ATHENS, Greece -- U.S. equestrian Robert Dover is among the
rarest of all 10,500 athletes in Athens, not only for his six
Olympic appearances but because he is one of a tiny handful of
competitors who publicly identifies himself as gay.
Dover-- along with some prominent ex-Olympians who came out
after retiring -- believe there are scores of other gay and lesbian
athletes in an array of sports at these Summer Games, either fully
in the closet or confiding only to a small circle of people.
Gays and lesbians may be able to marry in a few European
countries, and now Massachusetts, but it's another era on the
Olympic field of play.
Dover, a three-time bronze medallist who is captain of the
dressage team, said many gay athletes simply want to stay focused
on their performance and worry that publicizing their sexual
orientation could lead to distractions.
"But there also are many athletes afraid to come out because of
their peers, or their coaches or their loved ones having negative
feelings,'' Dover said. "We have to keep on showing the world that
-- just like straight people -- we're going about our lives, doing
the very best we can to make our country and our families proud.''
Mark Tewksbury, who came out as gay six years after winning a
gold medal for Canada in the backstroke in 1992, says Dover is
lucky to compete in a sport considered unusually accepting of gays
Swimming -- like most other Olympic sports -- is different,
Tewksbury said. He recalled his anguish at lacking the nerve to
object, and reveal his sexual orientation, when teammates used
"fag'' as their insult of choice.
"I got so tired of lying, of living a double life, I felt like
I was going to die,'' said Tewksbury, 36, who is in Athens covering
the Olympics for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. "I was afraid of
being beaten up, afraid my coach would stop coaching me, afraid my
teammates would reject me.''
Tewksbury has become an activist, campaigning for athletes'
rights in general and specifically promoting programs -- such as the OutGames 2006 in Montreal -- to encourage gay athletes. Gay Games VII, planned to be held in Chicago, also are slated for 2006.
Among his occasional colleagues is Holly Metcalf, a
gold-medallist U.S. rower in 1984. Metcalf, 46, lives near Boston
with her 4-year-old daughter and her partner of nine years, whom
she plans to wed now that Massachusetts recognizes same-sex
Metcalf said it is unfortunate, though understandable, that so
many gay Olympians are reluctant to come out.
"It often comes down to financial considerations,'' she said in
a telephone interview. "You've got so many women moving into
collegiate sports, with a lot more money there now, and you have
lesbian coaches who think, 'Oh, my God, if anybody finds out, I'll
get fired.' Colleges don't want to deal with this.''
Gay rights has been a high-profile issue in recent years, with
landmark court rulings, a nationwide debate over gay marriage and _
on the eve of the Olympics -- New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey's
stunning announcement that he would resign because of complications
arising from an extramarital affair with a man.
Through it all, many gay Olympians remain cautious -- most won't
come out until there are gay gold medalists saying, "Hey, don't be
afraid,'' Metcalf said.
A common pattern for gay Olympians is to come out after
retirement -- four-time diving gold medalist Greg Louganis is an
example. He revealed in 1994 that he was gay and HIV positive, and
later wrote a candid autobiography.
OutSports, a U.S.-based web site devoted to gay sports, tried to
tally the number of openly gay and lesbian athletes competing in
Athens and came up with only six -- including Dover and tennis
players Martina Navratilova and Amelie Mauresmo. Dover suggests
there are scores more not ready to be open.
"You spend a day with these athletes, and it becomes obvious
that gay people are everywhere,'' Dover said. "The reason many of
them aren't out is because they're focused on their job during this
time when sports is the No. 1 thing in their lives.''
Dover, 48, kept mostly quiet about his sexual orientation until
1988, when he met fellow rider Robert Ross, his partner ever since.
Dover manages a stable near his home in Lebanon, N.J., spends
winters in Wellington, Fla., a riding mecca near Palm Beach, and
oversees a foundation which assists people in the horse world who
have HIV or AIDS.
While Tewksbury believes full acceptance of gay Olympians may
take many years, Dover is heartened by ongoing changes. He cited an
appearance by the five gay stars of the hit TV show "Queer Eye For
The Straight Guy'' in a film shown to American athletes by the U.S.
Olympic Committee to help them prepare for Athens.
"It's proof that things are moving along,'' Dover said.