Coming on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, this year’s IGLA championships carried enormous significance
Peter Kingan was one of the busiest athletes at this year’s International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics championships in New York City. On some days, he woke up early to race in the swimming competition, then return in the afternoon to play a water polo game.
But the 70-year-old was all smiles after five days of competing at the Flushing Meadows Corona Park Aquatic Center, showing no signs of fatigue. It certainly didn’t hurt that he set a meet record in his top race, the 50-meter breaststroke.
“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now,” Kingan says shortly after racing the 100 breaststroke to close out the meet. “I’m a little tired but having the time of my life.”
Kingan was one of 922 athletes who came to the Big Apple for six days of competition at the annual event that featured all four aquatic sports: swimming, diving, water polo, and synchronized swimming. It was no accident that this year’s meet took place in New York City. The city was marking the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Inn uprising in Manhattan, when gay men and women rioted against a police raid in June 1969. The riot blossomed into an annual demonstration that spread around the world, leading to Pride Month celebrations across the globe every June.
Kingan says he wasn’t aware of the Stonewall riots when they were happening in 1969 but saw police raid gay bars often in the 1970s. He was never arrested in any of these raids but says he felt the goal wasn’t to criminalize homosexuality but “to humiliate us.” He feels an extra sense of pride to be an openly gay athlete 50 years after the Stonewall riots.
“I never thought I would be allowed to be married,” he says. “It was a level of meaning that I don’t think people can understand until they go through it.”
Kingan categorizes himself as a water polo player first and a pool swimmer second. But he was an accomplished swimmer growing up in Houston and at the University of Arkansas. He knew he was gay while in college but says the atmosphere didn’t allow him to be open about his sexuality.
“I was a college scholarship athlete and totally secretive because I would have been kicked out of school and my scholarship taken away,” Kingan says. “In 1973, one of the divers was found out to be gay and was kicked off the team. I wanted to be an Olympian, so I was pretty steadfast in my workouts and I was a good student, so I just worked hard.”
After many years away from aquatic sports, Kingan joined an adult water polo league in 2003. The following year, he attended the IGLA championships in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where he was astounded by not only the large number of gay athletes in attendance but the unspoken kinship felt on the deck.
“My husband and I were both in shock that such a massive gay athletics event could have occurred, and we had no idea about it,” he says. “It was an amazingly moving experience. I had a group of friends who could relate to me, and I could relate to them because they were athletes too. I never knew there were teams of people who were accepting and open and still motivated to swim fast.”
Kingan has competed in many IGLA championships, with his husband, Michael Jones, serving as, in Kingan's description, “the water polo wife” during the competition. Jones died last October, making this IGLA championships the first time Kingan was attending a competition without his husband.
Before the meet began, Kingan said competing “will be the hardest thing I have ever gone through.” But he was able to win all his swimming events and help Team New York Aquatics place fourth in water polo because Michael was there in spirit.
“I cried a lot this week partly because he definitely would have been here,” Kingan says.
Allies in the Pool
Though the top mission of the IGLA championships is “developing and promoting gay and lesbian swimming, water polo, diving, and synchronized swimming,” straight athletes are always welcome to participate. Well-known Masters swimmers such as Laura Val, Glenn Mills, and Karlyn Pipes have attended the competition and left lasting impressions with longstanding meet records.
Ryan Williams was one of the so-called “straight allies” in the meet this year, racing in his fourth IGLA championships. He says he was very aware of the historical significance of competing in a meet during the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, adding that he was excited about watching this year’s Pride parade near the Stonewall National Monument.
“Everyone is getting behind this movement, and just being here I feel like I am a part of it,” says Williams, 46, a member of Swim Fort Lauderdale.
Williams competes in many U.S. Masters Swimming meets every year and says he notices a completely different atmosphere when he walks onto the deck of an IGLA championship.
“Everyone seems a lot happier at these meets,” he says. “Plus, I get the best of both worlds. I get to relax and have fun, but that fire of competitiveness in me is stoked because I know there are some very fast swimmers here.”
Not Just About Racing
Almost all of the nine IGLA meets have featured at least one FINA Masters world record. Though no world records were broken in the 2019 meet, 66 meet records fell. Most of the athletes were not racing for records but for personal bests. Others were experiencing the IGLA championships—and Masters swim meets—for the first time.
Eric Dunn was racing in his first meet as an adult, returning to the sport after 12 years away. He quit swimming in college, but he was excited to return once he found District of Columbia Aquatics Club when he moved to Washington, D.C., last winter. Though he was excited to be back in the pool racing, Dunn says the atmosphere around the deck will be his lasting impression of the meet.
“Watching some of the guys on the team interact with other swimmers has been awesome and has reiterated that this is about fun and camaraderie,” says Dunn, 32. “Yes, it’s good to win, but at the end of the day we’re all here because we love to swim.”
And having a sense of community on the deck beyond just being athletes gained extra significance for Dunn.
“I think it’s wonderful to have a community that supports us, and that we can come together every year and compete,” he says. “Being knowledgeable about what others had to sacrifice in order to be here and live our best authentic lives cannot be articulated loudly or often enough.”