"Gay Olympics" Or Gay Olympics?

08/19/2016 03:13 pm ET Updated Aug 20, 2017
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA:  Medal winners from the 2002 Gay Games, gather on the steps of the Sydney Opera House 08 November 2002, fo
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA: Medal winners from the 2002 Gay Games, gather on the steps of the Sydney Opera House 08 November 2002, for a group photo session. The games have seen 12,000 athletes from around the world compete in over 31 different sports and will conclude on 09 November. AFP PHOTO/Greg WOOD (Photo credit should read GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images)

When the Olympic Games come around every two years, it always feels a bit bittersweet to us. We love the dazzling performances of extraordinary athletes like Simone Biles and Michael Phelps. However, the Olympics also bring back the sting of the United States Olympic Committee going to court back in 1982 to stop Dr. Tom Waddell and other organizers of the first ever competition for LGBT athletes from calling those games the "Gay Olympics." The USOC sued Waddell and other LGBT organizers just weeks before the first games were to commence, fighting all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it won. As a result, the LGBT athletic event would have to be known as the "Gay Games," and organizers were forbidden from calling it the "Gay Olympics." The USOC went so far as putting a lien (later withdrawn) on the home of Waddell -- who was very ill with HIV/AIDS at the time -- to recoup $96,000 in attorneys' fees. And adding salt to the wound, Vaughn Walker, a then closeted gay man, who later became a federal judge and wrote the lower court decision striking down Proposition 8, represented the USOC in the litigation.

Waddell and the other organizers, represented by the legendary LGBT rights attorney Mary Dunlap, argued that the USOC's not contesting the existence of the Special Olympics, Junior Olympics, Police Olympics, Eskimo Olympics, Rat Olympics, Frog Olympics, Cockroach Olympics, Tank Olympics, Beer Olympics ... meant that the USOC's purpose in trying to prevent the Gay Olympics from existing was clear: discrimination. Organizers explained that the Gay Olympics was intended not only to provide a venue for athletes from around the world to participate freely regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, but to dismantle harmful stereotypes about LGBT people. The Gay Olympics would show the world that LGBT people could be athletes -- indeed champion athletes.

The USOC prevailed at the district, appellate, and Supreme Court levels, with the court majorities never squarely addressing the issue of discrimination. But appellate judge Alex Kozinski in dissent at the Ninth Circuit largely agreed with the LGBT organizers, observing that "handicapped, juniors, police, Explorers, even dogs are allowed to carry the Olympic torch, but homosexuals are not." Kozinski noted that the USOC appeared to be trying to preserve "the very image of homosexuals that the [Waddell and other organizers] seek[] to combat" based on its view of the lack of "wholesomeness" of LGBT people. Justices Brennan and Marshall in dissent at the Supreme Court concurred, observing that the LGBT organizers intended to use "the word 'Olympic,' to promote a realistic image of homosexual men and women that would help them move into the mainstream of their communities." The title "The Best and Most Accomplished Amateur Gay Athletes Competition," just doesn't have the same ring and doesn't send the same message as "Gay Olympics."

Even though the USOC got its way, LGBT athletes were not deterred, and have come out and excelled around the world. The Gay Games and other LGBT athletic events have been held for over 30 years. Indeed, the 1994 Gay Games, held in New York in conjunction with the 25th anniversary of Stonewall, drew nearly 11,000 athletes, greater than the number of competitors in the 1992 Olympic Games themselves.

Former Olympic champions -- the pride of the United States - who were closeted when they competed years ago, have subsequently come out proudly. Olympic hero Greg Louganis, the only male diver to win both diving Gold Medals in consecutive Olympics, came out as gay in 1995. We'll never forget his extraordinary performance at the 1988 Seoul Olympics that earned him the title of ABC's Wide World of Sports 1988 "Athlete of the Year." And when Louganis came out, he revealed he accomplished this exceptional feat as a person living with HIV.

We also have strong memories of Caitlyn (then Bruce) Jenner leaving her competition literally in the dust, when she broke the world record winning the Gold Medal in the men's decathlon in 1976 Olympics. Jenner, who famously came out as transgender and transitioned in 2015, grabbed a fan's American flag and waved it during his victory lap back in 1976, creating a new Olympic tradition that many now follow.

And although tennis great Billie Jean King was not out throughout much of the time she reigned atop the women's tennis world, she coached the 1996 women's Olympic tennis team as an out lesbian. King, whom Sports Illustrated magazine honored in 1972 as "Sportsman of the Year," received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her lifetime of accomplishments, and President Obama appointed her (along with openly gay ice hockey player Caitlin Cahow) to the official American delegation to the 2014 Sochi Olympics to demonstrate the very visibility of LGBT athletes that Waddell and his fellow organizers had envisioned three decades before.

The process of dismantling anti-LGBT prejudice that pervades sports and anti-LGBT attitudes in many of the 207 countries that compete in the Olympics has been slow. However, as the San Francisco Bay Times reported in last edition's cover story, a record number of openly LGBT athletes (at least 43), including the Bay Area's own Kelly Griffin, are competing in the Rio Olympics, with some estimates of the actual number of LGBT competitors to be 500 or more.

We may not be able to have a "Gay Olympics," but they can't stop us making the Olympics gay p- and slowly but surely we are.

John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, together for nearly three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. They are leaders in the nationwide grassroots organization Marriage Equality.