Remembering Emile Griffith

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Benny Paret (left) and Emile Griffith (right) during weigh-in at the Garden in New York | March 1962 | John Lindsay/Associated Press | 15353

Emile Alphonse Griffith was a world champion boxer at both welterweight and middleweight who was born on 3 February 1938. His enduring reputation hinges on the night of 24 March 1962, when he regained his world welterweight championship from the Cuban fighter Benny “Kid” Paret, unfortunately killing him in the process, live on television.

Earlier at the weigh in, Paret had taunted him with homophobic comments.

Griffith was about to step off the scales when he heard his trainer Gil Clancy shout: “Hey, watch it!” He wheeled round. A smirking Paret feigned intercourse with him as his trainers whooped hysterically. He waggled a finger at Griffith. “Hey maricón,” Paret said in a cooing lisp, “I’m gonna get you and your husband.”

1962 was no easy time to be homosexual in America, and Griffith was not out, although it was an open secret to journalists covering the sport. So how did they report it? A single journalist noted that “the challenger had been subjected to a slur about his sexuality.”

It was no easy time to be black in America, either: just days earlier Paret had taken his young son Benny Jr and wife to the zoo in Miami but, at the entrance, they’d been refused entry. His wife Lucy had been stunned when her husband, rather than their small son, had cried. The injustice reminded Benny that, rather than being a world champion, he still looked like a Cuban sugarcane cutter.

Michael Carson writes in Griffith’s obituary about the fateful televised fight. Earlier Paret felt ill and had forebodings about the fight but was afraid to pull out of the fight.

Paret floored Griffith for an eight-count in round six before Griffith took control. In the 12th, he landed a number of telling punches before a right staggered the Cuban, who retreated into the corner. Referee Ruby Goldstein stood directly behind Griffith, inexplicably slow to stop the beating. Paret was known for his ability to take a punch and Griffith was not a big puncher, but Paret was clearly out long before Goldstein stepped in.

Griffith always denied he intended deliberate punishment, and watching his concern as he moved to Paret immediately after his hand was raised in victory, it is easy to believe he was telling the truth. But the fight haunted him – and the whispers about his sexuality trailed him – for the rest of his life.

New York’s then Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered an investigation which cleared both Griffith and Goldstein of blame. However Goldstein never refereed another fight, and the television network dropped prime time boxing for the next 20 years.

Griffith was born in St Thomas, US Virgin Islands, one of eight children, abandoned by their father, and was raised by relatives while his mother found work in New York, sending for him when he was 12. He got a job in a garment factory whose owner, a former boxer, gave him permission to work shirtless in the heat. Taking one look at Griffith’s narrow waist and broad shoulders, he sent the boy to trainer Gil Clancy. By 1958, Griffith was the Golden Gloves champion at welterweight, and he turned professional.

In 1971, Griffith married Mercedes Donastorg, with Joe Frazier as best man. The marriage lasted less than two years. After retiring, Griffith coached the Danish Olympic team, worked as a corrections officer at a juvenile facility in New Jersey, where he met Luis Rodrigo, who became his life time companion, publicly called an “adopted son”. The relationship cost him his job, and he became a bartender in Jersey City while also training fighters, most notably Wilfred Benítez.

One night in 1992 he fought back after being attacked by a gang as he left Hombre, a gay bar near New York’s port authority terminal. The savage beating he received left him close to death from kidney failure, while the trauma to his head would exacerbate the damage he had received while boxing.

It is evident from the film and from a biography, Nine Ten and Out: The Two Worlds of Emile Griffith, made in 2008, that Griffith struggled to define himself as others would see him. In 2005 he said:

“I’ve chased men and women. I like men and women both. But I don’t like that word: homosexual, gay or faggot. I don’t know what I am.”

Griffith died from kidney failure on 23 July 2013 after suffering from dementia. He is survived by his seven siblings, and by Luis.

Emile Griffith obituary, Guardian, 24 July 2013

Guardian, 10 September 2015


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Remembering John Curry

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John Curry at the 1976 Innsbruck Winter Olympics. Photograph: Colorsport/REX | 14045

John Curry was one of the first sportsmen anywhere to come out as gay – just hours after securing a gold medal in Innsbruck, in 1976. John Curry was 26. In just two months he won the European, Olympic and world figure skating titles. His life would never recover.

Bill Jones introduces his new book, “Alone – The Triumph and Tragedy Of John Curry”.

Like many young people who have had intensive training in their chosen sport, Curry had not had the benefit of a balanced social life. As a champion athlete he first visited the US and discovered in New York a free and hedonistic social and sexual life which ultimately ruined him – along with many of his fellow skaters and friends, thanks to HIV.

Among close friends, as his choreography grew ever more sublime, he could be savagely amusing. Among his troupe of skaters, plagued by dodgy managers, tiny stages and patchy reviews, he visibly darkened. “He was corrupted by rage”, says lifelong friend Penny Malec. He was also experimenting with drugs, and developing a taste for extreme sex. In 1978, after a mysterious, violent assault near Earl’s Court, Curry’s pioneering London stage show folded. Soon after that – by this time awarded an OBE – he moved quietly to New York.

In 1994, penniless, and close to death, he invited the Daily Mail to interview him and photograph his worn out body.

John Anthony Curry OBE was born on 9 September 1949 and died on 15 April 1994. Rest in peace.


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Michael Sam becomes first openly gay NFL player

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Michael Sam | LG Patterson/AP | 14096

President Barack Obama greeted the St Louis Rams’ draft selection of Michael Sam, the first openly gay player to join an NFL team, as “an important step forward in our nation’s journey”. Sam came out in February.

His endorsement is controversial, however. Many questioned whether any NFL team would draft an openly gay player, perhaps deterred by ingrained social attitudes or unwillingness to deal with the inevitable media attention. One NFL coach, speaking anonymously to Sports Illustrated after Sam came out, said: “I don’t think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet.”

On Twitter, Chris Kluwe, a former Minnesota Vikings punter who has become an outspoken critic of attitudes to homosexuality within the NFL, said: “At least one team finally showed some balls. Good job Rams. However, it’s still a very real problem that it took this long.”

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40 years of gay sport

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UK Gay Aquatics Club Out to Swim, Cologne, Germany, 2010 | Unknown photographer | Gay Star News | 14414

Gay Star News have been speaking to Chris Morgan, Gay Games Ambassador who recently produced a timeline tracing the history of LGBT sport in the UK.

It was not until the 1970s that the first LGBT sports clubs began to form, with running, swimming and tennis among the first to establish dedicated gay and lesbian teams. The first Gay Games were held in San Francisco in 1982. Since the 1980s new clubs have continued to be established in every conceivable sport. Establishing an LGBT sports club is hard work, takes an enormous amount of energy and requires a number of passionate people to give the club focus and momentum. Making a club sustainable beyond that initial core group of people is equally challenging and it’s not uncommon for clubs to have a short lifespan if they have been unable to build a strong membership base or the infrastructure required for future growth.

Updated 22 November 2014: Photograph identified.


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