Saturday, 30 June 2018

The First Openly Gay Olympian - A Century Ago

With the World Cup dominating the television channels at the moment let’s take a look at another sport which is just behind in media coverage – tennis.

What can connect the two sports is the issue of lgbt inclusion. Football is notorious for not welcoming (male) lgbt players, despite their worthless paper declarations to the contrary. Reports of homophobic chants at World Cup matches and the general anti-gay stance of the host nation Russia has highlighted the problems.

The issue of lgbt inclusion in sport goes back further than you might think, and it illustrates well the long-standing homophobia of football and its damaging influence on other sports.

At the beginning of the 20th century Danish tennis tournaments were governed by the Dansk Bolspil-Union (DBU, the Danish Football Union). One of the stars of Danish tennis was Leif Rovsing (1887-1977). Between 1907 and 1916 he won five national doubles championships.

Leif Rovsing came from a wealthy family. On the whole tennis was a sport of the wealthy while football was a favoured sport of the ordinary working people. This was a European-wide distinction and in football, with its class prejudices, echoes of this distinction still linger. Leif joined the Copenhagen Ball Club, a member of the DBU, which had a tennis section.

At the Wimbledon tournament in 1910 Leif competed in both the men’s singles and doubles competitions, though he was knocked out in the second round of the singles tournament by Britain’s Lt. L. E. Milburn, and knocked out of the doubles tournament in the first round by the Fyzee brothers from India.

Despite this Leif was Danish national singles champion, and in 1912 qualified for the Stockholm Olympics. Again, he played in the outdoor singles and doubles tournaments (in those days there was both an indoor and outdoor tournament). He only played two matches, both of which he lost and didn’t progress to the next round. Yesterday and today are the anniversaries of those two matches.

His first match on 29th June 1912 was against Sweden’s Sven Wennergen in the third round, after having been awarded a walkover result in his first scheduled match. With his doubles partner Victor Hansen Leif played against a Russian couple in the second round on 30th July, again after a walkover decision in their first scheduled match.
These matches on 29th and 30th June 1912 at the Stockholm Olympics make Leif Rovsing (abovve) the first known lgbt Olympian.

Also at Stockholm was fellow gay Dane Niels Bukh who was coach to the gold medal winning Swedish men’s gymnastics team. Niels had hoped to compete at the previous games in London 1908 but was dropped from the Danish gymnastics team because he was too muscular and butch and his physique didn’t fit in with those of the rest of the team.

In 1917 the DBU began investigating reports that Leif Rovsing had sexual relations at his home with an 18-year-old male tennis student. We are still familiar with the old homophobic excuse that gay men are a corrupting influence on the young, and the DBU used this as their reason to ban Leif from playing in any tennis tournament for four years.

At the investigation committee Leif admitted that he did indeed have intimate moments with young men, without actually admitted to sexual activity which would undoubtedly have resulted in a life ban.

As such this also makes Leif Rovsing the first openly gay former Olympian in 1917.

Tennis was Leif’s life. Having inherited a fortune from his father he didn’t need to find employment and he lived for tennis. He urged the DBU to reconsider their ban, but to no avail. Using part of his fortune he set up his own private tennis club, the Dansk Tennis Club, in 1919.

In 1921 the ban on Leif’s playing career expired and he immediately launched himself back onto the Danish tennis circuit. The newly-formed Danish Lawn Tennis Association invited Leif to become a member of their team heading to the 1923 Indoor Tennis World Championships in Barcelona. With doubles partner Erik Tegner he reached the final, but lost to the French couple Henri Cochet and Jean Couiteas.

Things seemed to be returning to normal for Leif, but in the background the Copenhagen Ball Club reopened the 1917 case and called for a renewed investigation. They recommended a further ban on Leif Rovsing in 1924, which the DBU agreed to put into force. However, this time there was at least a little leeway for Leif. Even though he was banned from playing for Danish clubs or from representing Denmark he could play against Danish players abroad, as long as their clubs agreed.

For a couple of years there was the hope of a revival to his career. In 1927 the Klovermarkens Tennis Club organised a tournament at which Leif was invited to play. Lots of top Danish players were also invited but, because these players were members of the Danish Lawn Tennis Association, one of the organisations included in the 1924 ban and still under the control of the Danish Football Union, the Association refused to allow Leif to take part. The Klovermarkens Tennis Club took the DBU to court and, once again, the unfounded belief that gay men are a corrupting influence dominated the case and a new ban was imposed on Leif.

With his professional tennis career now over Leif concentrated on his own Dansk Tennis Club. He travelled extensively in the Far East and recaptured his love of its culture in the decoration of the club buildings. He then began to concentrate on a campaign to demand that lgbt athletes in all sports should not be discriminated against and allowed to compete at the same level as any other athlete. This he did through letters, magazines and lectures.

After World War II Leif began writing regular articles in “Vennen”, the magazine published by the Forbundet af 1948 (The Association of 1948), the gay rights organisation founded by the activist couple Axel and Eigil Axgil. Leif also contributed financially towards the publication coats of the magazine.

In 1955 police raided the offices of “Vennen” is response to reports that it had published pornographic images of boys. The police extended their raids to the homes of people they considered were directly responsible for publishing the images. Leif Rovsing’s home was one of them. He was arrested and held in custody for fifteen days before being released. Leif was convinced an unfounded accusation made of him having sex with a teenage boy was made against him out of revenge for him writing against the DBU.

Leif continued to write articles for lgbt publications up to his death in 1977. He had blazed a trail of activism in sport for fifty years, and all funded though his inherited fortune. He didn’t ask for donations and he had no charitable organisation to fund his work. He left his fortune to the Dansk Tennis Fund which he had founded to manage his Dansk Tennis Club. The Club is still in existence today.

Leif Rovsing was the first openly gay athlete to challenge the established homophobia in sport, and in particular against the football organisations who controlled tennis in those days.

With the world in the midst of football and tennis frenzy it would be appropriate to bring Leif Rovsing out of the shadows and give him his rightful place as a pioneer of lgbt inclusion in sport.

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