You probably haven’t heard of IGLA. It’s the International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics association.
What IGLA does is it coordinates an annual championship for the world’s LGBTQ aquatics clubs. The annual championship features professionally run and highly competitive events in all the aquatic disciplines - swimming, water polo, diving, open water swimming, and synchronised swimming.
Each year, the annual championships are held in a different city - in recent years the host cities have been Cleveland, Stockholm, Edmonton, Miami, and Paris. The 2019 championships will be held in New York City. Hundreds of people take part and compete.
If you’re not part of the LGBTQ sports world, you may not realise that all around the globe there are aquatics clubs where queer people are training and competing, and the annual IGLA championships are an opportunity for them to all come together and go for gold.
Of course, the annual IGLA championships are not the only opportunity for the members of these LGBTQ aquatics clubs to compete - water polo teams play in local leagues, swimmers and divers enter masters events on a regular basis, and most countries welcome men who want to compete in synchro meets.
What makes the annual IGLA championships a bit special is that they’re one of the few occasions where LGBTQ athletes get to compete and socialise with other LGBTQ athletes. It’s a queer competition. Pretty much everyone there is queer. If you’re there, everyone will assume that you’re queer. The officials will be queer. Everyone competing will be queer. The people handing out the medals will be queer. It’s totally queer.
That may sound a bit separatist or unnecessary. Why does it have to be queer?
Minority Threat Syndrome
In most respects, the queerness of the event doesn’t make any difference whatsoever. The quality of competition and the level of performance is no less than any other competition that these athletes might enter. When you play sport, you want to do your best – sexuality doesn’t come into it. What makes queer sporting events like the IGLA championship important is linked to what scientists describe as Minority Threat Syndrome.
At the mainstream competitions and events that LGBTQ athletes participate in, they’re always and inevitably a minority. Whatever country you go to, or whatever culture you’re part of, LGBTQ people will always only ever be a small minority of the population.
Being part of a minority, in any situation, brings with it a constant subliminal level of stress. Research has shown that this often presents as high blood-pressure or anxiety, building up over time and contributing to both mental and physical health issues.
To be at an international-level competition, doing the sport that you love, where pretty much everyone there is somewhere under the broad LGBTQ umbrella, is incredibly liberating. You still swim the same. The rules and regulations are still the same. But what’s different is that you don’t have to second-guess or edit yourself. It’s hard to explain the sensation, but it makes perfect sense when you hear LGBTQ athletes talk about how their performances have improved once they feel confident about being open about their sexuality.
If you’re at an event where everyone is queer, where you have that in common with everyone that is there, where you are no longer a minority, then you can relax, you can just be you. That’s an incredibly liberating feeling.
LGBTQ people in sport
A lot of LGBTQ people opt out of sport at an early age. Locker rooms and straight sports clubs can be fairly intimidating places when you’re trying to figure out who you are.
The health benefits of participation in sport are fairly obvious, but mental health outcomes are particularly important for LGBTQ people - who, for a range of complex reasons, seem to be more prone to mental health issues. We know that participation in sport will mean longer and happier lives for queer people.
There is a perception that the only reason that people would join a queer sports club would be for a bit of action in the showers after training. However, talk to anyone in an LGBTQ sports team and you’ll quickly realise that this is completely wrong. Instead of sexual tension in the showers after training, most people are too tired to think of anything apart from cleaning up and heading to the pub for a beer and some food.
LGBTQ sports clubs matter. They help keep us fit. They help us get back into sport, and back into participation in physical activity. LGBTQ sports clubs help us meet other people, they help our social life, they help our self-esteem. LGBTQ sports clubs also give us the opportunity to participate in events such as IGLA’s annual championships - one of the few moments in our lives when we no longer feel like a minority.