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Sweating it out.

The Lavender Locker Room: 3,000 Years of Great Athletes Whose Sexual Orientation Was Different

by Patricia Nell Warren

Wildcat Press. 358 pages, 24.95

FOR MOST GAY MEN of a certain age (and doubtless many lesbians), reading Patricia Nell Warren's The Front Runner was a rite of passage on our way to a new understanding of what it could mean to be gay. While homosexuality had always been associated with the arts, few among us in the mid-1970's could imagine any association of our sexuality with the world of competitive sports. Many of us looked back on high school gym class as hours of ostracism and misery, and the locker room as the locus of all our anxieties about a growing attraction to other boys. An air of effeteness still clung to homosexuality; the manly rough-and-tumble of sports was something we were assumed and expected not to pursue (though the sweaty players themselves were another matter!).

The transformative power of Warren's book--the story of a young gay runner and the coach who falls in love with him--lay not so much in its thrilling eroticism as in its depiction of a gay man as a superb, competitive athlete. The Front Runner bridged the divide between loving men and competing with them. Suddenly we understood that we could do both. And for many of us, alienated from sports in general and team sports in particular, this was not just a revelation but a liberation. It is not too much to say that the enormous growth of gay-identified athleticism over the past thirty years, culminating in the quadrennial Gay Games and Outgames, began with this book.

Since then, Warren has written several more novels, but in The Lavender Locker Room she turns her attention to profiling gay athletes, reaching as far back as The Iliad and as recently as the 2004 Olympics. In a collection of biographies written for Outsports.com, she examines the lives and sports legacies of tennis and football players, skaters and skiers, a balloonist and an aviatrix, track and field legends, fencers, fighters, and even the father of modern race horse breeding, discovering that there's "almost no physical endeavor where gays and lesbians have not played a role."

As is often the case with a collection of separately published essays, even ones as thematically unified as these, this book has something of a cobbled together, omnium-gatherum quality. Warren examines not only the lives of self-declared gay athletes such as Martina Navratilova and the NFL's Dave Kopay, but gathers into the lavender fold people who lived well before the advent of a "gay consciousness" or for whom the historical evidence of erotic variance is at best suggestive.

Joan of Arc, an accomplished fencer and jouster, may now be regarded by lesbian athletes as "the first female action hero," but to claim her as one of us requires a degree of what can only be called "gay abandon." Warren is probably on firmer ground in theorizing that Joan of Arc may have been a transgendered or intersex person. Indeed, two chapters examine the lives of athletes who, with the advent of genetic testing in the 1960's, were discovered to possess such variations as XYY or XXY chromosomes, androgen insensitivity, or, in the case of the great Austrian skier, Erika Schinegger, congenital abnormalities that concealed "her" undescended testicles.

The Lavender Locker Room gets off to a good start by reminding us that the first games recorded in Western history were those organized by Achilles on the beach before Troy following the death and immolation of his passionately loved fellow warrior Patroclus. They were a direct inspiration for the real games played on the fields of Olympus 2,500 years ago. But Warren's collection of biographies largely leaves it to the reader to come up with a "unified playing field theory" of gay men and women in sports.

Two athletes, one male and one female, stand out as the first greats to break through the prevailing image of sports as a (straight) gentlemen's club activity. "Big Bill" Tilden virtually reinvented the game of tennis, making it a more physically challenging, competitive, and professional sport. Even a certain "swishiness" and two late career convictions for sexual advances on teenage boys didn't prevent him from being named the greatest tennis player of the century in a 1950 sportswriters' poll. Babe Didriksen excelled in every sport she tried and revolutionized professional golf for women. Such was her renown that no one dared utter the "L word" when she began touring and living openly with a woman twenty years her junior.

People like Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova in tennis, Dick Buttons and Rudy Galinda in figure skating, and Greg Louganis in diving have added to this record of what it means to be both a superb athlete and gay. Despite the absence of out gay players in the major team sports, one can appreciate the distance we have come by comparing Bill Tilden's 1948 plea for "greater tolerance and wider education on the part of the general public concerning this form of sex relationship" and Rudy Galinda's statement after winning a gold medal at the 1996 Olympics: "I'm an openly gay trailer-trash Mexican. How could they not love me?"

Christian Draz is a writer and philanthropist based in Boston.
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Title Annotation:The Lavender Locker Room: 3000 Years of Great Athletes Whose Sexual Orientation Was Different
Author:Draz, Christian
Publication:The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Article Type:Book review
Date:May 1, 2007
Words:885
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