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Susan McGreivy: Blazing Trails by Shamey Cramer

By August 23, 2022No Comments

When I walked into the Mother Lode bar in West Hollywood on Saturday, 15 May 1982, I had no idea how quickly my life was going to change. After ordering a Long Island Iced Tea, I went to the back to use a payphone to call my friends about plans for the evening.

As I headed down the short hallway, a poster on the wall caught my eye – it was marketing an event to be held in San Francisco later that summer entitled the Gay Olympic Games. My heart began to race. Three generations of my family had been involved with professional and community sports as athletes and administrators. I had written, produced and directed local pageants with my Mother as a teenager, and had moved to Los Angeles in 1980, partly to pursue my passion of working on the Olympic Games, with the dream of some day producing the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. Getting involved with an event that used sport to promote acceptance and inclusion on a global scale was tailor-made for my background, and my desire to be an out and proud gay athlete. I had trained and competed in cycling and middle distance running events, but knew that if I were to be involved, the best contribution I could make would be at the administrative and organizing level.

I quickly jotted down the phone number, and tucked it into my pocket. That week at work, I called the number and spoke with Dr. Thomas F. Waddell, the man behind this audacious project. I expressed my desire to be active in organizing a contingent from Los Angeles. He immediately put me in touch with famed attorney Susan Gray McGreivy.

In 1955, Susan competed as a 15-year-old high school student at the Amateur Athletic Union’s indoor meet, winning the 250 and 500 yard freestyles; and a bronze medal in the 400 free at the 1955 Pan American Games. The following year, she competed at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne Australia.

Susan later attended Northwestern University, became a teacher in California, briefly coached the Thailand swim team, volunteered with the Peace Corps, and then married, raising two children before coming out. She graduated from law school in 1977, and became attorney for the Gay Community Services Center of Hollywood (later known as the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center), which led to her becoming a civil rights attorney for the Southern California ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), with a focus on gay and lesbian rights. She later represented the ACLU on cases against the Boy Scouts of America, and in defense of the Norton Sound Eight. 

In 1983, she also filed a suit against the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, demanding that the 5,000 and 10K distance races (track & field) be added to the program for women. She was also working on the case against the United States Olympic Committee, after they sued Dr. Waddell and San Francisco Arts & Athletics, the organization producing the Gay Olympic Games, over the use of the word “Olympic.”

I met Susan the night of June 1 at the Melting Pot Cafe on Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood. It was a typical 1970’s-style cafe, with lots of wood interior, potted plants and hanging ferns. Given her reputation, I was more than a bit nervous to meet her. After all, I was a 22-year-old who was just dipping his toe into gay rights activism, meeting one of the most notable and respected gay rights activist lawyers in town (the term LGBT had yet to be invented). 

Tom had asked her to organize Team Los Angeles. When I mentioned that I was more than willing to assist her in any way possible, she laughed. Given the heavy work load she had assisting on the Olympic case, she really didn’t have time to do any organizing for the Games. The best way I could help her, she stated, was to take over the entire operation of the team from her. She handed me the list of the names and addresses of those who had already registered, but had not been contacted by anyone locally. And that is how I became the founder of Team Los Angeles that fateful evening.

Despite the short time frame, we were able to register 147 athletes for those first Games – the largest out-of-town contingent – as well as have the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles and the Great American Yankee Freedom Marching Band to participate in the cultural events, including the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. Since the USOC had been successful in obtaining an injunction against the Games, they had now been forced to be called simply The Gay Games.

One of the highlights of the Opening Ceremony was the lighting of the cauldron. Imagine how proud we were as Angelenos to see Susan, along with Olympic hammer thrower George Frenn, who had grown up in the San Fernando Valley, conduct the honours of lighting the cauldron, signaling the official opening of the Gay Games.

I remained involved with the Gay Games movement through 1985, working with Tom and ten other co-chairs from Canada and the United States to form the first international governing body; and producing the Festival Games, the first-ever annual multi-sport festival hosted by the LGBTIQ community. I re-engaged with the Gay Games in 2000 as a member of West Hollywood Aquatics water polo team, and founder/CEO of the Los Angeles bid team seeking to host Gay Games VII in 2006.

In 2009, a documentary was released entitled “Claiming the Title: The Gay Olympics on Trial.“ When I saw Susan McGreivy, I knew I had to reconnect with her. Thanks to the advent of social media, I was able to track her down. Although we had had little contact back in the early 1980’s, we quickly struck up a friendship, often sharing each other’s posts on social media. From the very beginning of our online friendship, we began interacting on a daily basis, often sharing humorous posts as well as serious ones. 

When I was elected to the Federation of Gay Games Board of Directors in 2011 as Officer of Ceremonies, one of my tasks was to oversee the Legacy Awards presentations and Memorial Moment at the Annual General Assembly.

When we held the AGA in Cleveland in 2013, the Awards Committee chose to honour two of our outstanding Gay Games pioneers: Jean-Nickolaus Tretter, co-founder of Team Minnesota and the person Tom Waddell chose to head up the International Gay Olympic Association (the predecessor to the FGG), and Susan. 

Both Jean and Susan flew to Cleveland to accept their awards. The night prior to the opening day reception, Susan and I both stayed at the home of Catherine Toth and Maureen Povinelli, two of the many local community members who helped make Gay Games 9 the success it was. It was also the first time Susan and I had been face-to-face since our first meeting back in June 1982.

Since we were both living in California, three hours behind local Cleveland time, we were up until 2:00 in the morning, having one of those late-night, intense conversations that was full of humour, frustration and wistfulness. Neither of us wanted to go to bed, but we both had a full day ahead of us.

When she received her award, she directed her comments toward the sad state of affairs with the Olympic Movement, given the news coming out of Russia and their anti-gay stance in the lead-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics to be held four months later. Despite some major health issues she was facing, it was nice to see that time had not dimmed her fighting spirit.

The next day, I was able to conduct on-camera interviews with both Susan and Jean, documenting their memories of participating in the Gay Games, as well as some of Susan’s other achievements. One of the funnier recollections was from her time competing at the Melbourne Olympics. She had been picked up and driven to a reception hosted by the USOC in the days following her competitions. It wasn’t until she got into the reception that she became aware of the fact that the man who she thought was merely a chauffeur, and walked into the party with her, was none other than Olympic legend Jesse Owens. Ah, the innocence of a 16-year-old high school student.

In 2018, Susan announced that she had been dealing with an aggressive form of cancer, but still remained active online. She had moved to Hawaii by this time, but we continued to interact regularly on social media. We last texted on November 15, 2019. 

On November 30, she posted four articles – one dealing with women’s reproductive rights, two on climate change and its impact on the food supply, and one noting that smugglers had cut a hole in the US-Mexico border wall and were driving through it, which made us both laugh.

Since I was preparing for a month-long holiday to Australia and New Zealand beginning two weeks later, I wasn’t as active on social media as I usually was. It wasn’t until I returned from my travels that I went to check in on her, only to discover that she had passed away later that same day – 30 November – after posting those items.

In February 2019, we lost author-activist-athlete Patricia Nell Warren after her three-year battle with lung cancer. Her book “The Frontrunner” was one of the great touchstones of the LGBTIQ sports movement that helped inspire Tom Waddell to create the Gay Games. Patricia and I had been friends for more than two decades. She had served as an Honorary Co-Chair for the Los Angeles 2006 bid committee, and was my housemate in 2013-2015. 

Now, losing Susan was another major blow. Other than Jean Tretter, she was the only person left whom I had worked with on the Gay Games during my early years. As difficult as it was losing Patricia, Susan’s loss was even more difficult, since she was the one who had engaged and supported me as a novice in the LGBTIQ sports movement: she was the one who had taken the flame and passed it on to me.

During my time on the FGG Board, I made it a point to make sure those who were new to the family were given an education of those who came before them. Although participating at the Gay Games had become less a political statement for those from countries where LGBTIQ rights were making great strides, I was drawn to those whose work was breaking ground in their homelands. I felt it my obligation to provide for them what Susan, Patricia, Tom, Jean and other community leaders had done for so many of us in those early years. 

Working with organizers in Brazil, Mexico, Honduras, Russia, Bulgaria, South Africa, Cambodia, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, among other developing countries, has become my passion. Having launched a team at a time when there was no track record or example to follow allows me to understand the frustration and difficulties many of our new leaders still face today in places where their lives are threatened on a daily basis. Just as the flame had been passed to me, I now have the opportunity to pass it on for others, in hopes that we may some live in a world where an event such as the Gay Games is merely a celebration instead of a statement for rights and equality. 

We have a long way to go to get to that point, but we owe it to the likes of Susan McGreivy and others to continue that fight to shine a light on the injustices we face.

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