestled between Martial Arts and Basketball is Wrestling which I
purposely left until last. In the display case there are old singlets, t-
shirts, photos, medals, and posters. Some of it my own personal stuff.
My history with Golden Gate Wrestling (GGWC) goes back to Gay Games
I, so I knew the display would be an emotional one for me. The photos
are dotted with friends and lovers including two of my partners whom
are no longer with us.
One single photo, peering at me from behind those horned rimmed
black glasses is the guy I will always have to answer to, Don Jung. A
California InterScholastic Federation (CIF) high school state champ, a
standout at Chabot College, Don went on to be the coach of San
Francisco’s Mission High School (one of the city’s toughest schools),
which is just 4 blocks east of ground zero Castro & 18th. Streets.
Don was all this before the first Gay Games while openly living in
Oakland with his partner Ben Olsen. Don had already earned the
respect of the Bay Area wrestling community when he drew the
attention of Tom Waddell who charged him with starting Golden Gate
Striken with AIDS, Don died a day after his Gay Games II matches,
probably a suicide given the prognosis of the day. I had totally avoided
all coaching and organizing responsibilities for GGWC since leaving
New Jersey and high school coaching. Gay Games had blown me out of
the closet with a vengeance. Selfishly, I wanted the competition and
recognition, and knew I would have to sacrifice that quest if I had to
But during those last inevitable days Don charged me with continuing
GGWC in the tradition he had established. At the time I grudgingly
accepted. It took years, but I learned that there was a more enduring
satisfaction in serving others. Instead of my five individual Gay Games
medals, I can count dozens of GGWC medals. But more importantly I can
count hundreds of men and women for whom the GGWC experience
made a difference.
Under my breath I ask the photo on the wall… “How did we do, Don?” If
you stare long enough at Don’s photo (taken the day before he died),
there -is- a smile under that moustache that I had never noticed before.
Don Jung 1986
Sporting Life: GLBT Athletics and Cultural Change from the 1960s to
Today is on display Tuesday through Saturday 1-5pm at The GLBT
Historical Society, 657 Mission St. San Francisco, through 2005.
+1.(415) 777-5455 . http://www.glbthistory.org .
About the author
Gene Dermody has coached and competed at every Gay Games,
served on the Board of Team San Francisco, served as President of the
Federation of Gay Games, served on the Board of the Bay Area Sports
Organizing Committee for the San Francisco 2012 Olympic Bid, and
numerous other organizations. email@example.com
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