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This Olympian was outed in the 1980s. The 1990 Gay Games helped her reconnect to sports

Betty Baxter was part of the organizing committee for the 1990 Gay Games in Vancouver. She remembers the ways it changed the city.

Olympian Betty Baxter lost her job because she was a lesbian. Then she found joy in the Gay Games

Athletes take part in the opening ceremonies of the 1990 Gay Games in Vancouver. (Doug Cox, City of Vancouver Archives)

Betty Baxter describes the 1990 Gay Games in Vancouver as "a healing balm."

Her career had been in elite sports, captaining Canada's 1976 Olympic volleyball team, and later becoming the national coach. But in 1982, after months of rumours about her sexual orientation, she was fired.

Eight months later, she found herself in San Francisco watching the first ever Gay Games. Baxter remembers it as a place where sexual orientation was celebrated, along with sporting talent.

"It was a really important moment for me to be able to come back from that," she said.

Like the Olympics, the Gay Games takes place every four years. The last games, Gay Games X was held in 2018 in Paris. The next Gay Games is scheduled for 2022 in Hong Kong.

Inspired by what she saw in San Francisco, Baxter helped bring the third Gay Games to Vancouver in 1990 as a member of the board of directors.  It was the first time the Games had been held outside of San Francisco.

It was dubbed Celebration 90. There were 29 sporting categories, from croquet to a triathlon, plus a cultural festival with events across the city. 

"In some ways, I'm astonished that we could do it," Baxter said with a laugh. 

From Aug. 4 to 11, 1990, more than 8,500 athletes and artists came to Vancouver. There were delegations from around the world, including Asia, Eastern Europe and the Pacific Islands.

"Anybody could play," Baxter said. "That was the philosophy and that became the mantra."

Marathon competitors in the 1990 Gay Games pose in Vancouver with their medals. (Kent Kallberg/ City of Vancouver Archives)

This extended to physical ability, age and sexual orientation, whether you were part of the LGBT community or an ally.

"When you look through those photos, you see those wheelchair athletes, you see men who are clearly elderly. They're loving doing what they're doing," said Baxter. 

"Sometimes elite sport doesn't do that," she said. "The Gay Games really took it to a different place."

During those 10 days in August, Baxter remembers a palpable buzz in the city. 

"It changed the city," she said. "The city became a place where if you were gay or lesbian or bi, you could walk down the street and feel like this city welcomes me. And that was a big shift."

Women compete in a soccer game held in Strathcona Park. Police warned organizers that the park could be a a target of violence, but the competition went on with no disruptions. (James Loewen / City of Vancouver Archives)

'We didn't back down'

Baxter remembers tense moments too. There were threats made against board members, and police warned of possible violence.

Members of a Fraser Valley church took out full page ads in both The Vancouver Sun and The Province, warning of an "impending sodomite invasion." 

"We just said, we need to go forward and hope for the best." she said. "We didn't back down."

In the end, there was some hateful graffiti, but no violence. Baxter is less sure that the same thing could happen now.

"Could the Gay Games happen in Vancouver in 2020 in that same way that it was so welcoming in 1990? I don't know if it could," she said. 

"I think we'd be afraid of violence, probably far more extreme violence."

Listen to the full On the Coast interview:

Olympian Betty Baxter describes how the Gay Games helped her reconnect to sport after being fired for being a lesbian. 7:34