Saturday, February 7, 2009

Goodnight, Irene

A true pioneer passed away last week. Jack "Irene" McGowan (above, right, in a photo by Paul Fusco) was one of the first organizers of gay team sports in the world. He started a gay softball league in San Francisco in the early 1970s, which led to more softball teams in other cities, and national tournaments.

Jack was also the fiesty and opinionated world's first out gay sports columnist, penning a column in the San Francisco Sentinel, then the rival of the Bay Area Reporter (for which he also wrote). With its huge tabloid format, Jack's Sentinel columns included play-by-play commentary and photos, many times of his own games.

This all happened years before the first Gay Games in 1982. While most gay people can easily name Tom Waddell, who's credited with founding the Gay Games, it was Jack who first proposed such an event. In those days, the Parks Dept. was not as friendly as ist is now to fledgling gay sports groups.

In those days, the relationship between gays and the local police was also unpleasant at best. Men were frequently being arrested for cruising, and even in bars. It was Jack who proposed a competition between the macho police softball team and the gay team. Although they lost the first few years, when they finally defeated the police team in 1974, it became a landmark in gay sports history.

The growth of new softball teams led to the creation of a community of mostly gay men. Sara Lewinstein, a lesbian who later married gay former Olympic decathlete Waddell, would become pivotal in creating a women's league. And although gay bars sponsored the teams, and there was a lot of bar-going partying after games, it was through sports that people found a social life that didn't always include drinking and cruising.

Here's Jack and myself at the GLBT Historical Society on a rare trip out for Jack. With his health declining, he couldn't get around much. But I was thrilled that he was able to come downtown to sort through some memorabilia as work on the Sporting Life exhibit developed. He could identify every single person in a photo, and had many stories to tell.

Current BAR sports columnist Roger Brigham wrote two articles about Jack, (links here and here). Dan Woog also wrote a nice article about Jack a while back. Jack is also quoted in a brief slideshow about the Sporting Life exhibit on

Today I attended a memorial service for Jack. His nephew and niece-in-law told of their love for him, as did many in the sports and softball community. Although we'll miss him, what saddens me more is how many thousands of LGBT athletes in the Bay Area, perhaps hundreds of thousands around the world, owe him so much, when most don't even know who he was.

Goodnight, Irene.

(photo: Emory Rieff: GLBT Historical Society collection)

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