By Dan Woog
At the 1990 Gay Games in Vancouver, wrestling was an afterthought. Organization was so haphazard, longtime devotee Gene Dermody paid $300 of his own money to get mats in place for competition.
That galvanized the small but intense gay wrestling community. Realizing that no one would help them except themselves, they formed a coalition.
Wrestlers Without Borders – dedicated to promoting the freestyle and Greco-Roman versions of the sport – has grown into an international umbrella organization for wrestling clubs. Its focus is on gay clubs and events, though it welcomes any group that shows “a commitment to wrestlers of all ages, genders and orientations in a safe, non-elitist environment.”
WWB has helped push wrestling to the forefront of the Gay Games. Its Web site provides a clearinghouse for LGBT wrestling events. And it offers help to any group or individual new to the sport.
In 1994, the group worked with New York organizers to include women’s wrestling in the Gay Games, says WWB chair Roger Brigham. Four years later, in Amsterdam, WWB helped introduce gay wrestling to many Europeans. That, in turn, led to an impressive wrestling presence at the 2002 Sydney Games.
Along the way, WWB has served as an ambassador for gay wrestlers. “Everywhere we go, mainstream organizations are impressed by our professionalism,” Brigham says. “We’ve gained acceptance and broken down barriers.”
At the 2006 Gay Games in Chicago, some of the sport’s top national officials became vocal advocates of WWB’s all-encompassing approach. When the games ended, they threw their support behind the formation of a gay wrestling club in Chicago.
The Chicago organization joined counterparts in Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco, London, Paris and Sydney.
Allies are a crucial part of Wrestlers Without Borders. “Our clubs have a higher percentage of straight athletes than other sports organizations,” Brigham notes. “We couldn’t survive without them.”
His friendship with Jim Michael provides an excellent example of such support. A Chicagoan, he was intrigued by the 2006 Gay Games. The next year, on a trip to San Francisco with his wife, he visited a practice of the Golden Gate Wrestling Club. He loved the atmosphere; his wife was treated well – and a year or so later Michael returned for a tournament. “He got his ass kicked,” Brigham says.
Yet Michael grew emotional when he told Golden Gate members how respected they made him feel – “not like a has-been or washed-up old guy,” Brigham says. When the Chicago Wrestling Club hosted a WWB event the following year, Michael was a primary backer.
“Wrestling is a sport of great intimacy. When you wrestle you know a man’s character, and he knows yours,” Brigham says, explaining the ease with which gay and straight wrestlers get along.
Yet despite the growth, all is not well in the gay wrestling world. The World Outgames – an upstart organization that began in 2006 in Montreal, continued in Copenhagen in 2009 and now plans a 2013 event in Antwerp – has diverted focus from all gay sports, Brigham says. Wrestling – a sport that does not attract wealthy participants, and that needs a critical mass of athletes in each weight class to run an effective tournament – has been hit hard by the Gay Games-Outgames schism.
“It’s hard to fill all the classes, and it’s asking a lot to travel internationally so often,” he says. “We worry about ‘event fatigue.'” WWB has drafted an online petition to keep the Gay Games “the premier global LGBT sports-cultural event.”
WWB has also taken a lead in documenting the history of gay wrestling. A comprehensive page on the Web site (http://wrestlerswob.com) explores wrestling’s role in both the Gay Games and the birth of the LGBT sports movement. The Don Jung Hall of Merit honors the sport’s LGBT pioneers.
As it looks back, WWB inspires wrestlers in unexpected ways. “People hear about us, and even if they’ve been out of wrestling for years, they get involved again,” Brigham says with pride. “They realize the importance of giving back.”
Many times, former athletes find that doing so – while identifying for the first time as a gay wrestler – is both empowering and exciting.
At the same time, sexual orientation is only part of Wrestlers Without Borders. “As the barriers of homophobia in sports wear down, people in the gay sports world are saying, ‘We’re so successful – do we still have a reason for being? Are we losing our gay identity?’
“We don’t call people ‘straight allies’ or ‘straight partners,'” Brigham says. “We call them ‘wrestlers.'”
And because of that philosophy, borders between straight and gay wrestlers are falling around the world.