by Patricia Nell Warren
For me, at age 32 in 1968, distance running started out as a personal female challenge. Indeed, the runner's need to reach deep inside and "find more" spurred my self-discovery as a woman and my consciousness-raising concerning women's rights. Only then, through running, could I finally catch up with those long-festering questions about sexual orientation. It dawned on me that sports are a major arena in which American society hard-wires "traditional" notions about gender roles and orientation into its citizens.
In the words of Bob Dylan, change was "blowing in the wind" of an America convulsed with all kinds of rights of issues. I was in the middle of it -- one of a number of women outlaw runners trying to break into the 26.2-mile male-owned marathon.
As an adjunct to the civil-rights movement, the "athletes' rights movement" was battling the antiquated and hypocritical rules that still ran U.S. athletics. The U.S. denied their amateur athetes any opportunity to profit from sport -- and sent them into competition with countries that openly subsidized their Olympic teams. A minor infraction of the rules could ruin an athlete's career. Women could not make an overnight athletic trip without a chaperone. In running, they were still limited to 2 1/2 miles. There were few women's track teams -- indeed, women were still barred from all high-stress sports, including long-distance running, which was viewed as the No. 1 "extreme sport" of the day. Athletes of color were still demanding equal recognition. In 1968 a black gold-medalist dared to raise a fist of black power as he stood on the victory stand at the Olympic Games. Already the occasional gay and lesbian athlete was publically rumored to be gay or lesbian -- as was golf champion Babe Didrickson (my big teen idol!). In the equestrian world, where I showed hunters and jumpers on the A circuit for a few years, a few wealthy amateur riders and horse-owners dared to be discreetly out. One gay male rider discreetly advertised his different orientation by wearing a rat-catcher that was impeccably tailored from sheared mink. But riders hoping to make the Olympic team kept a rigid heterosexual profile. In 1969, the first year that 11 other women and I crashed the Boston Marathon, another fist was being raised -- more quietly. It was the year of Stonewall, and many closeted university students were electrified by a dual challenge -- coming out and doing long-distance running. Students came flooding into the big road races. Here, in the relatively liberal atmosphere of this new and unconventional sport, several years before the first public rumors about gay hanky-panky in baseball, years before pro football player David Kopay came out, some of these young gay and lesbian runners in their hippie headbands and Adida shoes dared to be more socially visible.
It was the scene that inspired my 1974 novel The Front Runner, about a young gay athletic at the Olympics. The story screamed to be told -- homosexual athletes defying the sexual conformity enforced through sports. Writing and publishing the book was part of my coming out. In the New York City Marathon that year, I competed as an out lesbian.
Today, at 62, with bad knees, I can sit at my TV and watch women run their own Olympic marathon. The frontiers of extreme sport have moved on to sky-surfing, skate-boarding and such. Women are now busy invading surfing and other remnants of male-dominated sport. Homosexuals have achieved a certain level of visibility and tolerance -- but mainly in the sports based on individual performance. Yes, we've had Martina Navratilova and Greg Louganis. Rudy Galindo is still out there in figure skating. The city of Palm Springs have finally publically admitted that 10 million lesbians come to town for the Dinah Shore. FrontRunner Clubs help sponsor big mainstream distance races. We have our own international Gay Games, ahead in August in Amsterdam -- though legally we are still barred from calling them "Olympics." But in team sports, whether pro or amateur, openly homosexual athletes and coaches still face overweening hostility. In high-school and college athletics, the old shower-room and pedofile issues are still wielded like gay-bashers' baseball bats. Openly gay coach Eric "Gumby" Anderson, currently fielding the crack Saddleback College crosscountry team in California, is one of the few victorious survivors in this bloody arena. Women's basketball, finally a popular TV spectator sport, is in constant uproar over the "L" issue. As I write this, mainstream sports are pressing ever forward to find new frontiers -- the first amputee has just climbed Mount Everest. Round the world, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered athletes are packing their bags for Amsterdam. But we non-straights are still struggling with that first frontier. We are still fighting to get that fist of power higher in the air. Nevertheless, things are still blowing in the wind. I am following the fortunes of several college runners who tell me that they hope to stand open and out on that Olympic victory stand in the year 2000. They are already out to their teammates, who evidently don't have a big problem with it. They have their counterparts in many other sports. Despite the recent far-right reactions in U.S. society, the gales of change from the '60s are still blowing. Women and people of color will not likely surrender the sports ground we took -- neither will gay and lesbian athletes.
So I have confidence in the growing influence of young heterosexual tolerance in sports -- and in the irresistible power of young homosexual courage, skill and will.
Copyright (c) 1998 by Patricia Nell Warren. Published in The Advocate's 8/18/98 issue dedicated to the Gay Games. All other rights reserved.