Pictured Photo by Jim Provenzano.
by Jim Provenzano
Grgur Drazoevic loves to wrestle. The 30-year-old Croatian also kickboxes and dabbles in mixed martial arts. But at the sports clubs he goes to in Split and Zagreb, he's still not out as a gay wrestler.
Out to a few friends and other gay wrestlers after he competed in Munich ( placing fourth ) at 2004's EuroGames, Drazoevic will take one more big step out of the closet when he competes in Gay Games VII's wrestling tournament, to be held this summer in Chicago ( July 15-22 ) .
Drazoevic's request for a scholarship was sent to Golden Gate Wrestling Club ( GGWC ) . Located in San Francisco, it's the second-longest-running LGBT-inclusive wrestling club in the world.
GGWC's president Gene Dermody, a five-time Gay Games medalist in the sport, got the club to fundraise and fully support Drazoevic's trip to Chicago, where he will wrestle in the open ( age 35 and under ) 163-lb. weight class.
'I didn't have any idea that it was possible that a wrestling club could give me financial help,' said Drazoevic in an e-mail. 'It helps a lot!'
In his native town of Split, the local wrestling club was mostly university students. 'It wasn't a popular sport,' says Drazoevic. 'When I was a boy, I looked in books ( a children's encyclopedia ) , saw photos of wrestlers, and got a strong feeling that I want to wrestle one day.'
While he was still in grade school, the Serbo-Croatian War interrupted his entire family's life, and the lives of millions of others. 'Just like lots of my generation, there wasn't a sports life,' he says. 'All sports clubs were closed. Everything was stopped.'
By 1998, after having lived in Zagreb while attending the local university, Drazoevic found three schools for Greco-Roman wrestling and sometimes practiced three times a week. But Drazoevic hasn't told his fellow classmates, and his gay friends don't wrestle. 'Nobody in the wrestling club yet knows that I am gay,' he says. 'So, after this, I think I am the only out gay wrestler in Croatia.'
Drazoevic says there isn't much of a gay community in Croatia, with the exception of a small bar in Zagreb, where he says police have harassed patrons. Recent Gay Pride marches in Zagreb were met with violent protestors, despite police barricades protecting a few hundred LGBT marchers.
Yet, Drazoevic says things are improving, including gay travel groups, Web sites and a few television shows about gay life. Still, the opportunity to meet more than 100 other gay and lesbian wrestlers would never happen in his country.
'I am very happy that I will meet with so many wrestlers and gay people, and that I can openly talk about gay life,' says Drazoevic. 'It's a nice feeling to be gay between gays.'
Wrestling will take place July 17 at Northwestern University's Welsh-Ryan Arena, home of the prestigious Midlands Wrestling Championships.
GGWC also provided an opportunity for Donna Rose, 36, of Phoenix, who hadn't wrestled for more than 20 years. 'Wrestling has been instrumental in other aspects of my life,' says Rose. 'I think it creates an outlook on the world, and a sort of mental toughness.'
Gay activists may know Rose for her work in transgender rights for the Human Rights Campaign. Rose also published a book about her experience, Wrapped in Blue, which describes her early life as a boy in upstate New York, struggling with gender-identity issues and learning to wrestle in school while dating girls.
'Even then, I was an overachiever,' says Rose. 'I trained all year, not just during wrestling season. There were some brutal practices.' Like others who have struggled with issues of sexuality, Rose says she excelled in athletics 'to counter my own fears.'
After a family move to Canada, Rose wrestled in a few championships in the Maritime provinces in the 159-lb. weight class. Although off the mat for decades, and now around 180 lbs., Rose says she's looking for new opportunities to try wrestling again.
'I like that it's an individual sport—you compete directly with someone else—yet there is also a team spirit that inspires me. I loved it growing up.'
Since considering the idea of competing in Chicago, Rose attended several tournaments and asked coaches, but faced a big obstacle. She had no women to wrestle, and there were few men, straight or gay, who would or could wrestle her.
She says some other transgendered people questioned whether she should take part in such a traditionally 'masculine' sport. 'I buy into a more holistic idea of being a person,' Rose counters. 'I'm not buying into other people's expectations.'
While looking up gay clubs, Rose found out about GGWC's 21st annual tournament, held in San Francisco's Castro district this past May. There, she competed in a few exhibition matches with men in her weight class ( 180 lbs. ) .
One of 45 wrestlers who visited from Los Angeles, New York, San Diego and Victoria, Canada, Rose says she appreciated the opportunity to try out her sparring technique at practice sessions and in the small yet sanctioned tournament.
For Chicago, however, Rose hopes to find women to wrestle in her weight class. Previously, fewer than a dozen competitors at each Gay Games have been women.
Should no women sign up, she may once again have to compete in an exhibition match with men. 'I don't want to be marginalized as a woman,' says Rose, who says she is grateful for the simple chance to compete. And she doesn't feel the need to identify as a transgender wrestler, but says that being public brings more awareness to the work she does with HRC.
'I don't feel compelled to lead with the T card,' Rose says. 'But no one should limit themselves because of who they are.'
Jim Provenzano is the author of the novels PINS and Monkey Suits. Read more sports articles at www.sportscomplex.org . E-mail email@example.com .