922 Athletes Competed in International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics Competition

Courtesy: John Culhane

The International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics competition took place during the week of June 24. More than 500 masters swimmers competed in Queens, New York. There was also an open-water competition, as well as water polo, diving, and synchronized swimming – drawing a total of 922 athletes across all aquatic disciplines, and in many venues across the New York metropolitan area. 71 IGLA records were set – at least one in almost every swimming event.

The IGLA championships were launched in 1987 in San Diego, and have been held annually since then (except during Gay Games quadrennial years, when aquatics become a piece of a larger athletic event). This year’s event was especially momentous, as it was timed to coincide with New York’s GLBT Pride Week – which in turn was keyed to the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in the city’s totemic Greenwich Village area.

In the words of 2019 IGLA Event Organizer David Hildebrand: “IGLA 2019 was a labor of love.  To welcome nearly 1,000 LGBTQ and allied athletes to New York during the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  This meet was just one of hundreds of events that attracted over four million visitors to the city.  We had to make it memorable.”

Mission accomplished. IGLA organizers took full advantage of the Stonewall synergy, adding events that called attention to swimming’s deep connection to the LGBT+ community.

Light in the Water, a documentary on the history of gay swim teams in the United States, screened on the first night of the competition. The film takes a deep dive into the history of the West Hollywood team (WH20), exploring how the team’s founders overcame discrimination both in the pool and in their jobs to create the first LGBT team. Movingly describing the joys of community and the tragedies inflicted by the AIDS epidemic through the late 1980s and early 1990s, Light in the Water serves as a reminder of the powerful need for LGBT swimmers to create a welcoming space for allowing their love of the sport to flourish. Mauro Bordovsky, a founding member of WH2O and one of those whose stories the movie illuminated, was in New York for the Q&A that followed the screening. He had this to say about the experience:  “It’s amazing that we were there in NY to honor those who came before us and gave us the ability to be as free as we are today. Light in the Water put into film our struggles and our history – and like those who came before us, that’s important for the generations to come. Millennials live more openly and more freely and that didn’t come for free.” He’s gotten great reaction from the film, too: “WH2O had a very big role in laying the groundwork. At last year’s GG, young swimmers came to me and told me how much they appreciated the doc. That makes the whole experience all the more rewarding. We hope we helped to break some taboos.”

In 2019, though, it’s an open question whether the teams’ original missions need revision. On some of them, at least, the “allies” outnumber the LGBT members, and the need for a gay-centric championship might be less pressing. Some IGLA teams are struggling with this issue.

But there’s no such anguishing when it comes to swimmers from parts of the country, or the world, where being identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender remains a high-risk proposition. For instance, this year’s IGLA championship featured swimmers from Uganda – a place where same-sex relationships are punishable by up to 14 years in prison, and where LGBT people live with the constant fear of violence. For them, IGLA serves as a powerful beacon.

Helping to create the spaces where LGBT athletes can break through these barriers, the participants in the “Out Olympians” exemplified excellence at the highest level. All three speakers – Americans Bruce Hayes and Betsy Mitchell, as well as Australian Daniel Kowalski – are Olympic gold medalists. According to Hildebrand: “The Olympian Q&A was one of the high-points of the week for me.  Each speaker shared personal and thought-provoking experiences.  The two-hour discussion was interspersed with videos of their races and covered topics from East German doping to the highs and lows of life outside of the spotlight to the public’s perception of what it means to be a gay man or a lesbian at the highest levels of sport.  The panelists’ sincerity was incredibly gripping and poignant.” The event was moderated by Jeff Commings, a USMS multiple-record holder who also co-hosts “Deck Pass Live,” USA Swimming’s show that’s hosted from the deck of major swim meets.

As always, the event culminated with the reliably fabulous Pink Flamingo event, an aquatic costume drama in which many of teams compete in a seriously silly deck-to-pool event tied to a theme. In this year of Avengers Endgame, the theme was “superheroes,” and the squads, as ever, combined outrageous humor with genuinely moving tableaus. The crowd was brought to tears when the son of one of the synchronized swimmers ran across the deck waving the iconic rainbow flag. Hildebrand noted that the gesture brought the crowd to tears.

“IGLA is about pride and inclusivity.  It’s a meet where record-breakers race alongside novices, where the young interact with the old and lasting friendships are formed,” Hildebrand concluded.

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