Equestrian AIDS Foundation highlights sport’s inclusiveness
The Bridgehampton Bath and Tennis Club played host late last month to a fundraiser for the Equestrian AIDS Foundation (EAF) that honored Jean Lindgren and Tony Hitchcock for their 30 years of dedication to the Hampton Classic Horse Show.
Deborah Cox provided a special musical performance.
The EAF was founded in 1996 to support individuals in the equestrian community living with HIV and AIDS. Robert Dover, the foundation president and an Olympic dressage rider, founded the organization with his partner and fellow horse enthusiast and jump rider, Robert Ross.
“As a gay person in my sport, in the 1980s and the beginning of the ‘90s, I saw the passing of a number of friends that were in the horse world and I realized that I needed to try to do something to help,” Dover said.
His efforts began by donating money he won from competitions to AIDS organizations, but “I wanted to do something more tangible,” he explained at the August 31 event.
The EAF helps anyone in the horse world living with HIV or AIDS. In its nine-year history, the organization has not denied any legitimate request for help.
While the association one customarily makes with the equestrian world is wealth and prestige, it is a sport full of gay men who have been made significant contributions. Jonathan Soresi provides a good example of their impact.
Soresi is the head trainer and owner of Soresi Show Stables at North Jersey Equestrian Center in Pompton Plains. He has trained celebrities such as Tom Cruise and Uma Thurman. Soresi’s involvement in EAF has been motivated by his personal experience with loss.
“I lost two of my very best friends, two riders, to AIDS,” he said.
Soresi attributes the high concentration of gay men involved in the equestrian world to “the strength and finesse, which when you put it together, is real artistry. To ride a horse well, if you are a man––and this is not about being gay––you have to learn to ride like a woman and if you are a woman, you have to learn to ride like a man.”
These qualities and the willingness to see the other side of the riding experience, he explained, are attributes for which gay men often have more of an aptitude and also an interest in cultivating.
For Soresi, and many other riders, the egalitarian nature of the sport is also appealing. It is the only Olympic sport, Soresi pointed out, where men and women compete as equals. This unusual parity has shaped Soresi’s outlook on competitive sports.
“It never occurred to me that a woman couldn’t do as a good of a job because all my life I have been seeing male and female riders ride together,” he said.
The equestrian community is also unique in that it has fostered a culture where discrimination against gay and lesbian athletes is much less pronounced than it is in other sports. As Dover put it, “There have been moments here and there when I felt a certain kind of discrimination, but, in general, I have felt more discrimination over the fact that I am Jewish than being gay.”
Soresi said that sometimes, as a gay athlete, you walk into a room of straight athletes and “feel a little less than, but that is just internalized homophobia and nobody is spared that.”
For many gay men, such as Wayne Scott Lucas, a student of Soresi’s, and a stylist to stars such as Janet Jackson, Tina Turner, and Justin Timberlake, riding has been a way to embrace and articulate their masculinity.
“Growing up as a gay kid you are never told you are an athlete, and Jonathan told me I was an athlete, which was so empowering to hear,” he said.
Soresi, along with teaching the techniques of the sport, has shown students, such as Lucas, that being gay and developing their own style of masculinity need not be at odds. Lucas, who admiringly refers to Soresi as “the rugged Marlboro man,” emphasized how important it is to him, as a gay man, to have such a mentor who sees his athletic potential and tries to cultivate it.
“It an amazing thing,” Lucas said.
For gay athletes, like Lucas, the intersection of the gay and athletic world can resurrect painful memories of what it was like growing up as a gay boy.
“Being a gay, male child is directly connected to being a sissy or a faggot,” Lucas said.
Today, though, after reconnecting with riding, those memories of being called names are a distant memory for Lucas.
“At 40, those names are only a smidgen of who I am, and that has a lot to do with my ability to see myself as an athlete,” he said.
Both Soresi and Dover emphasized how atypical the equestrian world is when it comes to accepting gay athletes.
“There are a lot of people that I know who are top stock brokers,” Soresi said, “but that that culture doesn’t nurture being gay. I’m very lucky be in a world that nurtures tolerance.”
It is the confluence of the equestrian world and AIDS that gives Soresi perspective on being a gay athlete.
“When I walk into a room and maybe feel a little less than for being gay, and then you think of two of your friend dying of AIDS, it puts the whole thing in perspective,” he said.
The athletic world, as a whole, has a lot of catching up to do in its acceptance and tolerance of gay athletes. Dover, even as a renowned Olympian, feels that gay athletes are far from enjoying full acceptance.
“Until you see baseball, basketball, and football players that are comfortable being publicly gay, equestrians are going to remain the anomaly,” he said. “Since there are so many out gay athletes in the equestrian world, we are far ahead of many of the other professional sports.”
In addition to being a community of athletes, the equestrian gay world is one that takes care of people, as exemplified by the work of Dover and the EAF. It is the type of community that makes gay men, like Soresi, feel privileged to have matured and found their place in it.
“One of the blessings that I count is that I grew up in the horse business,” he said. “I am very lucky gay guy.”
For Soresi, it was another gay man who gave him his first break in the equestrian world. It is that same compassion, acceptance, and hope that he passes onto his students.
“Jonathan has given me hope and the dream of being a man as an adult,” Lucas said, adding, “Jonathan teaches with compassion and compliments. His soul is bigger than the business.”