Patricia Nell Warren is a hero of mine. The Front Runner changed many concepts for me as what a gay man could be. That story should be required reading, but for this diary it is her book, The Lavender Locker Room, 3000 years of great athletes whose sexual orientation was different, that is under discussion. While the book is very much historical, Ms. Warren adds touches of humor and warmth that bring these stories to life. I wish I could delve into each of them, but I hit a few selected ones.
The book opens with a chapter on Achilles and Patroclus or How Hollywood de-gayed a great sports story.
But every time I see the movies, I get more irritated at the film industry's track record of cowardice with gay themes in big-budget pictures. In Troy, Tinseltown de-gayed one of the great gay couples of all time, Achilles and Patroclus, whose relationship is documented in many ancicent sources.And with that we are off and running!
Along the way, Troy missed the boat on something else too - namely, the sizzling sports fest of those funeral games help in Patroclus's honor. Indeed, we can safely say that Western sports-writing started with the Illiad's riveting report on those games
The book covers 3000 years of LGTB sports history. Ms. Warren has broken it down into pre-modern times and then picks up in the late 19th century through almost today. her treatment of Patroclus's funeral games is spot on. Indeed, history is never so much fun as when it gets the soap opera treatment. You can feel how offended she is that Troy rewrote one of the great love stories of the ancient world.
After the great love story is detailed against a movie that vanquished it, the book moves on to examine one Joan of Arc. Under the section titled, 15th Century Super Bowl it leads off with:
I've fictionalized this scene, but it's based in fact - a key moment in European history. The girl: Joan of Arc. The moment: she convinced the future King of France and his officers that she had the right stuff to lead their army. The sport: jousting.Ms. Warren includes Joan in this book, not only as a female icon, but because she thinks that Joan was possibly born with complete androgen insensitivity disorder. Jean d'Aulon testified that Joan never menstruated which could be a sign of CAIS. Joan was a hero for France and apparently an amazing jouster.
The next section looks at 5000 years of fencing or as the chapter is titled, Gays with Blades. She touches on how modern fencing is considered a sissy sport but it comes a very violent/ masculine background. There is a brief examination of gladiators as sex symbols. She then touches on two legendary characters with some homosexual tendencies; Sir Lancelot and King Richard the Lion-heart.
The book goes on to look at George Villers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, as a horse breeder. Alberto Santos-Dumont, aerial sportsman; Bill Tilden, men's tennis reinvented; Amelia Earhart, Odd girl of air racing; Ana Maria Martinez Sagi, Spain's "Virgin of the Stadium." This is what makes this book a treasure. Ms. Warren went looking for hidden stories or the stories that were never told completely. Until I read this I never heard of Mr. Santos-Dumont or Ms. Martinez Sagi. Indeed Ms. Martinez Sagi only has an Wikipedia entry in Spanish.
There's only one "Babe" of each gender. Among men, it's Babe Ruth. Among women, it's Babe Didrikson Zaharias. Born in 1911, died in 1956, revered and reviled in her time, Babe was unique in sports. She was striking, strong-willed, pushy, arrogant, funny, big-hearted and courageous Texas tomboy who revolutionized professional golf for women. She also medalled in track and field at the 1932 Olympics, and is said by some to be the most complete woman athlete who ever lived.That is the lead paragraph from the chapter, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Golfing Amazon of the Newsreels. ESPN listed Babe at #15 of the greatest athletes of the 20th century. She was married to George Zaharias, but had a female companion who also played golf, Betty Dodd. It is always interesting to how times are both different and the same. The news of the times didn't say much as the three people lived in a house together, but it was the subject of gossip. Babe died of colon cancer and Dodd became her primary care-giver, taking time away from golf to do so.
The final athletes that earn a mention are: Tamara and Irina Press, the rise and fall of gender testing; Wilhelm von Homburg, bad boy of boxing; Erik Schinegger, an intersex epic in alpine skiing; Gay pioneers on Ice, figure skating (features Rudy Galindo); Rodeo, real gay cowboys and Brokeback Mountain; Jim Bouton, gay baseball players and "the Book"; John Damien's last ride; Diana Nyad, diva of distance swimming (and in the the news yesterday); and David Kopay, a pro football player looks ahead.
There is one other mention that I had to cover though. A hero of mine growing up and to my mind the greatest tennis player ever, Martina Navratilova. Ms. Warren calls her a revolutionary with a racket.
The fact is, Navratilova revolutionized women's tennis on five different fronts. Revolution #1: the power game she brought to women - the ability to blitz opponents withe the kind of high-powered serves and volleys that Bill Tilden first used 50 years before her. Revolution #2: she won more money than God, at a time when the women's pro tour was just getting its first legs. Revolution #3: she was the first top woman tennis player to use cross-training. Revolution #4: she nixed the notion that you have to be young to dominate your sportSports is epic when there are great rivalries. And Martina had Chris Evert as a rival. It was the big Czech against America's sweetheart. Watching her play tennis was all about domination. I would stay glued to HBO when Wimbledon was on to watch her roll through the tournament. But most importantly she came out while still playing. A truly great athlete was OUT and it was like a beacon. To me it didn't matter that she was a woman because watching her play I had no doubt she could give most of the men a beat down. For me it can't be understated how important her coming out was in the 80's. AIDS was taking down the gay community and Ronald Reagan was doing nothing. Politicians on the right mentioned quarantining gay men. For a kid it was very ugly, but here was Martina leading her life, kicking ass, and being herself. Wow! (Plus I learned my slice backhand from watching her.)
Finally Revolution #5: Navratilova was not only out, but a popular out star, winning respect from both straights and gays with her game. She proved that it was possible for LGBT athletes to hold a visible high place in mainstream sports.
Athletes become heroes in our culture. The great ones become legends. There is still no out male from one of the big four major team sports. Ms. Warren's book shows us our history. I still think one will be brave, stand up, and say, "I'm going to be a role model."
One final note. I have to add this because the section on Joan of Arc reminded me very much of this scene from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. The book has its light-hearted moments so here is one as well.