My feature on the OutGames from Saturday's Weekend mag in the Independent.
Gay people don’t “do” sports: it’s a long-held stereotype that has proven frustratingly difficult to shake off. However, the emergence of a number of international sporting events for gay athletes over the past decade is helping to consign that misconception to the sin bin of history where it belongs.
One such event is the 2nd International World OutGames, which kicks off in the Danish city of Copenhagen today (July 25) and runs until August 2. Up to 8,000 gay people from all over the world will compete in 38 disciplines in a contest that was originally founded in Montreal, Canada in 2006.
There are 35 registered Irish athletes (all men) taking part in the OutGames over the next week, so Weekend caught up with five of them in between training sessions to talk about their involvement and their own personal experiences as gay men in a wider sporting culture that - when it comes to homosexuality - has proven stubbornly resistant to ideas of tolerance and diversity.
Like other 18-year-olds who have just completed their Leaving Cert, Nick Flanagan went on holiday straight after his last exam earlier this month. The big difference, however, is that Nick’s overseas hijinx involved hours of gruelling sports training, rather than boozing and clubbing, every day for two weeks.
“My cousin is a personal trainer in France, so I visited her and we made it a kind of sporting holiday,” explains Nick, who is from Tramore, Co Waterford. “We were up at 4.30 most mornings, and spent six or seven hours training every day. It was pretty intense.”
Nick is the youngest athlete in the Irish contingent taking part in the Games, where he will compete in five events: the 50m butterfly; 100m butterfly; 50m freestyle; 100m freestyle and 200m freestyle.
“I’ve been swimming competitively for six years, but this is my first international event,” he explains. “The highest I’ve reached before now is the Irish Division One.”
Nick has always played several sports, and he says his sexuality was never an issue. Then again, he did have one particular skill set that probably helped him in that regard. “I have a few black-belts in martial arts so I guess nobody was going to start on me,” he laughs.
“I came out at age 16. I was still in school, but there wasn’t any hassle. There were probably a few comments made on the sly, but nothing was said to me. I didn’t lose any friends over it. If anything, I’ve just made more friends since. My family took some getting used to it, but now they’re fine.
“Coming out to the guys in my kickboxing club was the one I was most worried about, because it has a perception of being a real macho, ‘straight’ sport. But the lads were great about it. The teacher told me once that the only thing the other guys said was, ‘Fair play to him for coming out and being honest’.
“I wouldn’t be shy about it. I just said to everyone that if they have any questions or problems to just talk to me about it and we’ll clear it up. I’m still the same person.”
Be that as it may, Nick acknowledges that his positive experiences might not be the same for other gay sportsmen and women. “I know plenty of people in swimming and kickboxing who are gay but haven’t come out,” says Nick, who plans to start studying Freshwater and Marine Biology in Galway this autumn.
“They’ve told me, and asked me what to do, but they just don’t feel ready to tell their families or friends. If it’s hard for them, then imagine what it’s like for a high profile sportsperson who is gay. They will have much more attention put on them. It’s not an easy decision.”
“One of the things that always irritated me is the assumption, made not only by straight people but also gay people, that if you’re gay you couldn’t possibly be into sport,” says John Kilcullen, from Lucan, Co Dublin, adding with a laugh: “You had to come out as gay to your straight friends, and then come out as interested in sports to your gay friends. Both were equally hard to do!”
John is part of a four-man crew who will be taking part in the rowing events during the OutGames. At 60 years of age, he’s also the oldest member competing.
“For me, it’s a question of getting fit enough, but it’s hard,” he explains. “I did rowing for a year in UCD in the late 1960s, but the training now is very different. In the last four weeks, we’ve started concentrating on speed. I do the majority of my training on the rowing machine in the gym. I feel it in the bones though; it’s pure will power that gets me through.”
As much as he enjoys it, John knows Copenhagen will be a big challenge. “I was initially told we were taking part in the leisure row, but it seems to be anything but,” he says. “It’s over 6km for one thing. We don’t have a 6km straight run when we practice on the Liffey. The maximum we can get there is 2km. It’s going to be tough.”
John’s boyfriend of three years is also a member of the rowing crew taking part. “He’s a bit younger so I don’t think he’s feeling it as much,” John laughs.
Given the nature of his sports club, homophobia obviously isn’t the problem it might be in other sporting organisations. Nevertheless, having lived through the good and bad times for gay people in this country, John can relate.
“I was involved with a soccer club for years and a couple of lads were gay, but they were very, very cagey about it,” he says. “They just felt that the other guys would be uneasy, and think they were looking at them in the dressing room.”
Does he think the sporting environment in general is ready for out and proud sportsmen, like in the GAA or the Premiership, for instance? “I think it will be, but not yet,” he replies. “Old attitudes are changing, but it’s a brave man who’ll be the first to test whether they’ve changed enough.”
Edwin has been a member of Rathfarnham AC for 15 years, where he has honed his track and field skills for this year’s OutGames (he won four medals - one gold, two silver and a bronze - at the 2006 event).
“The atmosphere is amazing at it,” he explains. “The opening of the games is like the Olympics: every country comes into the stadium, parading their flag. It’s a magnificent feeling.”
It’s a particularly proud moment for a man old enough (he’s in his early 40s) to remember less enlightened times for gay sports people. “I’ve been involved with sport for years, but I was in the closet for a lot of it,” he says.
“I’m pretty open now, and a lot of the guys in the club know I’m gay so I don’t have a problem with that. They know all about the games and they’re very supportive. My partner often comes with me to events organised by the club, and it’s never been uncomfortable. He’s coming to Copenhagen with me.
“You still get the odd person who is a bit funny about it. A lot of gay men who are in sport want to keep it secret, and I can understand that. I don’t think sporting culture has changed a lot to be honest. High profile guys still seem to think it will ruin their reputation. That’s very sad.”
This year’s OutGames shouldn’t be a bother to Dubliner Joe; after all, it will be his fourth major world games event competing in badminton and squash. “I played at three events in the first OutGames in Montreal, but before that I won a silver medal in the Gay Games in Amsterdam (1998) and a bronze in the Sydney Games in 2002,” he says.
“Badminton is a peculiar one because a lot of people, guys in particular, would call it a ‘pansy’ sport or a gay sport, whereas at the top level badminton is incredibly athletic and the players need to be phenomenally fit and strong to compete.”
The 47-year-old admits that it was a long time before he came out to anyone he was playing sport with. “People had to me very careful when I was younger,” he says. “I guess I didn’t want to get picked on, and I didn’t want to make the other guys uncomfortable.
“When I went away to my first Gay Games in 1998, most of the guys in my club in Ranelagh knew about it, and they were genuinely supportive. Since then, we can have some banter and craic. But everyone is a lot more open now. Gay sports people are much more comfortable and relaxed. The world is a different place.”
Be that as it may, Joe concedes that when it comes to homosexuality and sport, in general, “there are still a number of major breakthroughs to be made”. “The first Premiership footballer to come out will be earth shattering,” he says. “We had [Justin] Fashanu, but that was kind of after the fact. The first guy to come out while he’s still playing at the top level and at the height of his earning power will be a milestone.
“[Diver] Greg Louganis’ coming out was big, as was Martina Navratilova’s, but at the same time, people always make exceptions for world class talents, and they almost turn a blind eye to it. When people see that there are gay people at every professional level in sport, then that will be huge.”
Belfast tennis player David McCrystal admits that he was guilty of thinking other gay people wouldn’t, or couldn’t, be serious athletes when he took part in his first world event, the Chicago Gay Games, in 2006. “That’s probably why I lost,” he now laughs.
“When I heard there was a gay tennis event, I thought it would be middle-aged people flouncing about thinking they were Chris Evert or something. I got a serious wake-up call. The standard is very high at these events. For instance, last year, the Euro Games singles open was won by a German player named Pavel Jakunin who was on the ITT [International Tennis Tour] a few years back.”
The 35-year-old’s participation in such a major gay sporting event is all the more notable because it comes just a month after a report by the Northern Ireland Equality Commission found that the level of anti-gay prejudice in the North has doubled in the last three years.
What’s more, DUP MP, and the region’s effective First Lady, Iris Robinson, is a vocal opponent of homosexuality, saying last year that homosexuals are more “vile” than child abusers, and can be “cured” by psychiatry.
“Nobody really takes her seriously,” David says. “If you look in every country you’re going to find some local MP making equally dodgy remarks. But from that point of view I’d be happy for people like that to see a man from Belfast winning a medal in a gay sports event.”