|by Jim Provenzano|
A Forward Past: Recognizing Our Sports Legacy
Who is responsible for our preserving GLBT sports history? How do we properly honor those who made the inroads in athletics, a history that we sometimes take for granted?
In October 2004, I was asked by San Francisco's Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Historical Society to undertake what would become one of the most absorbing, exhausting, yet ultimately satisfying projects in years. Curating "Sporting Life: GLBT Athletics and Cultural Change from the 1960s to Today" became a fascinating journey into decades of historic events and people in the Northern California GLBT athletics community.
(from the Sporting Life exhibit by Jim Provenzano)
Despite its limited scope, we were lucky in that so many groundbreaking events took place in San Francisco. The first two Gay Games plus the first organized gay softball and tennis leagues led to tournaments that now draw hundreds of athletes from around the United States.
More than 2,000 people have visited "Sporting Life" since its opening in April 2005. The exhibit has received praise and honors, and will be extended through early 2006.
But more needs to be done, and on a national scale. Many other cities have an equally rich past, with league histories going back decades. Each city should find the time and money to acknowledge and appreciate these communities.
Columnist Andrew Vail agrees. In a recent Gay Guide Toronto column mentioning the "Sporting Life" exhibit, Vail says, "It is high time queer athletes got recognition from the general sports community for their contributions to athletics, this city's inclusive attitude, and for breaking down stereotypes and building invaluable bridges both in and outside of our community."
Vail even takes the proposal a step further, recalling a failed proposal that a GLBT wing be added to Canada's Sports Hall of Fame. Eventually, an exhibit about Toronto's Cabbagetown Gay Softball League was put together (Cabbagetown is a section of the city). The league was formed in 1975, and has a rich history that parallels the growth of that city's GLBT community.
While the inclusion of a gay wing at a major league sports museum may never happen in the United States, it is important to consider the absence of GLBT athletes in nearly all other sports exhibits.
For example, the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, has never acknowledged a gay NFL player. Some may argue that players like David Kopay or Esera Tuaolo may not have the achievements needed for such honors.
But consider Jerry Smith, former player for the Washington Redskins. His 24-year record of catching 421 passes and scoring 60 touchdowns from 1965 to 1977 was unsurpassed until 2003. Only then did the Hall of Fame enshrine another player who surpassed Smith by one touchdown. Was Smith excluded because he was gay, or because he died of AIDS? Was Oakland A's and Los Angeles Dodgers player Glenn Burke excluded from baseball exhibits for similar reasons?
The Oakland Museum of California is hosting "Baseball as America," a touring exhibit of the history of major-league baseball through January 2006. Organized by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y, the exhibit focuses on the most famous stars of the sport.
Programs and panels related to the exhibit attempt to cover local players and contemporary issues. An Oakland Museum representative contacted me about developing a panel that included mention of Burke, who is known for popularizing the "high five." Burke is also known for being one of the first U.S. former pro athletes to come out, and to die of AIDS. Burke also competed in the first Gay Games.
Eventually, despite having scheduled panels specific to African-Americans, Oakland players, and "the multicultural experience," no acknowledgment of Glenn Burke is planned. Exhibit curators did not offer an explanation for his exclusion.
Community-specific sports museums like the National Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame in Chicago's Little Italy have allocated millions of dollars to build an impressive exhibit showcasing a full array of sports. But while a few allegedly gay athletes are included (but obviously not acknowledged as such), Gina Guidi, a prominent female Italian-American boxer, is not included. Could it be because she is an out lesbian?
With two major GLBT sports events taking place in late summer 2006the seventh Gay Games in Chicago, and the first OutGames in Montrealit seems only proper that sports fans, and even gay people who aren't sports fans, see and understand the rich past that led the way to our expanding future in athletics.
Organizers of Gay Games VII have begun plans for an April 2006 ceremony honoring many of the GLBT community's sports leaders, including former pros and regional founders of teams and leagues. Family members of deceased gay athletes will also be asked to join the ceremony.
And in another much smaller gesture, Tom Longaker, a teacher at California's San Lorenzo High School, is putting a pair of football collectible cards of mine to good use. He's placing them in the trophy case of the school where he teaches, and where, over 40 years ago, a student named Jerry Smith started playing football.
Jim Provenzano is the author of the novels PINS and Monkey Suits. He can be reached care of Letters from CAMP Rehoboth or at SportsComplex@qsyndicate.com.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No. 15 November 23, 2005