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Gay wrestlers get to grips with being a minority sport

GSN hits the mat with Wrestlers WithOut Borders - the guys that make a lycra onesy look tough
Competitors from the 2011 championship of LGBT sports organization Wrestlers WithOut Borders

With the announcement by the International Olympic Committee that the iconic sport of wrestling would no longer be included within their core list of sports, we spoke with Gene Dermody – founder of  Wrestlers WithOut Borders (WWB).

We tracked down Dermody in Sydney where local team Harbour City Wrestling Club were holding its first tournament.

When was WWB established?

We were established in 1990 at the third Gay Games in Vancouver. Coaches from NYC, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Sydney met after the tournament to make sure that the Gay Games wrestling event would continue and that we would work together on a WWB tournament calendar.

We have grown since to now include teams from Chicago, London, and Denver.

What’s the structure of WWB? 

We are an association of clubs, each with a vote. We also include some individuals from more remote areas that are needing club development and we also involve higher level mainstream officials and coaches.

Who are those member clubs? 

We have nine member clubs:

  • Chicago Wrestling Club
  • London Amateur Wrestlers
  • Los Angeles Southern California Wrestling Club
  • New York City Metro Wrestling Club
  • Paris-Lutte
  • Philadelphia Spartans Wrestling
  • San Diego Bulldogs
  • San Francisco Golden Gate Wrestling Club
  • Sydney Harbour City Wrestling Club

What are the main things WWB delivers for its members? 

Our initial mission was to run wrestling events for the Gay Games and WWB under our rules that are more inclusive of age, gender, skill level, and body type.

We also support our members with club development – this includes: The development of coaches; athletes; and organizers. We work to offer cheaper training; and involvement with local schools and clubs for general sport development and positive visibility.  

We are the alternative to the expensive MMA dojos with our minimal fees to cover medical and liability insurance.

What are some of the challenges in running WWB? 

The sport is a minority sport even within the straight mainstream, and it is constantly fighting for recognition.

As can be seen with the current IOC debacle [the International Olympic Committee has removed wrestling from its list of 25 core sports], there is a subtle homophobia of non-wrestlers at work here because of the nature of the sport. Yet it is the most widely practiced worldwide, inexpensive to do, and has a remarkable history. The most egalitarian of sports, that does not favor a body type. 

However getting critical mass of wrestlers internationally is hard, and the Gay Games is an absolute necessity for us because it does motivate us to get together.

Does WWB draw its members from around the world? 

Yes, as evidenced by the wrestling registration from all the Gay Games. The Aussies, the Germans, and the Dutch are regular competitors. The Americans do dominate in numbers because wrestling is a huge high school sport.

What sort of outreach does WWB undertake? 

We promote and participate in tournaments that are held in various cities annually – Las Vegas, San Francisco, Berlin, London, NYC, Sydney, and Philadelphia. We just sent five of us Californians to compete in the Sydney tournament this week, and they came two years now in a row to San Fran's Folsom Weekend tournament. 

We now also have WWB coaches installed in various US high schools doing us proud and effecting change. 

What are some of the key areas of focus for you at the moment? 

  • Increased and more consistent branding
  • Development of new leadership
  • Encouraging establishment of new clubs
  • Creating the model for community and scholastic programs in order to 'pay back' to the mainstream community.
  • Preparing for the Gay Games in Cleveland in 2014.

Gay Games IX in Cleveland promises to be the most affordable and inclusive Gay Games ever – I’ve served on the Federation of Gay Games since 1992, and have competed, organized, and coached in all Gay Games since 1982. 

Cleveland has the funding, political support, great venues, very affordable housing, and cheap hub flights. All the necessary ingredients for an awesome wrestling tournament.

We will also be offering Grappling as another option in this Gay Games because of its huge popularity.  

What role does WWB play in tackling homophobia in sport? 

We have been proving ourselves to our local state organizations since 1982, supplying officials, coaches, and athlete training - working within the mainstream system.

Today we are no longer the pariahs, but the priests of the sport, as we are sought out for our expertise.  The San Francisco unified school district specifically approached our member Golden Gate Wrestling Club to take over their ailing program, and we have turned that around into a magnet program – ditto in San Diego and Denver.

We effect major change by interacting and competing and supporting the existing wrestling structures, and we are without exception always accepted once they meet us.

Perhaps most importantly though is how we help eradicate the scars homophobia have made on the lives of our members. I cannot tell you the enormous personal growth, the maturation and increased self-respect and awareness I have seen from members who join the clubs and get on the mat. Many have never wrestled before in their lives; others have wrestled long ago but were not able to be open about who they were at the time. The self-empowerment is probably the greatest work WWB collectively does.

What are some of the key tournaments and events that WWB members are training for?

Upcoming LGBT tournaments include:

However most of our competitions are local (by city or state) and not LGBT. But we need the LGBT events to develop critical mass, motivation, and most important family. At the 2006 Chicago Gay Games there were 100 wrestlers competing in 100 matches – as a result of that tournament at least 12 partnerships were formed as guys finally met someone who shared their wrestling interest.

Continuing our growth and getting ‘critical mass’ is our goal. The by-product has been a political sea change in the ranks of USA Wrestling. 

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