Reflecting on the Gay Games Experience

Photo by Koji Kowano. License information available here.

We recently had the honor of participating in the 2014 Gay Games.  Held in Cleveland, the Gay Games featured over 9,000 LGBT athletes from over two dozen countries competing in events including wrestling, rowing, softball, and triathlon.

The Gay Games were founded by Dr. Tom Waddell, a doctor and athlete whose abilities in both fields took him all over the world.  His two passions had one common thread: helping others.  Dr. Waddell started the Gay Games as a vehicle of change, an arena for LGBT athletes the world over to prove that they belonged on the field as much as anyone else.  His visionary work made it possible for groups like Athlete Ally to exist.

The fact that Dr. Waddell died of AIDS before his fiftieth birthday was not lost on us.  At the International Rainbow Memorial Run that began this year’s Games, we were reminded of the many brave advocates for LGBT equality lost to the disease, and of our duty to honor their legacy by continuing their mission.

We had the privilege to meet Dr. Waddell’s family, Sara Lewinstein and their daughter, Jessica Waddell Lewinstein.  We talked about our work promoting our message of allyship, and discussed the need for greater HIV education in the sports world.  The Federation of Gay Games takes this issue seriously, and has launched as a resource for athletes everywhere.

During the days of competition, we attended as many events as possible.  We saw the Russian badminton team play, watched the legendary Rock Dogs on the basketball court, and went to the co-ed cheerleading competition.  At each event, it was such a blast to see so many old and new friends out on the field.

It was a thrill to see friends of ours be honored for their commitment to LGBT equality in sports, as well.  Gene Dermody, a pioneer in the wrestling world, received the Tom Waddell Award for his years of service to the Gay Games.  Gene’s dedication and generosity has benefited countless others.  Being there when he received that recognition was something we won’t soon forget.

The mission statement of the Federation of Gay Games is to foster and augment the self-respect of lesbians and gay men throughout the world and to engender respect and understanding from the non-gay world.  We saw that mission coming to life in Cleveland.  The Gay Games is a moment in time when you can look around and see people of all ages, nationalities, sexual orientations, and gender identities coming together to compete and have fun in a supportive, inclusive environment.  While we continue to work at making the worlds of professional and college sports places free of discrimination, there will always be something special about events like the Gay Games.  They are a testimonial to the strength of a community, a celebration of the progress that has been made, and a reminder of the challenges still ahead of us.