Commentator Nick Heath, referee Ryan Atkin and organiser Ian Howley explain why the Bank Holiday Monday fun-fest is an unmissable event…
By Jon Holmes
There’s a Conservative Party campaign poster from the June 1987 General Election that depicts protestors holding placards of demands – one of which calls for a ‘Gay Sports Day’.
The suggestion was that such an event would be evidence of a society in decline. “Do you want to live in it?” asks the poster’s slogan.
That negative ad was truly a sign of less inclusive times, so it’s therefore worth celebrating the fact that 32 years later, the event not only exists – head along to the Pleasure Gardens outside the Royal Vauxhall Tavern on Bank Holiday Monday afternoon to see for yourself – but is also going from strength to strength, having become an institution in the LGBT London calendar.
In fact, the first ‘Gay Sports Day’ had been held in the capital back in 1982, when the Tories were already in power. But while that decade of moral panic and the ensuing climate of Section 28 are thankfully long gone, there’s still a glorious sense of defiance – and silliness – about RVT Sports Day, as it’s now known (after several years on hiatus, it was relaunched in 2007).
Most importantly, the event raises thousands of pounds each year for charities that serve the community.
Organiser Ian Howley is the chief executive of LGBT HERO (Health Equality and Rights Organisation), which benefits from Sports Day along with its related projects GMFA (founded in 1992 as ‘Gay Men Fighting Aids’) and OutLife.
“This year, we have 11 teams battling it out for the crown,” he tells Sports Media LGBT+.
“Some of the events are traditional sports-day fare, such as the egg-and-spoon race and tug of war. But we like to camp it up a bit too, so we also have the 50m mince, the handbag throw, and the drag relay.
“It’s all topped off with the ever-popular rhythmic gymnastics, where our teams have two minutes to impress the judges with a routine fit for a Drag Queen.”
Last year’s winners The GMDC (Gay Men’s Dance Company) wowed with their routine, and they are back to defend their title. Other teams to watch are ‘Just Doing This Now’, the latest London Titans FC tribute act this time paying homage to Sonia from EastEnders aka Natalie Cassidy; the scarily sporty Pop Horror; the burly bears of The Beefmincers; and their highnesses, the Haus of Royalz. Donate to your team of choice here!
Trying to keep everyone on schedule is incomparable compere Timberlina, who’s joined by out-spoken commentators Nick Heath and Bob Ballard (both of this parish network), and returning for his second stint as adjudicator absolute, football referee Ryan Atkin.
For Heath, getting to talk the crowd of spectators through the trips, tumbles and ripped pairs of tights is a privilege. “My annual commentary gig on Gay Sports Day is by far my favourite day of the year,” he says. “It really reflects the LGBT community at its best.
“While the competitive element may provide a gentle focus, the entertainment value comes from the teams, the crowd, the chaos, our hostess Timberlina, and representatives from all corners of our queer world showing off their sporting and performing prowess.
“This is about everyone – and it’s as silly as it gets. If you’ve not been down before, prep yourself a picnic, load up the cool box, and get your sporting dress-up on. Mine’s a G+T if you’re asking. On your marks, get set… miiiiiince!”
Atkin is equally excited. “As a professional referee, it’s often hard for me to have fun – but I thoroughly enjoy Gay Sports Day.
“Having recently been officiating at the EuroGames in Rome, I know only too well what events like this can do for the LGBT community, and the power of having a visible rainbow flag in sporting environments.
“I look forward to the range of costumes, activities and of course our amazing host and commentators who always add their sparkle to the event!
“I’ll try to keep the chaos to a minimum – but that’s certainly not going to happen. And I do hope my dress is suitable for the occasion…” Sounds like the traditional all-black referee shirt, shorts and socks won’t be de rigueur for Ryan this year.
Ask anyone who’s been to Sports Day before and they’ll tell you that hilarity is guaranteed, something which Howley knows keeps the crowds coming back every August. However, while times have changed a great deal since the 1980s and electioneering politicians these days try to win the gay vote rather than sneer at it, there is still a serious side to Sports Day; the fundraising element of the event is no laughing matter.
“LGBTQ+ people face some of the harshest health and social inequalities in society,” says Howley. “It comes as no surprise to LGBTQ+ people that we are more likely to be affected by mental illness and experience suicidal thoughts.
“LGBTQ+ people in general are five times more likely to experience suicide. Those numbers increase if you are from the black, Asian or minority ethnic communities, especially if you are a BAME LBTQ woman. Nearly half of all trans people will contemplate taking their own life, which is a shocking statistic in itself.
“We also see how HIV impacts on gay, bisexual and trans men’s mental health. It’s not uncommon that some newly diagnosed people end up experiencing mental health issues because of the struggles their diagnosis brings, with some taking their own lives. We’ve also seen how stigma towards those who are living with HIV can affect their health. We have lost too many people because of the stigma they receive.”
A fortnight after this year’s RVT Sports Day, it will be World Suicide Prevention Day (September 10) and the money raised on Bank Holiday Monday will fund a new campaign to be launched next month. “We are focused on raising money to help LGBTQ+ people who are struggling,” adds Howley. “For far too long, LGBTQ+ people have been left out of the national conversation and it’s time that we have campaigns that reflect the needs of LGBTQ+ people and address the silent epidemic going on in our community.
“All the money raised will go towards funding our work through GMFA – the gay men’s health project and OutLife.”
RVT Sports Day gets underway from 1pm on Bank Holiday Monday (August 26) at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, behind the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. It’s free to attend, but bring a donation!
LGBT HERO is the Health Equality and Rights Organisation for LGBTQ+ people. LGBT HERO is the parent organisation of GMFA – the gay men’s health project and OutLife. LGBT HERO aims to tackle the vast health and social inequalities LGBTQ+ people face such as sexual health, mental health, alcohol and drugs, and LGBTQ+ rights. LGBT HERO reaches over six million people a year through its infosites and campaigns. Donate here.