Why a Gay Games?
With every stop the Gay Games have made across the globe for the last 24 years, a simple question has followed.
Why do gay people need their own Olympic-style competition?
"It's a fair question from the straight community," said Derek Liecty, a longtime member of the Federation of Gay Games board of directors. "But the gay and lesbian community already knows the answer."
The answer, it turns out, is equal parts political, social and, oh yes, athletic.
For Esera Tuaolo, the Games are an antidote to the nine years he spent as a professional football player with a secret life.
For gay-rights activist Rick Garcia, they are about letting the straight world know that gay people can indeed play basketball--or do any number of things that don't include the color pink or Cher's music.
For Sandra Urquiaga, they mean she can play a competitive game of women's flag football without worrying about sideways glances from teammates while her partner cheers her on.
The seventh Gay Games--affectionately known to fans as the Gaymes--officially began Saturday night when athletes from 65 countries including the United States streamed onto Soldier Field for opening ceremonies. With international flags flying and sustained cheers from the crowd, the mass of athletes filled up most of the field. Over the next week they will compete in 30 sports, including the typical (track, swimming) and the not so typical (same-sex pairs figure skating and country dancing).
Held every four years, most recently in Sydney, the Games bring top athletes alongside novices to compete for gold, silver and bronze medals. But everyone gets a medal just for showing up, and that, advocates say, is the point.
The heart of the Gay Games is not just winning or even being surrounded by gay people (5 percent of the competitors are straight), participants and organizers say. It is self-empowerment in a world where homophobia has dropped precipitously but is far from gone.
"What the Games mean depends on which America you live in," said Rex Wockner, a San Diego-based journalist whose work appears in dozens of gay newspapers. "If you live in a place where you can't walk down the street holding hands or kiss your partner goodbye at the airport, a gay Olympics is really something to treasure and remember for a lifetime."
The Games were founded in San Francisco in 1982 by former Olympian Tom Waddell, who died in 1987 of AIDS-related complications. In Gay Games circles, he is discussed with reverence.
Popularity on the rise
Most observers agree that the conditions leading gay athletes to create a place where they could compete openly and without stereotyping have improved since the first competition--but not enough for the Games to disappear.
Instead, the popularity of gay athletics is booming.
Year-round gay sports leagues exist throughout Chicago and other major cities, while Olympic-style events are springing up around the world--the Sun Games in Madrid, the PrideGames in Manchester, England. Later this month, a new event called OutGames will be staged in Montreal, where the Gay Games were to be held until a falling-out between local organizers and the Gay Games' governing body killed the deal.
The attraction of a gay Olympic-style event, participants say, is no different than what inspired the World Maccabiah Games for Jewish athletes, the Special Olympics or the Senior Games--commonality.
Some say the payoff can be even greater for gay male athletes than for lesbians, who may be more likely to find acceptance when they participate in sports.
"We were always the tomboys growing up and athletics was our outlet," said Marcia Hill, 48, of Albany Park, who will compete in the Gay Games softball tournament. "A lot of times, gay men weren't athletic growing up, and they're just getting into it now because it's finally safe and fun for them.
"I'm working with four guys who haven't picked up a bat since they were 8 years old because they hated Little League. They didn't know they could enjoy playing softball."