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Top 10 moments in LGBT aquatics history

This summer we presented the 100 most important moments in LGBT sports history. We have encouraged leaders throughout the community to give us their top 10. This list comes from longtime IGLA and Gay Games leader Charlie Carson.

It’s impossible to rank certain of the moments over others so I’ve chosen to list them chronologically. The key moments are heavily weighted to the 1980s and ‘90s simply because most of our firsts took place during those decades.

LGBT aquatics still has some firsts to accomplish, notably in Latin America, Africa and mainland Asia, but IGLA is an indicator of stability and success – IGLA’s current membership totals more than 60 teams in 15 countries. As well, there are a number of other predominantly LGBT swimming teams around the world not in IGLA that take part in local and regional competitions, spreading the same messages of LGBT sport as they go.

1. Gay Games I, 1982. None of us knew who and how many would show up for swimming and diving that August in San Francisco – and 125 enthusiastic and somewhat giddy people did. We competed in odd age groups with uneven officiating in an unconventional format of prelims for two days and finals the following two nights. It was OK for this first meet because we were preoccupied out of the water getting to know each other: “I swam with [blank]. Our coach was [fantastic/pathetic].” “Did you know [so and so]?” “I did! Did you think [he/she] was gay?” Most competitors were from Los Angeles and San Francisco with others from cities such as Boston, Honolulu, Minneapolis, New York, San Diego and Sydney. Rafael Montijo (Los Angeles) and Morri Spang (Minneapolis) led a meeting after the second day of prelims to formalize a network and agree that future competitions would follow standard Masters rules. Rafael became the official points-person for names and addresses of LGBT swimmers and groups around the world.

2. Beginning of IGLA, Gay Games II, 1986. News of Gay Games I spread widely – 400 swimmers and divers competed using standard Masters rules and age groups in the 25-yard outdoor pool at Laney College in Oakland. Faster swimmers showed up, including several who’d competed in NCAA Division I. But the key aquatics moment of this second Gay Games took place at a team leaders’ meeting in which we decided we were having too much fun to wait another four years to gather again. We decided to start an annual championship tournament and San Diego agreed to be the first host. Although it took until the next year at that first annual meet to plan for an organization name, bylaws and officers, the team leaders’ meeting at Gay Games II was the genesis of International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics (IGLA).

3. First world records, Gay Games III, 1990. Michael (Mike) Mealiffe of West Hollywood Aquatics set the first world Masters records in LGBT competitions, breaking the existing marks in the 50-54 age group in the 50 and 100 m. butterfly races (long course). Mike’s accomplishment stopped Gay Games critics from the casual dismissal that LGBT competitions weren’t “real sports.”

4. Bruce Hayes, first Olympic medalist, Gay Games III, 1990. A number of prominent Olympians from several countries have taken part in LGBT aquatics over the years, but Bruce – anchor leg of the U.S.’ gold medal winning 4 x 200 m. freestyle “Grossbusters” relay from 1984 – was the first. Bruce competed at Vancouver’s 1990 Gay Games and went on to set five Masters world marks in his hometown of New York at Gay Games IV in 1994, including being the first Masters swimmer to break four minutes in the 400 m. freestyle (short course). Bruce has been a prominent spokesman for the LGBT community ever since and continues training and competing today.

5. Pink Flamingo relay/skits, Gay Games III, 1990. The Pink Flamingo show at the IGLA Championships and Gay Games is now a much-anticipated, ticketed entertainment that has literally brought many once-skeptical meet officials, parents and friends completely around to supporting LGBT teams. First, some New Yorkers cross-dressed for fun at pool events during Gay Games I and II and showed up costumed to swim joke relays at the first IGLA Championships in 1987. Then, Vancouver hosted a dual meet with Seattle swimmers and used plastic pink lawn flamingos as relay batons. Seattle went on to host a Pink Flamingo Relay event at their Northwest Gay & Lesbian Sportsfest which drew swimmers from around North America, and the Pink Flamingo Relay became a feature at IGLA’s annual championships. At Vancouver’s 1990 Gay Games Pink Flamingo event, several dozen teams showed up ready to go, parading around the English Bay Aquatic Centre in outfits ranging from Madonna’s cone bra to Robert Palmer’s sashaying models, leather mermen to Ariel the Little Mermaid, costumed superheroes to Salem witches on roller skates, and the now-legendary “That Girl” Marlos – 40 of them – from New York. As West Hollywood’s Tom Wilson, himself a prominent Pink Flamingo participant, said in 1994, everything about the Pink Flamingo came together at Gay Games III. It’s been a source of silliness, notoriety, photo ops and pride ever since.

6. EuroGames II in The Hague, 1993. This first LGBT aquatics championship held in Europe is the key moment swimmers in the continent were inspired to begin their own swimming teams. Continental swimmers fought their own battles within Masters circles, notably reversing an initial rejection of Brussels’ gay team when it sought membership in the Belgian swimming association. The 2004 EuroGames in Munich held the largest predominantly-European LGBT aquatics competition, and today there are out teams even in eastern European countries.

7. Greg Louganis, Gay Games IV, 1994. Two years after solidifying his reputation as the greatest diver of all time at the Barcelona Olympic Games, Greg came out in carefully-planned but no less riveting fashion during Gay Games IV. The gold medal comeback story of Greg’s head injury hitting the board in Barcelona’s 3 m. springboard competition not only was still fresh in the world’s mind but took on new relevance. He already was a symbol of Olympic excellence and that year Greg became a face for HIV-positive people everywhere. An HIV+ diagnosis was still particularly grim in 1994 – protease inhibitors didn’t come to market until 1995 – and Greg’s presence during the reading of aquatics participants’ names lost to AIDS since Gay Games I took on special poignancy. Greg had so much fun during his exhibition performance in a packed, supportive house the first night of diving that he agreed to do it again the second night.

8. Synchronized swimming added to IGLA competitions, 1995. Montreal’s À Contre-Courant team added synchronized swimming when they hosted the 1985 IGLA Championships. LGBT synchro teams are regularly profiled in the media at Masters competitions around the world. The teams are a mix of men and women but the all-male teams have been a bit of a ground-breaking novelty – there are almost no all-male teams except those who formed through the LGBT ranks. Particular credit goes to the groups in Paris and San Francisco who have trained and competed consistently since this discipline was added to the aquatics schedule.

9. First inclusion of sexual orientation in nondiscrimination language of a national aquatics organization’s bylaws, USA Water Polo, 1999. In January 1999, USA Water Polo added “sexual orientation” to the nondiscrimination language of its Diversity Vision Statement. To the best of our knowledge, this was a first by an national aquatics governing body. That it was initially accomplished by a water polo group – a bastion of macho toughness – makes the symbolism even more significant.

10. FINA decision to deny world records at Gay Games 2010 and Asia-Pacific Outgames 2011. Things have been so steadily positive and bright in recent years for the LGBT aquatics movement that FINA’s decision not to recognize Masters marks set at Cologne’s Gay Games and Wellington’s Outgames has been a bit stunning. Efforts to reverse this decision are ongoing as it appears arbitrary – officiating in Cologne and, to my understanding, Wellington was every bit as professional as at New York’s Gay Games IV in 1994 when sixteen world Masters marks were set and FINA recognized them all.