One aspect of diversity that many overlook is the millions of closeted queers that live every day with no rainbow stickers on their cars, gay bowling leagues to join or even friends to talk to about their true feelings. Of all the ambitious goals shared by this summer’s Gay Games and Outgames, perhaps none is more essential than the struggle to embrace our queer sexualities openly, comfortably and without fear.
In one case, at least, the games have achieved just that. Jessie Shum is in the closet and, assuming her parents don’t read Xtra West, she will remain there for the time being. But for Shum, the idea of competing in Montreal at the first ever Outgames as part of the Vancouver Rowing Club’s Great Eight was simply too delicious an opportunity to pass up.
“I found out about the Outgames from a friend who asked me to help out with the team she’d been helping to train and to cox,” Shum says. “I used to row at UBC, and was heavily involved with their team but that ended when I finished university three years ago. I initially accepted her invitation to ‘help out’ and to contribute, but I never saw the big picture of being a part of the Gay Men’s Eight until recently. After training with them for three months, I realized the importance of community and support and being happy with who you are and who you’ve become. The boys are really helping me with my coming out, even though they might not know just how much of an impact they’ve made on me. They’ve helped me really enjoy who I am. I’m not holding back anymore, and it’s extremely freeing.”
At the other end of the spectrum is Marc Samson, 41, from Sherbrooke, Quebec. Samson is a Gay Games veteran and teammate of Shum’s on The Great Eight rowing team. To say that Samson is out might be a bit of an understatement.
“I first heard about the games in 1994 [in New York]. I wanted to attend but didn’t save enough money and waited too long to register,” Samson says. “My first games were in Amsterdam in 1998. I ran the 400 metre hurdles in drag; black silk negligee with Tina Turner wig. I was coming straight from Montreal [Commonwealth Games trials] so I was in top shape. I said to myself, ‘if I’m going to these games, I’m going to have fun.’ Well I did and I performed very well. That performance still stands as the all-time record, all age groups included. I’ve never had so much fun competing.”
It would be difficult to find two athletes more disparate than Shum and Samson. While each are wold-class athletes who take their sport very seriously, queer or not, they find themselves at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to life experience in the queer community. Even something as straightforward as raising the funds needed to attend the games was approached from two different angles.
“The biggest adversity I’ve faced so far is trying to fundraise when sometimes you can’t say what it’s for!” Shum says with a laugh. “Actually, there haven’t been too many adversities. People ask me about it and I’m usually pretty candid. It’s great. The games have sort of sped up my coming out process and it’s been a great ride. It’s getting easier and I can finally be the person I’ve always been, without having to be so cautious.
“Being on the water at five in the morning is one of the most refreshing and amazing experiences ever,” she continues. “The fact that you need eight people to be there each and every morning, or else you couldn’t row, just solidified for me the importance of being a part of a team or a group. Not one person shines out more than any other, and everyone has to share the equal weight of pain and challenges.”
While Samson leads the life of an out, proud and active gay man, like with so many, things weren’t always so easy.
“In high school I was doing a ton of sports, bringing home loads of medals, honours and awards,” Samson says. “I was focusing on my sports, I said at the time, because I didn’t have time for a girlfriend. I was a jock hiding deep in the closet. Probably the reason why I didn’t like team sports was because of the machoism and bullshit between the guys. I really love the experience of being in a team where you can be yourself and where you feel respected as a human being.”
While Shum is new to the out experience, she echoes Samson’s sentiments about the importance of belonging.
“I’m so thrilled to be a part of the Gay Men’s Eight. I love being a lesbian in a gay men’s group. There’s a real strong sense of community there, and it all comes together on the water.”