Let the Games Begin 

Chicago hosts this year's "it" Pride event

Described by its founder Dr. Tom Waddell as "an impossible and foolhardy undertaking" marked by "an almost comical start," the quadrennial Gay Games are no laughing matter these days. With 11,500 committed participants hailing from 60 countries, Gay Games VII Chicago is the behemoth celebration that's grown from an inaugural turnout of 1,350 games goers in 1982's Gay Games I San Francisco.

Billed as an athletic and cultural festival—an understatement that's akin to nonchalantly labeling the Queen Mary 2 a boat—Gay Games VII Chicago is more aptly described as the result of the Olympic Games walking in on New Year's Eve Time Square fornicating with the MTV Movie Awards. In other words, it's complete celebratory chaos on multiple fronts. Thirty-three athletic events, a long list of parties, more than 200 cultural events throughout the city and celebrity entertainment appearances by Cyndi Lauper, Margaret Cho, Megan Mullally and Mo'nique, among others, make Gay Games VII Chicago the Pride event of the year.

"It is one of the most inspirational experiences anyone can ever have—gay, straight, young or old, male or female," says Kevin Boyer, board co-vice chair for Gay Games VII Chicago. Boyer (a former Gem State resident himself) founded the Chicago Area Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce in 1996, and three years later was approached by a group who asked the chamber to support an effort to bring the Gay Games to Chicago. Selected by the Federation of Gay Games in a bidding process similar to that of the Olympic Games, the City of Chicago has enthusiastically tackled the event, with the Illinois state legislature, the Cook County legislature and the Chicago City Council unanimously endorsing the games. In fact, according to Boyer, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley is so pleased with the games' success that he's put together an exploratory committee to determine the feasibility of inviting the world to the Windy City for the 2016 Olympic Games.

As for social controversy from conservative residents, Boyer says there's been little if any grumbling. "The city deserves its growing reputation as one of the great GLBT-friendly cities," says Boyer. He says he'd even put Chicago on par with gay meccas San Francisco and Amsterdam, both of which have previously hosted the Gay Games.

First conceived of in 1980 by Dr. Tom Waddell and a group of friends, the objective around which the Gay Games was structured is change through education. Identifying a need for an openly gay and lesbian community to introduce itself to the greater community in order to gain social acceptance, the founders of the Gay Games envisioned an event that would unite the gay community on an individual level while simultaneously engaging with the community at large. When Dr. Waddell passed away in 1987, Gay Games II San Francisco in 1986 with 3,500 participants had more than doubled the scale and success of the first Gay Games four years earlier. And the numbers only continued to increase. Gay Games III Vancouver in 1990 hosted 7,300 gamers, and in 1994 the games moved east to New York, where 12,500 men and women competed and celebrated in Manhattan. In 1998, the Gay Games established serious global street cred when the games made their first international voyage to Amsterdam with a record 13,000 merrymakers. Sydney, already familiar with large-scale, world-wide athletic events, played host in 2002 before the games completed their global circumnavigation and returned to the United States for this summer's opening ceremonies.

As Chicago wraps up preparations for the July 15 opening ceremonies at Soldier Field, Boyer says he thinks Dr. Waddell would have been very proud of what games organizers have been able to accomplish as the years have passed and the numbers have increased tenfold.

"The challenge has been to merge the community-centered vision of the founders of the Gay Games with the economic realities of a large, multi-million-dollar event," explains Boyer. Reinforcing that the "community-centered" vision of the games refers to the greater community in which the GLBT community exists has been key.

"Everyone is invited to participate in the Gay Games—gay or straight," says Boyer, whose personal beliefs about the games well embody the vision of its founders. "I believe the Gay Games have helped improve the quality of life for everyone in this world, not just the GLBT community. Sports transcend philosophical and cultural differences, and more people in GLBT sports means more opportunity to show that people are all the same, regardless of sexual orientation. It's much harder to hate people that you know and with whom you have things in common."

And despite its structural similarities to the Olympic Games, athletically the Gay Games are far less competitive, in keeping with its founders' hopes to increase camaraderie through competition. Everyone is invited to participate, regardless of athletic ability, and each year a handful of former professional athletes compete. At Gay Games VII Chicago, former National Football League player Esera Tuaolo, former Major League Baseball player Billy Bean and swimmer Olympic Gold Medalist Bruce Hayes are among the well-known faces who will make appearances in athletic events.

Want the chance to swim against an Olympic gold medalist? Sorry, the entry deadline for swimming has already passed for the 2006 games, but you have four years to improve your stroke for Gay Games VIII, to be held in Cologne, Germany, which beat out Johannesburg, South Africa, and Paris, France, last fall in a competitive two-year bidding process.

However, swimming is one of only a handful of events that have already been closed due to at-capacity numbers. Most of the games' sporting activities are still accepting applications for team and individual participation, and as Boyer reassures hesitant participants, echoing what is a mantra for gay and straight games supporters, "For the individual, 'participation' is the thing. It doesn't matter what sport or cultural event you do, just do something."

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