Gay Games offers HIV-positive athletes a stage 

The Gay Games, held every four years, began during the beginning of the HIV/AIDS crisis and prides itself on being an inclusive space for all athletes.

Gay Games VII opening ceremony held at Soldier Field in Chicago, 2006. Photo: John Faier.

By Marco Schaden

For more than three years, Raif Derrazi routinely experienced vertigo, eczema, swollen lymph nodes and rashes. He was in his mid-20s and had no previous chronic health conditions, so he dismissed the pain as normal. 

But soon, the discomfort of oral thrush became unbearable. Despite having no health insurance — he was kicked off his parent’s health coverage after turning 26 a year earlier — Derrazi decided to see a doctor near his home in Los Angeles, California, and get tested for sexually transmitted infections.

It didn’t take long to figure out what was wrong. After getting some blood work done, the doctor told him he had tested positive for HIV. A week later, on his 27th birthday, Derrazi was diagnosed with AIDS. 

“It was one of my worst fears in life up to that point,” Derrazi, now 36, said of his diagnosis. “I had already resigned myself to not knowing whether I was going to be alive in two or three years.”

Derrazi had been in a monogamous relationship for almost four years and saw no reason to get tested. But he later found out his partner was sleeping with other people. 

When Derrazi came out as gay in high school, he said his mom told him that if he “embraced homosexual lifestyle,” he would end up getting AIDS and dying.

“That was kind of always in the back of my mind,” Derrazi said.

But that day in the doctor’s office, Derrazi was told that his diagnosis wasn’t a death sentence. If he adhered to a strict cocktail of medications, he could reduce his HIV viral load, making it undetectable and untransmissible to others.

After being diagnosed, Derrazi decided to hire a trainer to teach him how to properly work out at the gym — and feel more control over his body. He used to run track in middle and high school, and he took a weightlifting class, but felt limited when he was going to the gym. He would go on the preset workout machines and do repetitions until he felt a little sore, and that was the full extent of his workout.

“I didn’t really know what I was doing,” Derrazi, said.

The trainer started teaching him how to bench press, squat, deadlift and various compound movements. Getting his body in shape and working out, with the guidance of a trainer, became a passion for Derrazi. 

“I basically wanted to do something that was really just actively reclaiming my health, my body,” Derrazi said.

After years of following a strict workout routine, a bodybuilder trainer at his gym approached him. He asked Derrazi if he’d ever consider competing as a bodybuilder. Derrazi rebuffed him; he assumed after eyeing the trainer’s sculpted muscles that the sport relied heavily on steroids, something he was not interested in taking. The trainer told him taking steroids wasn’t necessary to compete in bodybuilding, competitors could join all-natural bodybuilding federations that complied with global anti-doping rules. 

Derrazi was intrigued.

In 2016, Derrazi, then 31, started attending local amateur bodybuilding competitions. He competed in the clean men’s physique category, where judges looked for symmetry, proportion and conditioning in classes organized by height. In his first physique competition, he won first in his class and second overall. In his second competition he won first overall and would continue to place in the amateur circuit.

Derrazi was showing off his body, once tormented by a disease that killed a generation of gay men in the U.S., to crowds for its near perfect physique.

As Derrazi became a more seasoned athlete, he wanted to compete in larger, better organized federations and live up to his full potential. He decided to join the International Natural Bodybuilding Competition (INBN).

“[INBN] have, every year, their own natural Mr. Olympia in Vegas,” Derrazi said. “So, I’m like, ‘Okay, this is cool. This is more my style,’ and I started competing there.”

In 2019, Derrazi qualified for the professional bodybuilding circuit of INBN. He was officially a professional bodybuilder, while still working his day job as a sales representative for his parent’s manufacturing plant in Orange County, California. He also started to grow a following, amassing 20,000 subscribers on YouTube and 25,000 followers on Instagram. He spoke openly on social media about being gay, having HIV and being a professional bodybuilder. 

Eventually, Derrazi captured the attention of another global competition. 

About a year ago, officials from the Federation of Gay Games reached out to Derrazi to ask if he wanted to compete in their physique bodybuilding competition and be an ambassador at the 2022 Hong Kong Gay Games.

“I was super interested,” Derrazi said. “I was like, ‘Hell yeah, there’s a fucking gay Olympics, sign me up. That’s awesome.’”

The Gay Games is an Olympic-style competition that occurs every four years that looks to spread its values of inclusivity, equality and diversity through sports. The games are open to all who are willing to join and compete no matter their sexual identity, skill level, age or disabilities. Its purposeful inclusivity makes it one of the most unique sporting events in the world.

The Gay Games began in 1982 just as the AIDS crisis was unfolding across the country. Its founder, a former Olympian, wanted to celebrate athletes, no matter their sexual orientation and provide a place of inclusion. The games became a point of contention, challenging and evolving drug testing policies across sport and immigration policy, while simultaneously serving as a stage for people with AIDS to reclaim their bodies. The competition continues to this day, drawing thousands of competitors, some who are learning of the decades-long competition for the first time. 

“I’m really excited,” Derrazi said. “To compete internationally is amazing and then to be in that atmosphere of all these world-renowned athletes in the LGBTQ+ community, I think I just think it’s going to be an amazing experience.”

History of the Gay Games

In 1980, a physician named Tom Waddell and others formed the San Francisco Arts and Athletics (SFAA) organization, with a vision to put on the first Gay Games. Their plan was to create a sanctuary for the gay and lesbian community, a place where everyone could be involved unlike the society that saw them as outsiders. It would be open to all.

Waddell was an American decathlete Olympian at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. He understood the positives and negatives that surrounded the competition and wanted the Gay Games to be the ideal of what the Olympics should be. He believed athletes made the Olympics special, not the competition’s medals or nationalism. 

“[The Gay Games are] all about participation, inclusion and personal best,” Doug Litwin, marketing officer of the Federation of the Gay Games, formerly the SFAA, and pseudo historian of the Gay Games, said. “[Waddell] didn’t even want to offer medals, he wanted to offer a participation medal to everybody just as a thank you, and a reward for having the courage and bravery to be at this event.”

Originally, organizers wanted to name the competition the “Gay Olympic Games” until the United States Olympic Committee promptly sued, claiming they had the rights to the term “Olympic.” The courts issued a restraining order against the federation and “Olympic” was dropped from the name. A court battle for the naming rights would ensue but Waddell would never see its end.

Gay Games co-founder Tom Waddell. Photo: Federation of Gay Games.

The first Gay Games took place in San Francisco, during the summer of 1982 when the AIDS crisis was just unfolding. That same year, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) created the term autoimmune acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) and identified one of the four risk factors as male homosexuality. The U.S. reported 771 cases of AIDS and 618 deaths in 1982.

The inaugural Gay Games were a success, offering 17 sports and drawing 1,350 participants from 12 different countries. They were able to pull off an opening and closing ceremony at the original Kezar Stadium in San Francisco. The Gay Games torch was first lit at the Stonewall Inn in New York City and made a 4,000-mile journey across the country in time for the opening ceremony.

“The first Gay Games were an experiment in global unity and they were an experiment in education,” Waddell wrote in a memo, found in the Gay Games archive in the San Francisco Library, after the first Gay Games. “They were also a vehicle for change. I use the word experiment because what was involved in the event was the process of discovery. Looking carefully at our openly gay society, we can see that we are in rapid transition. From a one-dimensional community struggling for an easement, towards a complex and multi-faceted community that has the potential of providing a multitude of new horizons for ourselves and just as important, for others.”

Before the 1986 Gay Games kicked off again in San Francisco, Waddell was diagnosed with AIDS. Still, he competed and won gold in the javelin throwing competition. 

Waddell died a year later, in the summer of 1987. He was one of 40,849 people that died of AIDS that year, a number that would grow exponentially over the next decade. Not soon after, the U.S. Olympic Committee won its case over the term “Olympic” and took the lien it had placed on Waddell’s home off, post-mortem.

The Gay Games, however, lived on.

Held every four years since 1982, the Gay Games grew into an event that provides 35-plus sports for more than 10,000 athletes, much bigger than its first edition. Gay Games III would go internationally in Vancouver. And since then, the number of host cities from all over the world have grown to include New York City (1994), Amsterdam (1998), Sydney (2002), Chicago (2006), Cologne (2010), Cleveland and Akron (2014) and Paris (2018). The 2022 Gay Games in Hong Kong are delayed a year to 2023 because of the coronavirus pandemic and will be the first in Asia.

“The Gay Games are not separatist, they are not exclusive, they are not oriented to victory, and they are not for commercial gain,” Waddell wrote in a memo, found in the archives. “They are however, intended to bring a global community together in friendship, to experience participation, to elevate consciousness and self-esteem, and to achieve a form of cultural and intellectual synergy.”

HIV waivers

The U.S. government in 1987 had banned foreign nationals who were HIV-positive from entering the country. It was proposed as an amendment by U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) to the Supplemental Appropriations Act of 1987 and subsequently passed.

The new rule was a problem for the Gay Games that were scheduled to be held in New York City during the summer of 1994.

While the Federation of Gay Games didn’t know the exact number, they knew a portion of their athletes were HIV-positive and wouldn’t be allowed to enter the country. But organizers weren’t going to let the government’s immigration ban separate the Gay Games from the values that made it unique. They would fight to be inclusive for all that wished to participate.

The Federation of Gay Games created an HIV/AIDS Advisory Committee and Task Force in order to find a solution for international HIV-positive athletes who wanted to compete. According to minutes from the Sept. 9, 1993, task force meeting, the group looked to solicit support from New York City’s leaders and contact the AIDS czar and surgeon general in Washington D.C. They also began to compile a list of immigration lawyers in case there were issues at ports of entry. Their goal was to obtain waivers for athletes competing in the Gay Games and get the federal government to declare the Gay Games in New York City a “special event” and create a waiver system.

In the spring of 1994, Attorney General Janet Reno did just that, announcing that the U.S. would grant 10-day immigration waivers for those with HIV coming to New York for the Gay Games.

“We are pleased that the U.S. government believes as we do that Gay Games IV is a world class sporting and cultural event that has benefits that outweigh the rationale of the permanent ban on HIV immigration,” Jay Hill, executive director of the 1994 New York City Gay Games said at the time of the waiver’s announcement. “While we still believe that the permanent ban on HIV immigration should be lifted in its entirety, we are pleased to be able to welcome HIV-positive individuals from around the world to New York to attend the games.”

A man waves a Puerto Rican flag alongside a gay pride flag from the upper deck of Yankee Stadium during the closing ceremony of Gay Games IV in New York City, 1994. Photo: Ann Meredith.

The 1994 Gay Games would garner a record 12,500 participants from 40 countries, more than the 9,300 athletes that participated in the Barcelona Olympics two years prior.

Two years later, the U.S. government enacted the same waiver for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. 

However, the law that forced the waiver would stay on the books until 2010.

Drug testing

Drug testing has become quite the quandary for the Gay Games since the 1990s. 

Athletes sought validity in their competitions. That coupled with safety concerns were the driving force for drug testing. But for some HIV-positive athletes at the Gay Games, testing was a problem. The combination of medications some took to treat HIV/AIDS or to treat the medication’s side effects, could bar them from participating.

Roger Brigham, a wrestler and coach, had been taking a cocktail for AIDS since 1997 and the effects of these life saving drugs were severe. He had developed osteoporosis and doctors decided to give him testosterone to treat it. At the time, this was not uncommon, as testosterone negated other effects of the cocktails like facial wasting, the loss of fat under the skin making the face look thin and loose, causing wrinkles or sunken-in cheeks.

“I had a bone density issue, I had severe osteoporosis and because of damage to my esophagus, I could not tolerate the usual medication to treat osteoporosis so they used testosterone to treat mine,” Brigham said.

If testing became mandatory, Brigham would not be able to wrestle at the Gay Games. He and others began to work on a solution that would balance the fairness of competition with Gay Games’ mission of inclusivity. 

“In wrestling, we did have the safety issue about people who were abusing the testosterone,” Brigham said. “You always have to do a skin check before the tournament to make sure that nobody has any communicable infections on their skin and as long as you’re doing a visual check of the body, you look for signs of steroid abuse, such as acne, infection, musculature and vascularity. If you see any signs of that, then you ask for the urine sample, and that worked.”

From left: Dave Kopay, Chris Morgan, Roger Brigham and Gene Dermody at the 2006 Chicago Gay Games. Photo courtesy of Roger Brigham.

The Federation of Gay Games voted to drop any drug testing after the 2010 Gay Games in Cologne while they created a new drug testing policy. However, the federation has yet to create a policy and is now looking at potentially creating new rules after the Hong Kong Gay Games 2022 Organizing Committee created their own, according to Federation of Gay Games Human Resources Officer Adrian Hyyrylainen-Trett.

The Hong Kong Gay Games’ Health and Well Being Policy says the games won’t tolerate “any illegal or prescription substance use solely for the purpose of enhancing performance.” Violating the policy will lead to removal from the event. 

The policy also goes on to say that the “use of some types of performance enhancing drugs and other substances are medically necessary and will not exclude any participant due to medical uses of such substances.” The Gay Games could conduct drug testing in sports “that requires such testing within the sanctioning body, or if it appears that fairness requires such testing.”

The Hong Kong Gay Games Organizing Committee did not respond when asked whether any sports will have drug testing or how they came up with their drug testing policy.

“Hong Kong has a testing policy, which hasn’t gone through the committee so there may be questions on that to be had,” Hyyrylainen-Trett, who is also an HIV-positive powerlifter at the Gay Games, said. “If we were to have [an] anti-doping policy, it would be a policy that says we don’t do anti-doping. Because we know that would unfortunately cut across our inclusive nature.”

The Gay Games is still debating what to do about drug testing while balancing inclusivity and fairness, an issue that Waddell never wrote about in his memos after the first Gay Games. 

But for the HIV-positive athletes like Derrazi, Brigham and Hyyrylainen-Trett, they just want to participate in the sport they love. They know how easily it could have been taken away from them by a disease that has ravaged their community and a society that ostracized them not too long ago. 

While new medications have saved their lives, the sports they play have allowed them to live their life.  

To contact this reporter, email ms6332@columbia.edu

Author: Marco Schaden

Marco Schaden is a master’s candidate with an investigative specialization at the Columbia Journalism School. Previously, he was the editor of the Manhasset Press at Anton Media Group and co-founder and editor-in-chief of Center Field at Marist College.

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