By Dan Woog
Scientists, artists and world leaders have Nobel Prizes. Geniuses have MacArthur grants. Gay athletes have the Gene and John Athletic Fund of Stonewall.
While not as well-known as those other prizes, the Gene and John Fund has spent a decade offering scholarships of up to $5,000 to LGBT young people, to continue their education while pursuing athletics.
Now, the Fund is branching out.
This year they supported efforts beyond scholarships to highlight athletic achievements by queer athletes, featuring the first annual Stonewall Swim across Long Island’s Great South Bay this past summer. Nearly three dozen swimmers, ranging in age from early 20s to late 50s, swam for three and a half miles. All – including Michael Holts, who swam the English Channel last summer – finished. The winning time, by Win Chesson, was a swift one hour, 28 minutes.
The course was not chosen lightly. The end point – Fire Island Pines – is one of the New York area’s premier gay vacation spots. The finish line – a spectacular home – was where actress Christine Ebersole welcomed the swimmers ashore.
Holts called the Stonewall Swim even more difficult in some ways than the English channel, because of the Bay’s currents and rough, choppy waters.
The swim, said honorary chair and Gene and John Athletic Fund co-founder Gene Silbert, “is exactly the kind of activity that we want to promote. It is perfectly aligned with our Fund’s mission ‘to promote athletic role models by showcasing the abilities of gay and lesbian athletes.'”
It was also a very successful fundraiser that surpassed its already ambitious goal of $100,000. One swimmer – Robby Browne – raised $20,000 by himself. Many other contributions, however, came in small amounts from individual donors.
Fund co-founder John Kiley hopes to expand the swim beyond New York, to include national and even international participation.
Another event already reaches across the country. Thanks to Gene and John Athletic Fund support, the Q Center of Portland created a series of clinics. LGBT youngsters in the area learned the basics of soccer, softball and volleyball.
Coaches from local LGBT sports organizations led each clinic. Participants were provided with equipment – including shoes donated by avid Q Center supporter Nike.
“The impact of these clinics was clear to the coaches and team members,” the Fund reports. “The pressure, prejudice and isolation that befalls LGBT athletes in school settings was not a factor. Camaraderie and support escalated on the fields and courts, especially when a team member was not as strong as others.”
When “Go queen!” was shouted, it was as support – not ridicule.
Encouraged by the clinics, the Fund is asking gay community organizations to propose other athletic activities benefiting LGBT youth.
“As we approach the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the Gene and John Athletic Fund,” the organization says, “we are grateful for and inspired by the example of all the fine athletes, dedicated coaches and committed administrators we have had the honor of meeting and working with.
“Humbled by their passion and inspired by their achievements, we look forward to supporting and shining the light on more fine LGBT athletes in 2010 and beyond.”
In addition to its other accomplishments, the Gene and John Fund is still committed to its scholarship program. This year’s winner is Patrick Ryan Adams. A 2009 graduate of Deerfield Academy, he is attending Colby College in Maine.
At Deerfield, Patrick ran cross-country, skied and rowed. He was the cross-country captain and a triple award winner. He also captained the ski team and earned an achievement award. As a three-year rower, he won two bronze medals. He now rows at Colby.
Patrick – who served as a Deerfield proctor – was also an Eagle Scout, and a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity and Special Olympics. As a member of Deerfield’s Gay-Straight Alliance, he helped create a confidential counseling service for closeted students.
“After I came out, I know I altered people’s perceptions about the LGBT community,” Patrick says. “I will continue to live as a successful and humble example for people in and outside the LGBT community.”
He adds: “While I realize anyone can say they will make a difference, I know I can.”
The Gene and John Athletic Fund of Stonewall can say the same.
For more information about the Gene and John Athletic Fund, including 2010 scholarship information, visit geneandjohnfoundation.org, call 212-367-1155, e-mail email@example.com, or write the Stonewall Community Foundation, 119 W. 24th St., New York, NY 10011.