|Olympian Mark Tewksbury tosses Olympic Team wristbands into the crowd at the Toronto Gay Pride Parade | Torstar|
There was something of the elder statesman about Mark Tewksbury, the 1992 Olympic gold-medallist and gay rights pioneer, as he joined in the festive unveiling of the Canadian Olympic Committee’s new assault on LGBTQ discrimination in sports. Something of the battle-seasoned veteran, the seen-it-all sage.
“I feel like a bit of a grandpa here,” is how he put it, sitting in the back row of a stage crowded with young athletes, their Canada-red polos setting his dark suit in sharp relief.
The grandpa line got a laugh, but there was a kind of truth to it. As Egale Canada, You Can Play and the COC announced their plans to make athletics safe for LGBTQ kids in Canada, Tewksbury offered the audience “historical perspective” on homophobia in sports.
He is well placed to provide it. The Calgary native won silver in the 4×100 medley relay at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, then gold in the 100-metre backstroke at Barcelona 1992. He became a national hero, and appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Tewksbury did this all from the closet, his sexual orientation a secret.
It was an especially miserable place to be if you were an athlete in the ’80s and ’90s, when machismo and homophobia ran rampant in locker rooms and the prospect of violence hovered over ordinary interactions with colleagues.
“If you were actually a gay person in the locker room, all you heard were very negative, condescending terms,” he said later in an interview. “It was really hard to listen to that. Every time I heard something nasty, I felt like saying, ‘Really, you guys, you’re talking about me.’ But I couldn’t imagine taking that step.”
It didn’t help matters that Tewksbury’s parents “took it very badly” when he told them he was gay. He participated anonymously in the CBC’s 1993 documentary ‘The Last Closet,’ but didn’t come out publicly for another five years.
“I came out Dec. 15, 1998, at Buddies in Bad Times,” he told the crowd almost wistfully — and this too got a laugh, a sudden whooping laugh of recognition at the name of the well-known Gay Village theatre, and also, maybe, at the antique date, eons ago in the history of North American gay rights.
Still, the acceptance of LGBTQ people in the sports world has progressed slower than Tewksbury expected.
“We think that in our more progressive, liberal societies that we’ve made major gains and we have,” he told the audience. “But within that society there’s a segment that has remained somewhat conservative. And I think by its nature, sport is rule-bound, it’s slow to change.
“When I came out in 1998, I was sure it would be just a couple years before there was a real tipping point. It looks like we’ve finally gotten there, but it took till 2014.”
So it’s taken time, yes. But now, the pioneers have momentum; the world, in its halting, imperfect way, is catching up with Mark Tewksbury.
“There’s no going back,” he says.
The athletes on stage with him Tuesday — some of them LGBTQ heroes of Sochi, like speedskater Anastasia Bucsis; others straight “allies” — were “changing the face of what sport will be in the future,” he said. (This is a tick of amateur athletes, referring to “sport” in the singular, like “math.”)
“There’s definitely more awareness than there’s ever been,” he added later. The arc of justice happens to bend gradually sometimes — a fact that Tewksbury, in his hard-won wisdom, can appreciate now.
“You don’t change a culture overnight by changing legislation. People’s hearts and spirits and minds have to slowly come along with the change.”