That’s Just How We Roll: A History of the International Gay Bowling Organization

Learn how gay & lesbian bowlers seeking fellowship and fun formed the International Gay Bowling Organization in 1980. Today, it is the largest LGBTQIA+ sports association anywhere.

The Strong National Museum of Play

Crowds Gathered at the March on Albany (1971) by Richard C. WandelThe Strong National Museum of Play

Liberation Now

For much of the 20th century, widespread discrimination and harassment forced gay men and lesbians to hide their sexual orientation. A 1969 police raid on a gay bar in New York City sparked the Stonewall uprising, rousing many people to campaign for gay pride and liberation. 

Gay Sports Insert, Advocate Magazine (1979-08-09) by Advocate MagazineThe Strong National Museum of Play

Let’s Start Our Own Bowling League!

By the late 1970s, cities in the United States and Canada had gay and lesbian bowling clubs. Inspired by this 1979 article about gay sports in America, New York bowler Leo Gender began phoning urban gay bowling leagues to promote the idea of inter-city bowling tournaments.

Tom Hack and David Theiss (1981)The Strong National Museum of Play

Getting Rolling

Bowlers David Theiss of Milwaukee, Tom Hack of New York, and John Hammet in Los Angeles ran tournaments in their cities. While meeting in LA, they decided to merge into one group. Hack suggested they call it the International Gay Bowling Organization

Welcome International Gay Bowling Organization First Annual Tournament (1981-05) by International Gay Bowling Organization (IGBO)The Strong National Museum of Play

“Gay Bowling Has Come a Long Way in One Year”

With Tom Hack chosen as IGBO’s first board president, the group held its first annual tournament in 1981. Bowlers travelled from 13 different cities to convene—and bowl—in Houston, Texas. The program, filled with gay-friendly sponsors, was inexpensively photocopied.

Bowlers in a Line at an Alley (1983) by International Gay Bowling Organization (IGBO)The Strong National Museum of Play

“The intent was to change the game of bowling from a ‘gladiator’ competitive sport (like softball) to a social event of fellowship for gays and lesbians to come together and offer a means to network and communicate.”

Gerald Hagan
Archives Chairperson, 2005 

(IGBO) T-shirts from Chicago and Seattle (1983/1984) by International Gay Bowling Organization (IGBO) Chicago and Milwaukee committeesThe Strong National Museum of Play

The Largest LGBTQ+ Sport Organization in the World

IGBO grew exponentially during its early years. In 1983, 27 cities participated, and the American Bowling Congress acknowledged IGBO’s competitions. The next year, 29 cities sent 44 bowling leagues to Seattle, making IGBO the largest such sport organization in the world.

11. Cover, IGBO Newsletter, Spring, 1989The Strong National Museum of Play

Action and Activism

In 1984, IGBO directors officially implemented a program of activism. New agendas included providing HIV/AIDS information to bowlers, encouraging more women members both locally and nationally, and establishing strategies to inspire future organization leaders. 

International Gay Bowling Organization (IGBO) AIDS Quilt Sections (1995) by International Gay Bowling Organization (IGBO)The Strong National Museum of Play

In Memoriam

By 1988, IGBO was losing bowlers to the AIDS epidemic. The next year, teams began listing names and constructing AIDS quilt sections, first shown at the 1990 tournament. By 2005, the quilt was so large it could only be fully exhibited at Milwaukee’s vast Midwest Airlines Center. 

IGBO Banner Displayed at Tournament Ceremony (2012) by International Gay Bowling Organization (IGBO)The Strong National Museum of Play

Benevolent Bowling

IGBO’s very first by-laws mention a sum to “give back” to a host city charity as thanks “to the local committee for all its hard work.”  According to the organization, individual member city leagues have donated tens of thousands of dollars to causes in their home cities.

Bowling Team in Matching T-shirts (1997) by International Gay Bowling Organization (IGBO)The Strong National Museum of Play

Playful Competition

Member teams have fun, dressing up according to tournament themes and coining funny or double entendre team names, like the obvious Strike Force, the ordinary Maud’s Squad, the clever but hokey Underpinnings, and the daring Four Play. 

10. City of Phoenix Campaigns to Host IGBO in the FutureThe Strong National Museum of Play

We’re Here, We’re Queer, and We Bowl!

Although initially organized for friendship and fun, IGBO gained in stature as it grew in numbers. Its presence, size, and recognition not only played a crucial role building community but also helped promote a wider acceptance of LGBTQIA+ people everywhere.

Credits: Story

Photo contributions from the International Gay Bowling Organization and The Center – The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center National History Archive

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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