Op-Ed: Diana Nyad - World-Class Marathon Swimmer and Lesbian Icon

It matters that Diana Nyad is a lesbian and an activist, even if some just want to focus on her swimming.
By: Victoria A. Brownworth
September 09 2013 3:11 PM

It’s not supposed to matter, but it does. Diana Nyad, one of the world’s greatest swimmers, is a lesbian.

I kept waiting to hear this in the many reports on Nyad last week after she became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage, but it was never said. Nyad’s achievement led the national news, but the mainstream media completely erased the word "gay" or "lesbian" from stories about the marathon swimmer.

Why it matters that Nyad is a lesbian is because she’s an historic figure, a role model, an icon. On Aug. 31, Nyad, 64, –making her fifth attempt in 35 years–got into the waters off Cuba without a shark cage and swam for 53 hours and 110.7 miles to Key West, Florida. Staggering onto land, sunburned, bent over, her black and blue swimsuit encrusted with salt, Nyad nearly fell into the arms of a waiting woman, her trainer and friend Bonnie Stoll, to the cheers of onlookers, many of them waving rainbow flags.


Nyad prior to her record-breaking swim. 

In Key West, a gay tourist Mecca, they know Nyad is a lesbian.

In her book A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf writes, "For most of history, Anonymous was a woman." To paraphrase, for most of history, lesbians have been anonymous.

When she completed her swim, Nyad said to supporters and news media through swollen lips and a mouth badly cut from salt water and jellyfish stings, "I’ve got three messages: One is, we should never, ever give up. Two is you never are too old to chase your dreams."

She paused and the crowd shouted, "That’s right!" and "Amen, sister!" Then she said, "Three is, it looks like it’s [marathon swimming] a solitary sport, but it’s a team."

Nyad’s achievements are legendary, but her lesbianism is no secret, either.

Exactly 14 years ago, on Sept. 9, 1999, the marathon swimmer spoke to a rapt and emotional audience at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center in an event on lesbians and gay men in professional sports sponsored by the New York Times. With her were Dave Kopay, Billy Bean and Mariah Burton Nelson–other out gay sports figures in football, baseball and basketball, respectively.

Nyad spoke declaratively about the issues for lesbians in professional sports, noting specifically that while lesbians received more support from other women in sports than did gay men from other men, there was "pressure on female pros to be more feminine, code for heterosexual."

Nyad also said that, as a star in an individual sport, she had escaped some of the homophobia, if not the sexism, that lesbian athletes face.

In her career as a sportscaster and TV commentator, however, Nyad said she regularly faced bias. The New York Times quoted Nyad saying that when she was at the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), she was "told not to bring her partner to company social events and to make sure her lesbianism stayed in the closet where it couldn’t scare the Nielsen families."

Although ABC led its evening newscast with Nyad’s feat, her lesbianism remained off the air, as it did the following morning on CBS, where Nyad had also been a commentator. The day Nyad made it to shore, I tweeted about her success. I also tweeted that she was a lesbian. Many women favorited that tweet, but a few people responded, "What does that have to do with anything?"

In a truly post-queer world it might not matter, but try and recall a major sporting event where the winner doesn’t have a glowing wife at his side or the beaming husband at her side. It’s part of the picture of winning. Heterosexuality may not have anything to do with NASCAR, but the winners always have their wives on the stand with them as they get doused with milk. Lesbian and gay sports figures stand for more than just themselves, they stand for an entire community that has long been hidden from history. Noting their achievements matters.

And Nyad’s athletic achievements are monumental. She’s the only person to have made this swim from Cuba to Florida successfully. And while there was some grousing over the weekend about whether or not she’d gotten assistance from her boat or her team–challenges her team flatly denies–Nyad is the only marathon swimmer to complete this swim without the aid of a shark cage or flippers, both of which disqualify a swimmer from a record because they make the swim much easier.

President Obama congratulated Nyad, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton congratulated her via Twitter, noting with her usual cleverness, "Flying to 112 counties is a lot until you consider swimming between 2. Feels like I swim with sharks but you actually did it!"

Nyad herself said at a press conference post-swim, "The truth is I don’t wake up thinking about age or that I am a woman,a gay woman, or 64 years old. I think I am in the prime of my life. I’m a Baby Boomer and I’m just coming into my own."

Why was the "gay" part edited out?

Nyad first gained prominence in 1975, at the age of 26, when she swam around Manhattan–a mere 28 miles. In 1979 she swam from North Bimini, in the Bahamas, to Juno Beach, Florida–102 miles. In between those two swims was her first failed attempt at getting from Cuba to Florida in the dangerous Florida Straits, that time in a shark cage.

Her Manhattan swim set a new world record and her Bimini swim set a distance record for non-stop swimming without a wetsuit which has not yet been broken.

She has been a sports commentator for ABC, CBS, FOX and NPR. She’s written three books and her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Newsweek and Huffington Post. She co-owns a business, BravaBody, with Stoll, a former world-class racquetball player, which focuses on women over 40.

After she completed her marathon, Nyad said she was "through with the ocean" for now, but not with swimming. She announced she would be doing a series of long-distance swims to benefit victims of Hurricane Sandy and the Boston Marathon bombing. She’s having a portable pool installed in New York. She has pledged to swim 48 hours from Oct. 8 through 10 to raise money for people left homeless by Hurricane Sandy, as the one-year anniversary of that disaster approaches.

Nyad at a post-swim press conference. 

Nyad told CNN, "No waves, no jellyfish, no seasickness," as she described the pool and her plan. The swimmer will then take the pool to Boston to raise money for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing. That swim will be planned for the anniversary of the April 15 attack. Her third marathon will be in Moore, Oklahoma where she will raise money for victims of the tornado that nearly destroyed the town in May.

Nyad told MSNBC, "This is going to be my thing for the next two years, to not forget people who have had their lives damaged so badly in natural and terrorist disasters."

Nyad’s concern for victims is not new–for years she’s been speaking publicly about her past experience of sexual abuse. She wrote about this in detail for Huffington Post after the Penn State sexual abuse scandal broke and those details were stunning. Her concern for victims past and present is yet another aspect of her life’s work.

This story–the marathons, the world-records, the singularity, the writing, the new plan to raise money for victims, her outspokenness on sexual abuse by coaches and other adults (she herself was sexually abused by a coach as a teenager)–is the story of a highly accomplished woman who has set and achieved goals most could only imagine.

That résumé –not just the swimming, writing and public speaking, but also the efforts on behalf of others–make her a splendid role model. So why wouldn’t we want and need to claim Nyad as our own?

When people ask, "What does it matter," this is the answer: because LGBT people have been hidden from history and our achievements either dismissed or denied for centuries. Nyad is an icon. She may be everyone’s icon right now, but she was always ours. And it’s time the world acknowledged that fact.

(A documentary about Nyad’s swim, The Other Shore, will premiere Sept. 26 and is available online at www.theothershoremovie.com.)

 
Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, as well as the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Nation, and Village Voice, among others. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired. Her most recent book is From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth, winner of the Moonbeam Award for Cultural/Historical Fiction 2012. Her novella, Ordinary Mayhem, won Honorable Mention in Best Horror 2012.
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