When we first heard about a gay wrestling club in San Francisco we were like, those San Franciscans. Of course you have a special club where dudes wear spandex and roll around trying to dominate each other with their powerful thighs. Then it occurred to us, isn’t that all wrestling clubs? Why does it matter that this one’s gay? Turns out gay sports clubs are a popular feature of the athletic landscape.
We called up Roger Brigham, a coach at San Francisco's Golden Gate Wrestling Club to ask about the continued existence of gay sports clubs in an increasingly gay friendly world.
VICE: Do we still need “gay sports clubs,” is it naive to assume that in a modern world all clubs should be gay friendly?
Roger Brigham: Yes it is naive. There are still significant barriers to overcome. We've had this discussion many times with different clubs, because different clubs market themselves differently. Some place the fact that they’re gay right up front, where others you have to dig a little bit further. We need to put it out there, because we need to make sure the conversation occurs. We don’t want somebody to be in a club and find out that people are not accepting. It’s really important to have the conversation in there, and then the reality is once you’ve done that it becomes such a non-issue.
Do straight people wrestle you differently if they know you’re gay?
I don’t know because everyone I’ve always wrestled with has known I was gay so I can’t compare it to anything, I’ve been very fortunate throughout my life, I came out in 1982 when I was a wrestling coach in Alaska in six different high schools. After I came out I never really noticed any differences in how they treated me.
Why are wrestlers so accepting?
I noticed when I wrestled in school and college that no matter how psyched I was to dislike opponents, after wrestling them I always had to respect them. I think all wrestlers are accustomed to being tested to their limits and realising value in everyone with whom they grapple. They know what it is like to compete in a sport which few know or understand. They know what it is like to be underestimated.
But if homophobia is less of an issue in the wrestling community, why are there clubs like Golden Gate?
I would say homophobia has become less of an issue in wrestling because of the existence of clubs like Golden Gate. The clubs pull together a critical mass of athletes and provide a safe environment and that gives many the confidence to come out.
You mentioned sexuality being a non issue in wrestling, in light of some of the comments that the Russian Olympic coaches have said, blaming a homosexual conspiracy for the sport being removed from the games, do you think there is a stream of homophobia in wrestling outside of your community?
I think that there are people in wrestling that are homophobic, but they’re homophobic because they’re homophobes, not because they’re wrestlers. What those Russian coaches said was really absurd, you’re talking about a sport where guys are very buff, not wearing much, rolling around on the mat getting sweaty. It sounds to me like something all my gay friends would want to watch, not have removed. So I can’t understand how he would think that any gay would not want wrestling in the Olympics.
Why did he think homosexuals were agaisnt wrestling?
I think what he was meaning to say, and it’s just as bad, is that wrestling is a very macho sport. I think in his mind he was translating homosexuals as people who are weak and effeminate who don’t want to have battle and are trying to kill combat sports.
So you’re breaking down stereotypes that homosexuals are weaker?
Yes, and wrestling can be extremely beneficial for a gay person to encounter because it teaches you how to test your limits faith in your own ability. It teaches you how to fight and succeed, it also teaches you how to be a champion for other people. These are all invaluable characteristics for gay people.
When you say it teaches you how to fight do you mean that it can help you physically stand up for yourself?
I mean it on multiple levels. What I tell my kids is that I’m teaching them how to fight efficiently and appropriately and effectively so they’re not wasting time and energy fighting battles that they’re going to lose and never hurting someone more than is necessary. I’m teaching them how to fight for their families and fight for their neighbours.
Have you seen a change in young gay kids who take up wrestling?
I’ve seen changes on multiple levels, administrators have told us for years they’ve fought to end homophobia in schools, always with little success. Then as soon as Golden Gate Wrestling, the gay club started coaching there, it just disappeared. And then of course I see the growth in the individuals themselves.
Why have these interactions with you had such an effect on homophobic attitudes when other processes have failed?
Because I’m not following any formula, I’m not following any script, what the kids are getting from me is the honest truth. They know me as their leader and as their coach, they know I never lie to them. I’m telling them things that have worked in my life and what the reality is.
Getting back to the idea of competing, when you’re wrestling a competitor can you tell if they’re gay or straight?
It’s just the same.
So, all cultural, social and sexual aspects considered, who’s better at it?
I’ve kept informal scores of gays vs straights and generally speaking the gays end up dominating a little bit more than the straights. And that’s just because there tends to be a lot more commitment from some of them, the gays, because they haven’t had any other place to compete in sports. But skill level, techniques wise, there is really no difference.
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