Amber Dawn invited me to share the story of my queer “root” as part of the Vancouver Queer Film Festival‘s program. It was an honour to be on stage with poet and marketing pro, David Ly; filmmaker and artist in residence Thirza Cuthand, wizard, goldsmith and creative consultant, Tien Neo Eamas.
Here’s my story.
I was born in Vancouver, but my family moved to Prince George when I was 4. As a young kid I was so scared of water that getting my face wet in the shower would make me shriek. So, my extremely pragmatic parents put me in swim lessons. I quickly moved past my fear and became a competitive swimmer. This is something that defined who I was for most of my life. As a teenager I was swimming 9 times a week, plus dryland training and weights. I remember when I squatted 350 pounds the boys on my team called me quadzilla. Now, I think I’d be proud of this nickname but as a teenage girl I was mortified. Teenagers can be such assholes sometimes. At school in gym class my sweat would smell like chlorine. My body was like a giant scratch and sniff sticker and sometimes I would secretly lick my forearm and smell the pool. I was, and still am, a little weird.
I’ve spent tens of thousands of hours swimming–waking up early and swimming back and forth staring at the black line on the bottom of the pool while our coaches yelled feedback and encouragement. I didn’t realize or appreciate how much work this was for my parents until much later. If I had early morning swim practice, it also meant that either my dad or another swim parent in the neighbourhood had to also get up at 5:30am and drive us kids to the pool.
So, fast forward a few years. It was 1997 and I was 20 and in Washington DC for an internship. I saw that there was a queer swim club called District of Columbia Aquatics Club, or DC/AC. I was so nervous showing up at my first workout. It was same level of nervousness that I felt the first time going into Little Sisters. I was 15 and down from PG visiting my Gran during summer vacation. I’d taken the bus downtown and made my first pilgrimage to the gay and lesbian book store. I nervously looked around and quickly ducked in the front door, my heart pounding. This is how I felt when I showed up at the pool, looked around to see if anyone was watching me and ducked through the doors.
The folks at DC/AC were super welcoming and a swim workout is familiar to me. Outside of a club or party I hadn’t been around so many people who were out and comfortable with themselves. DC/AC became my community in Washington and I swam with them 4 times a week. A month later was the International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics championship in San Diego. I was a student and didn’t have much money, but one of my teammates was a flight attendant and he flew me out with him on a buddy pass.
The International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics championships, or IGLA, was similar to the swim meets of my youth, but with a couple of differences. First, it was my first Masters meet, which means swimmers are 19 years and older. Each age category spanned 5 years and there were a few other younger swimmers like me, lots of swimmers in their 30s, 40s and 50s, and even some in their 60s and 70s. There were several former Olympians.
IGLA meets also have a special event called the Pink Flamingo, which is what you would get if a drag show and synchronized swimming had a baby. Most of the entries were high camp, mostly men in drag, lip syncing to bad pop music and gay anthems. London’s Out to Swim’s entry was completely different from the rest. They slowly unfurled a long piece of black cloth to make a black ribbon as audio of Princess Diana talking with empathy and compassion about People with AIDS played. She had died a few months before this competition.
This was when I started to understand the AIDS crisis. Of course I’d read articles in the newspaper but I didn’t really know anyone who was positive. I heard when the queer swim club in Vancouver started in the late 80s, they had difficulty booking pool space as there was a fear of people getting HIV. At the IGLA meets they used to have a minute of silence and read the names of swimmers who had died from AIDS in the last year. San Diego was the first time that this didn’t happen because the list of names was too long.
My eyes had been opened to this amazing queer community which became an important chosen family that played as significant a role as my biological parents in raising me.
From Washington DC I was going to Scotland for an exchange. I couldn’t afford to travel back to the west coast. My aunt in Toronto let me stay with her over Christmas. I trained with the queer swim club in Toronto. I remember calling my parents from my aunt’s living room and telling them that I was going to swim in the Amsterdam Gay Games. Looking back it was the perfect way to come out to them–a bit indirect and related to swimming. I won 13 medals at the Amsterdam Gay Games. When I told my parents they were so proud of me.
I realize now how supportive my parents were of swimming—they paid my swim fees, got up early to carpool kids to the pool, volunteered a lot of their time to organize, chaperone and officiate at swim meets. It’s a huge amount of work that I didn’t see until I was in my 30s. After I finished age group swimming my dad continued to volunteer as an official, including at the Commonwealth Games. Swimming was something that was a good thing. I’m not sure many parents hope that their kids will grow up to be queer, so having swimming to temper my news was useful.
While I was a student in Scotland I swam on my university’s swim team and on London’s Out to Swim. I was broke and either took the night bus down to London or cheated the train. I joined Out to Swim for a swim meet in Paris. There were a few culture shock moments, including men and women showering and changing on the deck together. I saw some interesting genital piercings I hadn’t seen before. Queer swim clubs have a lot of interesting tattoos and piercings.
One of the things that made going to competitions financially accessible for me was hosted housing. In Paris we were put up by ex-Londoner who had been living in Paris for a long time. I stayed in a little private room beside his flat that had the toilet in the shower. I’d never seen anything like this before. We stayed up late one night talking and realized we had similar politics. He had been a member of the Gay Liberation Front in London and pulled out purple mimeographed newsletters and we talked about socialism, feminism and queer sex. Connecting with older queer people around politics and history made me feel a sense of rootedness.
I’ve been very lucky and had many opportunities to travel and live in other countries. Swimming has been my constant and where I’ve found community. I swam on a master’s swim team when I lived in Japan, and then I moved to Sydney to compete in Gay Games and figure out what I was going to do with my life.
Swimming has been a key ingredient to my mental health. Hard swim workouts allow me to easily access the introverted, intuitive, problem solving parts of my brain. I found an unexpected benefit of swim workouts was that it enabled me to figure out database queries that stumped me while I was sitting at my computer. Now it’s where I have conversations with my inner Captain and listen to her wisdom in setting boundaries at work
Swimming has been central to having a positive relationship with my body. My body is fat, strong, and beautiful. In a culture that hates fat people, especially fat women, swimming has been my best defense against self hatred, fatphobia and misogyny. As I get older my relationship to my body is shifting. It’s a lot more work to just maintain fitness, strength and flexibility. I haven’t competed for 5 years and my goals have changed from achieving best times to just making time to practice and be really present in my body
Swimming is my queer root. Of course there wasn’t something in the water that made me queer, but through swimming I found an easier path to come out to my parents and found my chosen family and community. My queer swimming community connected me to a queer histories, taught me to speak truth to power, and taught me that smelling like chlorine is weird and beautiful.