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Out athletes going for gold

New milestones in queer representation at Tokyo Olympics

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Michael Gunning narrowly missed out on qualifying for this year’s Olympic Games. (Photo courtesy Gunning)

The 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games begin on June 23, with competitions continuing through Aug. 8. The Games were postponed in March 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For many aspiring Olympians, the quadrennial event is the culmination of a lifetime of sacrifices to compete against the best athletes in the world while representing their country on an international stage.

The road to get there is filled with obstacles and this Olympic cycle produced one more barrier in the form of training disruptions that happened in almost every sport.

After all the dust settled during the qualifying process, 627 athletes were named to Team USA. More than 30 of those athletes are out members of the LGBTQ community. 

Regarding the other countries competing, according to a recent story by Outsports, “At least 142 publicly out gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and nonbinary athletes are headed to Tokyo for the Summer Olympic Games.”

Flashback to the 2016 Rio Olympic Games when a correspondent from The Daily Beast used hook-up apps such as Bumble, Tindr, Grindr, and Jack’d to message gay athletes. His published story went on to describe the athletes, creating potentially dangerous situations for the athletes from countries with high anti-LGBTQ violence rates.

What should we expect from the environment in Japan? 

There have been a handful of Japanese athletes who have come out recently but for the most part, they are competing in other countries – notably trans soccer star Kumi Yokoyama who plays for the Washington Spirit and out lesbian Shiho Shimoyamada who plays soccer for SV Meppen in Germany.

LGBTQ activists in Japan were hoping that the worldwide attention on the Tokyo Olympics would help push their ruling Liberal Democratic Party to pass EqualityActJapan banning discrimination against LGBTQ people. Their legislature went into recess without passing the measure.

That setback did not stop Pride House Tokyo Legacy from opening in October 2020 in Shinjuku, Tokyo. It will serve as a permanent LGBTQ support center where individuals can feel safe and at home.

Pride House Tokyo Legacy has been authorized as part of the Tokyo 2020 Official Program by the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games along with full support from the International Olympic Committee. Those endorsements make it the first Pride House worldwide to achieve this status.

Visibility for the LGBTQ community is important for a variety of reasons and in the sports world, we tend to point to LGBTQ athletes as role models for younger generations. 

Over the next few weeks we will bear witness to the first transgender athlete to compete in Laurel Hubbard as a weightlifter for Team New Zealand. 

We will watch lesbian triple jumper Yulimar Rojas compete and carry the flag for her country of Venezuela in the Parade of Nations. 

And we will sit enthralled as gay British Olympic diver Tom Daley is cheered on by his three-year-old son Robbie as he attempts to medal again in his fourth Olympics.

The last time the Blade checked in with out Tongan swimmer Amini Fonua, he was in heavy training to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and struggling with the funding needed to complete that journey.

Fonua was one of the Olympic athletes that spoke out against The Daily Beast story from 2016, which helped to get the story retracted, with an apology. It was the first instance where the International Olympic Committee, which also chimed in, had ever acknowledged an LGBTQ presence. 

Amini Fonua qualified for his third Olympics this year. (Photo courtesy Fonua)

When the pandemic hit, Fonua’s training pool closed and his income from teaching swimming lessons dried up. In an effort to be closer to his training group, New York Athletic Club, he moved from New Jersey to New York City mid-pandemic.

To stay in shape, he ramped up his time spent on weight training, running, biking, and yoga.

“The pandemic changed a lot of things for all of us,” says Fonua. “This past year has been about survival, and I have done my best with what I have been given.”

Eventually pools opened back up with limits on swimmers per lane and time spent in the water. Fonua was only allowed four 45-minute swim practices per week, which is well below the amount of time that elite swimmers spend in the pool.

He also found employment with Fitter and Faster Swim Camps with all of his travel to swim camps completed by train to minimize his exposure to the virus. 

As of May 2021, Fonua was not the top Tongan swimmer that would be selected for the Olympic team. He was also facing swim meet entry barriers due to COVID restrictions to even compete for a spot on the team.

In smaller nations and those with developing swim programs, the international federation for swimming, FINA, and the International Olympic Committee allow for universalityentries into the Olympics. 

The universality system allows a nation with no Olympic swimming qualifier to enter up to one man and one woman in the Olympics. The two swimmers are chosen based on FINA points, which are calculated using a cubic curve.

Fonua received a last minute entry to the Atlanta Classic swim meet on May 14 where he would have one last shot to make the team. He threw down a time in the 100 meter breaststroke that moved him past the top Tongan swimmer based on FINA points and qualified him for his third Olympics.

For this Olympic experience, Fonua will be thinking about what his father always says to him regarding sports — be competitive, do your best, and have fun.

“I will be staying in the Olympic Village but there won’t be any Grindr this time because I am in love. I will be racing on the 24th and still hope to walk in the Parade of Nations the night before,” Fonua says. “My mom is the team manager for the Tongan swim team, and I am looking forward to cups of tea with her and visiting Pride House Tokyo. I know it will be different this time because of COVID, but there is nothing like experiencing a city hosting the Olympics.”

When you receive an email from out swimmer Michael Gunning, the signature line says Professional Athlete. He laughs when asked about it and says it is a continuation of what he used to write on his school essays — Michael Gunning, The Swimmer.

Gunning, who currently trains in Manchester, England, became fully committed to swimming at age 13 when he won a national competition in England. A few years later he was representing Great Britain on their junior national team.

“We have all heard that Black people don’t swim, and I wanted to prove it could be done,” says Gunning. “I began chasing those Olympic dreams at every event I swam in.”

Despite swimming well in the 200 meter butterfly in the qualifying trials for the 2014 Commonwealth Games, he was left off the Great Britain team.

Jamaica reached out and said they would love for Gunning to swim for them (his father was born in Jamaica). He represented the country for the first time at the 2017 World Championships in Budapest and again at the 2019 World Championships in Gwangju.

“I was really on the fence before saying yes. I felt like I wasn’t being taken seriously in the UK and this was an opportunity to do my bit and inspire,” Gunning says. “That first experience in Budapest was amazing. The Jamaican team accepted me, and I finally felt good enough.”

When the Blade last checked in with Gunning, he was pointing toward the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. At that time, he was the top Jamaican point earner if it came down to a FINA universality selection for the Olympics.

Then the pandemic hit. Gunning was out of the water for more than 100 days and scrambling to stay in shape with dryland training.

“Those were dark and desperate times,” says Gunning. “Once I was able to get back in the water, I trained by myself for 20 weeks.”

With COVID barriers for training and competitions, Gunning knew all along that another Jamaican swimmer could top his FINA points. 

And then it happened. 

FINA adjusted their earned points for the 200 meter butterfly downward and another swimmer earned more points in the 200 meter IM.

Gunning had one last shot in June at a meet in Glasgow but did not swim near his best times. He received the news earlier this month that he was not selected for the team.

“Swimming shapes you as a person. Whether you reach your end goals or not, you are so much stronger for it. I don’t regret any of the hard work I put in,” Gunning says. “Swimming prompted me to come out – swimming gave me that. We still need diversity and inclusion, especially at the grass roots level. I want to be that representation.”

With the news being so fresh, Gunning is unclear on his long term path in the pool. He will continue to teach swimming and field offers that come his way. Next year, he will be a Pride House ambassador at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

“The Olympics make role models, and I am excited to support and cheer for the LGBTQ athletes who are competing,” says Gunning. “For now, I am going to live every day, one day at a time, being myself and being authentic.”

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Formula One racing star wears LGBTQ Pride helmet at Qatar Grand Prix

“It’s down to whether you decide to educate yourself, hold the sport more accountable and make sure the sport is actually doing something”

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Lewis Hamilton Formula One helmet design via Hamilton's Twitter

DOHA, Qatar – Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team’s seven time Grand Prix champion driver Lewis Hamilton won in the inaugural run of the Qatar Grand Prix Formula One race Sunday.

That was not the only significant event that the 36-year-old race car driver participated in during his Qatar stay as prior to the race, Hamilton had shown support for the LGBTQ+ community during a practice session on Friday, wearing a a helmet featuring the Pride Progress Flag, a redesigned and more inclusive version of the traditional rainbow flag, and emblazoned with the words “We Stand Together.”

The flag features additional black and brown stripes to highlight the oppression of people of color, as well as pink and blue stripes for the trans flag and a purple circle on a yellow background, which is the intersex flag.

On his personal Twitter account the Formula One racer tweeted pictures of his helmet, which he wore at the end of Trans Awareness Week and this weekend which marks the International Transgender Day of Remembrance on Saturday.

Hamilton had received a knighthood from the British monarch Queen Elizabeth II in December a year ago for his human rights and advocacy work with his private charity, The Hamilton Commission, which the Stevenage, Hertfordshire, UK native set-up to simultaneously address the underrepresentation of Black people in UK motorsport, as well as the STEM sector.

The queen’s honors are awarded twice a year, in late December and in June, when the monarch’s birthday is observed. The awards acknowledge hundreds of people for services to community or British national life. Recipients are selected by committees of civil servants from nominations made by the government and the public.

In an interview with the Guardian, Hamilton said that he believes “sportspeople are duty bound to speak out on human rights matters in the countries they visit. With Qatar hosting its first Formula One Grand Prix this weekend and facing new allegations of worker exploitation and abuse in its preparations for next year’s football World Cup, Hamilton insisted he would hold the sport to account for the places it chooses to race.

Prior to the debut of the Qatar Formula One race and with the 2022 FIFA World Cup matches slated for 2022 in Qatar, focus once more fell on human rights issues. The Guardian reported that workers within the state have claimed that reforms to the country’s restrictive kafala labour sponsorship system have been ineffective while human rights groups continue to highlight oppressive male guardianship policies as well as discriminatory laws against women and LGBTQ+ individuals.

Lewis Hamilton 2016 Malaysia Grand Prix
(Photo by Morio)

“We’re aware there are issues in these places that we’re going to,” Hamilton told the Guardian. “But of course [Qatar] seems to be deemed as one of the worst in this part of the world. As sports go to these places, they are duty bound to raise awareness for these issues. These places need scrutiny. Equal rights is a serious issue.”

He added: “If we are coming to these places, we need to be raising the profile of the situation. One person can only make a certain amount of small difference but collectively we can have a bigger impact. Do I wish that more sportsmen and women spoke out on these issues? Yes.

“It’s down to whether you decide to educate yourself and hold the sport more accountable and make sure the sport is actually doing something when they go to those places.”

CNN reported that British intersex activist and columnist Valentino Vecchietti finalized the version seen on Hamilton’s helmet, which includes the intersex flag. “It means everything,” Vecchietti told CNN. “I can’t express what an amazing, massive, massive thing Lewis Hamilton has done. And I feel emotional talking about it, because we are so hidden and stigmatized as a population.”

The Pride Progress flag by Valentino Vecchietti to include representation for the intersex community.
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International Olympic Committee issues new “Framework On Fairness” for inclusion of Trans Athletes

The International Olympic Committee announced new guidance allowing “every person” to participate & abandons testosterone levels as criteria

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International Olympic Committee Headquarters (Photo by Greg Martin; courtesy IOC)

LAUSANNE, Switzerland – Following the first Olympic Games in which transgender athletes not only competed but made history by winning a gold medal, the International Olympic Committee stunned the world of sport Tuesday by not revising the criteria focused on testosterone, as expected, but moving away from it altogether. 

The IOC announced its new Framework on Fairness, Inclusion and Non-Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity and Sex Variations in a Zoom meeting hosted in Lausanne, Switzerland.

The leaders said they consulted with 250 athletes and “concerned stakeholders” including medical and legal experts over two years, and determined “every person has the right to practice sport without discrimination and in a way that respects their health, safety and dignity.” While stressing that competitive sports “relies on a level playing field,” the IOC tacitly acknowledged the complaints of trans-exclusionary cisgender women athletes by stating support for “the central role that eligibility criteria play in ensuring fairness, particularly in high-level organized sport in the women’s category.”

GLAAD heralded the announcement as making it clear that “no athlete has an inherent advantage over another due to their gender identity, sex variations, or appearance.” 

“This is a victory for all athletes and fans, who know the power and potential of sports to bring people together and make us all stronger,” said Alex Schmider of GLAAD. “Sports are for everyone, and fairness in sports means inclusion, belonging and safety for all who want to participate, including transgender, intersex, and nonbinary athletes.”

What the IOC didn’t do was issue new criteria for testosterone levels and did not define who is or isn’t a woman, and for the first time in modern Olympic history, is walking away from its “one size fits all” guidance. It’ll be left up to each sport and governing body to determine who is eligible to compete. The IOC guidance is that the criteria should respect internationally recognized human rights, rely on robust scientific evidence as well as athlete consultation, and that “precautions be taken to avoid causing harm to the health and well-being of athletes.” 

Although intended to guide elite athletes, the committee suggested all levels of sport, even recreational and grassroots sport, respect inclusion and non-discrimination policies.

Here are the 10 principles outlined by the IOC to to welcome all athletes at every level of participation, centered on the values of inclusion, prevention of harm and non-discrimination.

1. Inclusion 

2. Prevention of Harm

3. Non-discrimination

4. Fairness

5. No presumption of Advantage

6. Evidence-based Approach

7. Primacy of Health and Bodily Autonomy

8. Stakeholder-Centered Approach

9. Right to Privacy

10. Periodic Reviews

Athlete Ally was one of the agencies consulted by the IOC in determining this framework. “We hope to continue working closely with the IOC to ensure that the policies and practices governing sport actually include and represent the diversity of people playing sport,” said Anne Lieberman, Director of Policy and Programs at Athlete Ally. 

“Far too often, sport policy does not reflect the lived experience of marginalized athletes, and that’s especially true when it comes to transgender athletes and athletes with sex variations,” said Quinn of Canada’s Olympic Soccer team and the world’s first trans nonbinary gold medalist. “This new IOC framework is groundbreaking in the way that it reflects what we know to be true — that athletes like me and my peers participate in sports without any inherent advantage, and that our humanity deserves to be respected.”  

“I think that the IOC has made a powerful statement in favor of transgender inclusion, but I think that items 5 and 6 in their framework are problematic,” said Joanna Harper, the visiting fellow for transgender athletic performance at Loughborough University in the U.K. and a former IOC consultant. 

“On average, transgender women are taller, bigger and stronger than cisgender women and these are advantages in many sports,” Harper told the Los Angeles Blade. “It is also unreasonable to ask sporting federations to have robust, peer-reviewed research prior to placing any restrictions on transgender athletes in elite sports. Such research is years or maybe decades away from completion. I do think that recreational sports should allow unrestricted inclusion of trans athletes.” 

As San Francisco-based trans journalist Ina Fried noted in Axios, the IOC said that sex testing, genital inspections and other medical procedures to determine gender put all athletes at risk of harm and abuse, not just trans, intersex and nonbinary athletes. But the bottom line, Fried wrote, is that this new framework isn’t legally binding on any sports governing bodies, which now have carte blanche to write their own rules for eligibility.

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Proud to be a Fury

New film a touching tribute to the history of women’s rugby

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(Photo courtesy of Coleen McCloskey)

The last time that the Blade checked in with DC Furies player Liz Linstrom, she mentioned that she would always contribute to the club even if injuries sidelined her ability to play.

That statement proved to be prophetic as Linstrom experienced her third ACL tear while in the beginnings of filming a documentary about the Furies.

Linstrom had created a short documentary on women’s rugby and femininity as an undergraduate student at William & Mary and the itch was still there to produce more creative work.

Even though she was working three jobs and playing with the Furies, she felt she had enough work flexibility to pitch a documentary to the club in the fall of 2019.

The original idea was a past, present, and future look at women’s rugby in the United States through the lens of the players. 

Established in 1978, the Furies quickly developed into a highly competitive club, and they are currently competing in the Mid-Atlantic Rugby Union and the Capital Geographic Union, with both Division 1 and Division 3 teams.

In March of 2020, the Furies were ramping up to host their 40th annual Ruggerfest tournament, one of the largest all-women’s rugby tournaments in the United States with brackets including high school, college, social, and competitive clubs.

Then the unexpected happened.

“COVID hit, the tournament was cancelled, and filming of the documentary came to an abrupt stop,” says Linstrom. “The story shifted to the resilience of women and club sports in a way that professional and semi-professional sports teams can’t relate.”

The resulting film, “Furious,” is a touching tribute to the history of women’s rugby, women’s rights, the Furies, tradition, family, and maneuvering through COVID.

Four gay women are central figures in the film with one being married and another nonbinary. The players share what women’s rugby was like in the 1970s.

“The beginnings of women’s rugby in the United States coincided with Title IX in 1972. As a sport in its early beginnings, teams couldn’t afford to push people away. If you wanted to hit someone, you were on the team,” Linstrom says. “By the 1990s, the women’s rugby community was advocating for LGBTQ rights and the Furies had Candace Gingrich as a long-time player. Eighty percent of the team were lesbians.”

Other aspects of women’s rugby that are brought to light are the camaraderie, commitment, sense of family, and the queer elements of the community.

One Fury player breaks her nose 20 minutes into a match, shoves a tampon up her nose, and goes back in as a blood substitution. Another player breaks her wrist and carpools five hours the next day to North Carolina to support her team during a game.

Toward the end of the film, Linstrom addresses the impact of COVID on a club team such as the Furies. Some are concerned about coming back to play and wonder whether the excitement will still be there. Others think about trying to replace the players who are leaving the D.C. area.

“Nothing will keep us from getting together. We are not pro athletes, but the highest levels of women’s rugby in the United States is still club teams,” says Linstrom. “The legacy of the club is very important to all of us. Every time we step onto the pitch, we are standing on the shoulders of the players who came before us. They are our founding bricks.”

“Furious” premiered online in September for family, friends, and Furies players with viewership in 15 states. Linstrom funded the project as producer and director along with a grant from Arlington Cultural Affairs. The film will now be submitted to festivals to reach a larger audience. 

Linstrom has moved on from her three part-time jobs and is now working full-time as a video editor at a production studio in Alexandria along with coaching rugby at American University. 

The Furies were able to play sevens rugby over the summer and had the first game of their fall fifteens season on Sept. 25.

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