The World Heads to Chicago

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Thousands of LGBT Athletes Kick Off Gay Games VII

With two international gay sports events competing only days apart, some might have worried that the Gay Games would never happen. But watching thousands of LGBT athletes fight their way into the Hilton Hotel on South Michigan Avenue in the heart of Chicago on Saturday, July 15, the day of the Games’ official opening, demonstrated that any doubters were wrong.

Kevin Boyer, co-vice chair of the Gay Games, said, “All of our planning seems to have paid off. People have even commented on how friendly the volunteers are.”

As athletes checked in nearby and then made their way to purchase souvenirs, Boyer said, “This sets the tone for the week.”

Helping for the first time with the Games as a member of the staff was Jessica Waddell Lewinstein, the 22-year-old daughter of Games founder Tom Waddell and writer Sara Lewinstein. Waddell staged the first Gay Games in San Francisco in 1982 and competed that year as a gymnast and again in 1986. He died of HIV-related illness in 1987.

Lewinstein, a pretty blonde young woman who could easily be mistaken for a Hollywood starlet, is the marketing and public relations administrator for the Games.

“I’ve grown up with this,” she said, explaining that she has attended five of the seven competitions to date. “It’s great to be able to work it for once, instead of just to be a spectator.”

As for continuing her father’s work, she said, “Just to be a part of something my father created is incredible. He is the essence of the Games in my opinion. I feel very committed to him.”

A few blocks away from the excitement of the Hilton, it was clear that it wasn’t all fun and commercialism this week in Chicago. In conjunction with the Games, Amnesty International held a LGBT civil rights summit at Roosevelt University called Global Pride, Global Action, with panelists covering a panorama of issues. Pauline Park, the co-chair of NYAGRA, the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy, came to discuss the issues of the transgendered, with a strong focus on rights outside of the U.S.

“I would say the LGBT community in the U.S. tends not to consider the larger international context of human rights, which is really important when doing our work,” Park said, arguing that activists in the U.S. tend to be “a bit parochial when thinking of civil rights and human rights issues.” With athletes from the developing world attending, the Games present an opportunity for American LGBT activists to broaden their horizons.

Faisal Alam, the founder and former director of Al Fatiha, a group supporting LGBT Muslims, was also at the Amnesty conference. He and Parvez Sharma, director of “In the Name of Allah,” a documentary about LGBT Muslims, both spoke on a panel about Islamic gays.

“The conference helps bring a serious focus to all the fun, all the partying that people will do,” Alam said, adding that the Games bring people together from many different backgrounds and countries, “all sharing their sexuality and a love of sports.”

Alam talked about visiting a Starbucks in downtown Chicago full of international LGBT athletes.

“These are cultures which would never have a chance to interact with each other, but have so much in common,” he said. “In this war-riddled world, this allows one to celebrate our uniqueness, our ethnicity, and being LGBT.”

A few hours after the Amnesty conference ended, the Opening Ceremonies of the Gay Games began at Soldier Field, within view of Lake Michigan. Thousands of athletes lined up at the gates outside, penned in by labels bearing the names of the continents, states, and cities from which they all hailed. With all the intermingling and socializing under the classical colonnade of the venue, it was hard to tell where each group began. Once the athletes began marching into the stadium, however, it was clear that the Games are a largely American event.

Luis Escalinas came from Monterey, Mexico to compete in both tennis and soccer. He explained that for his team, the problem was about visas and costs.

“There are maybe 20 on our team here,” he said, but that, “60, maybe 80, will come to Canada,” referring to the first Out Games to be held in Montreal July 29 through August 5. The new competition resulted from a split in the Gay Games planning effort. It was easier, Escalinas said, to get economic sponsorship for the competition in Canada as well as to travel there, given post 9/11 travel restrictions to the U.S.

Still, in spite of the rivalry between the two cities separated by the Great Lakes, Canada, and Quebec in particular, had large contingents. Other countries with significant representation included France, England, and Australia. Tiny contingents of a handful of athletes represented countries as diverse as Algeria, Sri Lanka, Poland, Uganda, Singapore, and Zimbabwe.

A key difference that this reporter noted which contrasted strongly with Sydney’s Gay Games four years ago was a lack of national dress or complex costumes. Even the Brazilian contingent, usually noted for flamboyance, appeared with only their T-shirts designating their homland.

Yet a strong visual was soon to occur. As darkness fell and the movement of all the athletes onto the field had finished, each broke open a special glow stick, and Soldier Field, the home of the Chicago Bears, suddenly and stunningly lit from goal point to goal point as an enormous rainbow flag, making the crowd go wild.

Matthew Francis, a swimmer on Team New York, said that this was his first Gay Games. He found this portion of the ceremonies powerful, and he said he was struck in particular by the contrast between outside the stadium, where Christian activists had been shouting anti-gay commentary through bullhorns, to inside a cheering, warmly supportive stadium. As he stood for nearly an hour on the field, his head scanning the crowds surrounding them, he said, “It was moving that there were so many people screaming for us. More than an intellectual experience, it was emotional.”

Once the athletes filtered out into their stadium seats, American stars, comedians, politicians, and activists of all kinds came out to entertain the crowd, which not including the athletes, filled approximately one third of the stadium. Comediennes Kate Clinton, Susan Westenhoefer, and Margaret Cho, Chicago native singer Jody Watley, actress Megan Mullally, African-American gay activist Kevin Boykin, former U.S. Ambassador James Hormel, and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley were among those who appeared on the grounds of the stadium as spotlights lit up stages and daises from one end to the other.

The audience seemed particularly enthusiastic as Chicago’s mayor spoke, prompting marathon runner Ruth Gursky, the former co-chair of Team New York to comment, “There was such great reciprocity of love for him in the stadium.” Daley’s support was important to the Games, and some locals indicated he wanted to show that Chicago could hold large sports events as a lead up to a future Olympics host city bid.

Among the most unusual and interesting parts of the ceremonies was a portion called Oppression, which reminded the cheerful crowd that much work needed to be done in the international struggle for LGBT civil equality. It included a speech by George Takei, better known as Sulu on the TV show “Star Trek,” who came out recently as gay. He spoke of his childhood as a Japanese American during World War II and how he and his family had been marched at gunpoint into concentration camps. For people of his ethnicity, he said, those days are long gone, but for gays and lesbians, “there are still invisible barbed wire fences” which prevent true equality.

During this portion of the ceremonies, poet Staceyann Chin read a impassioned piece reminding gays and lesbians, particularly those living comfortable middle class lives, that LGBT oppression is part of an overall international pattern connected to the rights of low wage workers, women who are victims of domestic violence, and other marginalized groups.

“Where are the LGBT marchers to support a woman’s right to abortion?” she cried out, followed by intense cheering.

Chin continued on that white gay men seem unconcerned now that HIV and AIDS are impacting minority communities instead of their own.

“You don’t give a fuck!” she said at one point, calling out again, “Where is the outrage?” to considerably less applause as she verbally pounded out her message. She was followed by Jorge Velencia of the Trevor Project, which helps gay and lesbian youth. His speech consisted of the thoughts of a gay teenage boy whose high school classmates tormented him so much that he had decided to commit suicide.

“Is it better that they kill me, or I kill myself?” Velencia said in his assumed role as an adolescent. Later, Velencia explained that more than a thousand calls a month come into his office from teenagers wanting to commit suicide. One Gay Games volunteer who was stationed near the press box began weeping during the speech and hugged Velencia afterwards, telling him of his own teenage suicide attempt.

One presence on the field weaving the various themes and speeches together was Matthew Cusick, the former Cirque de Soleil dancer who won an anti-HIV discrimination lawsuit against the Montreal based group. He and his dance partner Ken Berkeley did hand balancing acts, and other complex routines spaced between the speeches. In each set, the two men were surrounded by hundreds of other dancers who used flags, hoops, rollers, and other devices throughout the nearly four-hour opening event.

The last dance routine, called “Akanamandla,” was completely over the top. Male and female dancers wearing silver helmets and dressed in flowing white fabric and were propelled on sparkle shooting scooters. In between them, semi-nude men with well-defined physiques rolled in giant metal hoops, looking like Da Vinci’s famous diagram drawings of male proportions come to life. A fireworks display then ended the evening.

At the night’s end, even after hours of performing, Cusick said, “I still have so much energy. There was such a feeling of life that was in the stadium tonight.”

Some of that energy was tempered the next day when an intense heat wave fell over the city, with humid temperatures pushing 100 degrees.

“With the heat emergency, it’s definitely forcing us to use all our resources,” Games official Boyer said, and additional supplies of bottled water had to be purchased. Sunday’s competitions included basketball, bowling, diving, rowing, and power lifting, but the heat affected many of the athletes.

The Cheer and Color Guard cheerleading event, held in Chicago’s new waterfront Millennium Park, had to be cut short because of heat exhaustion among members of the various teams. Andrew Jonas, the director and founder of Cheer NY, said that it was the first time that the team was competing in the Gay Games.

“It’s fun,” he said, rolling up the polyester uniform that he and his team members wore to the event, “but the heat is killing us.” Still, he said, in spite of cutting their routines short for the only event solely for the cheerleaders, “it’s one of my dreams for Cheer NY to be here. It’s nothing but sports and family all over.”

Jonas said that Cheer NY, along with other cheerleading teams, would spread throughout Chicago during the week encouraging the LGBT athletes to do their best as they cheered from the sidelines.

The Gay Games schedule for the next several days, with events stretching from the heart of the city to nearby suburbs, means that the cheerleaders will have a lot of work to do before the Games close on Saturday, July 22 in Wrigley Field, the fabled home of the Cubs on Chicago’s North Side.