A documentary ‘Light in the Water’ tells the story of a group of gay men and women who fought against prejudice in the 80s to swim their way to victory.
In the gay community, there’s an old adage about “alternative families”. It explores the notion that gay men and lesbians, in the absence of marriage equality and acceptance from their families, often find themselves creating blood ties of their own, kinships formed by shared experience rather than genealogy.
The West Hollywood aquatics team is one such family. Formed in 1982, in preparation for that year’s inaugural Gay Games, the squad is the subject of a new documentary called Light in the Water, which charts their journey from pariahs to pioneers as they battled the scourge of Aids and the enduring myth that being gay and athletic are mutually exclusive.
WH2O, short for the squad name, has been largely written out of the history of LGBT representation in sport, a history that’s woefully thin as it is. But Light in the Water, directed by the first-time filmmaker Lis Bartlett, should go a long way toward rectifying that.
In the early 1980s, the West Hollywood Aquatics Club acted as a refuge for a dozen gay men and women who felt free from persecution in its regulation-sized lap pool. They were intent on making it to the Gay Games in San Francisco, an Olympic-like sporting event whose goal was to foster a spirit of inclusion and community. So they formed a team, named for the club where they trained, and began entering local masters events against “straight” teams.
“I remember a certain sense of pride,” says one swimmer in the film, “in just being able to be gay on a swim team.” Another recalls playing sports as a means of hiding his sexuality, a smoke and mirrors act most gay men will identify with. And Charlie Bartel, a younger member of WH2O, opens the film with an anecdote about two high school teammates telling the “fag” that he “doesn’t belong on the team”.
Moments like these, peppered throughout the documentary, provide the kind of testimony and context one needs in order to understand the radicalism of WH2O, formed one year after both Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King came out publicly. It was one thing to be openly gay. But to be a gay athlete in a world that saw those identifiers in diametric opposition opened up a double whammy of ridicule.
For many of the swimmers featured in the documentary, some of whom are swimming even today, sitting down with Bartlett to reminisce about the team’s origins was cathartic, sad and joyful all at once. There are painful memories: the 38 teammates lost to AIDS, for instance, or the ignorance they encountered at swim meets, where opponents regularly snickered in their direction and worried openly about contracting the virus in pool water. At one water polo match, the host team even doused the pool in extra chlorine as a scare tactic.
Yet there are memories of triumph, too, without which it is hard to imagine LGBT visibility in sports having progressed to its current state. The first was the 1982 Gay Games in San Francisco, founded by Tom Waddell, who was sued by the US Olympic Committee for having originally used the word “Olympics”, although they had never brought legal action against the many other organisations who also used it.
When Morri Spang, an original member of WH2O, was caught printing fliers for the event at the school where she taught, her contract was terminated. “It made the mission of the Gay Olympics crystal clear,” she says in the documentary. “We will be strong if we are in numbers, but we’ll only be in numbers if we all come out.”
The first Gay Games, kicked off by a Tina Turner performance, drew more than 1,300 athletes. By 1994, when the games were held in New York City on the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, up to 15,000 athletes took part. That was the year James Ballard, another WH2O veteran who had been diagnosed as HIV positive, broke a world record in the 100-meter backstroke. “It was seen as such a surprise to have a world record holder like Jim Ballard”, says Spang. “As the first gay and lesbian swim team, we were fighting against the idea that men are sissies and the only thing women did in sports was softball.”
Spang, though, recalls how prejudice and homophobia toward WH2O eventually morphed into respect and even envy. “People didn’t just get together for coffee after workouts,” she says. “People got involved in each other’s lives, helped each other find jobs and places to live. We weren’t just making friendships, we were forming family. So there was bigotry, especially among straight men who didn’t want to be around the ‘fag’ team or would laugh at the ‘dykes’. But because of our camaraderie, that evolved into admiration, because they wished they had that on their teams.”
As an elementary school teacher, Spang sees the impact openly gay athletes can have on students first-hand. “When a hero of theirs comes out, that makes differences of all sorts that much more acceptable,” she says. And while there remain no openly gay athletes in the four major American sports, she looks forward to a future “where nobody thinks it’s a big deal if someones comes out as gay, lesbian or bisexual, where trans people are just seen as part of the spectrum of who we are as people”.