Review of “Claiming the Title: Gay Olympics on Trial”

Claiming the Title provides a resonant — if brief — history lesson from LGBT rights movement’s not-so-distant past. A short documentary about the history of the Gay Games and its legal battle to use the term “Olympics," it captures the flavor of 1980s activism in the United States.

The Gay Olympics/Gay Games were started in 1982 to serve as a healthy, positive community-building event, presumably one that would increase positive gay visibility to the rest of the world. Dr. Tom Waddell, a gay physician and Olympic athlete himself, started it all, and the first games drew thousands of athletes and supporters to the bay area to compete and celebrate.

Ample archival footage from the early events paints a very appealing picture. Athletes from all over the LGBT spectrum compete for cheering, smiling, gay flag-waving crowds. Same sex couples embrace at medal stands and after races, making the games a wonderfully inclusive montage of queer goodwill. The excellent 1980s hair and fashions (short shorts for everyone) certainly don’t hurt the visual appeal either.

Of course, despite the fact that there were countless other organizations that used the term “Olympics” as part of their titles, the National Olympic Committee placed a restraining order on the Gay Games for their use of the word, and took the case from the lower courts all the way to the top. “Gay” was seen as a derogatory, negative term, something that the Olympic Committee didn’t want any association with.

Thus begun the battle to literally claim the title.

As the film points out, this was a pretty tough era to try and pass progressive legislation. Literally weeks before the case went to the Supreme Court, the infamous Bowers v. Hardwick decision had passed, ruling that a Georgia anti-sodomy law was constitutional.  In other words, gay sex had just been deemed illegal where anti-sodomy laws were still held — and that such laws were perfectly fine.

As interviewee Lisa Keen (the executive editor of queer newspaper The Washington Blade from 1983-2001), states, “It wasn’t just another case. It had a huge impact.”

Clearly, this was a time of rampant institutionalized homophobia. But that didn’t stop Mary Dunlap — an out lesbian lawyer and good friend of Waddell — from taking the case to the Supreme Court. Literally weeks after the Hardwick decision, Dunlap donned a skirt (for the first time anyone had ever seen her in one) and took her righteous anger to the bench.

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