Spirit of Gay Games 2023 outshines COVID, politics, and doubters

  • by Roger Brigham, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday November 15, 2023
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Wrestlers posed for a photo while at the Gay Games in Guadalajara, Mexico. Photo: Courtesy Wrestlers WithOut Borders
Wrestlers posed for a photo while at the Gay Games in Guadalajara, Mexico. Photo: Courtesy Wrestlers WithOut Borders

If you read the superficial news reports and commentaries published in the final days leading up to the Gay Games events held in Hong Kong and Guadalajara, Mexico this month, you would have expected sparsely attended tournaments populated by athletes ducking bullets fired by Mexican cartels or constantly looking over their shoulders expecting to be kidnapped by communist party security officers. If you actually participated in the events, you would have found what is always present at the Gay Games: athletes and artists having the most joyous times of their lives overcoming obstacles and critics while transforming those around them for the better.

In many ways, these may have been the most revolutionary and impactful Gay Games since the inaugural Gay Games four decades ago in San Francisco. That may sound unbelievable to the journalism hacks who pooh-poohed the games before they even happened, but then they weren't competing or volunteering. They missed out on the magic.

Leading up to Gay Games XI, which was delayed by one year and divided between two locales for the first time ever because of the onset of COVID-19 and Hong Kong's imposition of severe travel restrictions, many news media focused on the unique challenges facing the Gay Games. They implied failure was inevitable. They ignored the unique opportunities and the extraordinary work that went into capitalizing on those opportunities.

Outsports announced it would skip the Gay Games altogether and declared the event had an undefined identity crisis. Most pre-Games news reports looked like they had been written by beta-version artificial intelligence bots assigned to write from formulaic scripts built on Google searches of Gay Games history; they said damn near nothing about the sports events, the athletes, or the athletes' insights.

Commentators rightly noted the tightening political grip of the Chinese communist government on Hong Kong, with its crackdown on political activity and dissent, hostility against anyone or anything it perceives as a threat to social stability, and disturbingly vague references to the national security laws. They noted the two hosts combined drew a total of about 5,000 athletes and artists; and said 15,000 participants had been projected before the hurdles of COVID, political unrest, supply line disruptions and global inflation — failing to recognize that 15,000 was an inflated pipe-dream projection no LGBTQ+ sports event has ever achieved.

Political opponents in Hong Kong accused the Gay Games of trying to instill "Western values" for full acceptance of LGBTQ rights such as marriage equality and anti-discrimination protections for housing and jobs. Guilty! If the Gay Games didn't stand by such values, there wouldn't be much need for their existence.

Pressure by the Chinese government to silence protest and politics was a constant in the minds of Gay Games athletes in Hong Kong. Hell, organizers reminded participants in daily emails to conduct themselves "appropriately;" follow all instructions; not to "initiate or carry out any kind of demonstration, political or otherwise;" obey all laws of China, especially those regarding national security; and that failure to do so could lead to people being kicked out of the Gay Games. Never before has any host city felt the need to admonish participants to stifle their self-expression or political impulses.

And therein lies the serendipitous service Hong Kong provided by operating despite growing political opposition and suppression, rather than collapsing. If the Gay Games had been canceled, the forces of oppression would have won. Instead they had to acknowledge our undeniable presence, our ability to dance and compete and smile and celebrate even in the darkest hours.

I was not in Hong Kong; I cannot attest to the experience the athletes who were there had. But I have seen their myriad social media postings, and they are not comments of self-regret or disappointment. They are photographs and stories of triumph and joy and plans to do it all again three years hence in Valencia, Spain.


I was in Guadalajara. Those Gay Games were almost immediately cursed by tragedy. A popular American wrestler died on the eve of the Gay Games of an apparent drug overdose. A cheerleader suffered a traumatic brain injury while performing near the end of the opening ceremonies in the Pan American Games' Scotiabank Aquatics Center.

But as each of us mourned in our own ways and thoughts, the athletes and artists settled down to the tasks at hand. I did not see them quaking in their boots in fear of drug cartel hooligans. I saw athletes competing with the same fervor they always have. I saw coaches coaching, teammates partying and dining out together, and everyone rejoicing at the opportunity we had to compete with each other again. (By the way: best food ever for a host city and unbelievably inexpensive.)

I was honored to receive the Federation of Gay Games highest honor, the Tom Waddell Award, during the opening ceremonies. I was asked to give a brief speech accepting the award. I planned to talk about the importance of volunteering, and then give thanks at the end to Guadalajara.

But as I sat in the stands waiting my turn at the microphone, I was enchanted by the sight of all of the volunteers scrambling backstage to make things happen. I saw joy and pride on anonymous faces, each expressing deep enjoyment at having the chance to make the event happen. I attended the first two Gay Games in San Francisco, and have participated in every Gay Games starting with the 2006 event in Chicago. Never have I seen such unfettered, spontaneous joy on the faces of the volunteers.

And then the impact we were having on the lives of these volunteers hit me. I realized that although Guadalajara in recent years had been slowly building a reputation as an LGBTQ-friendly tourist town, never had its queerfolk had this kind of opportunity to shine in the spotlight, to garner attention supportive rather than hostile or indifferent. I suddenly understood why they had been willing to step in at the last minute under less than ideal circumstances. They had to know that after having failed in two previous bid cycles, hosting now would probably cost them any real chance to host in the future under more ideal circumstances. The inflated numbers by which mass media judged Gay Games didn't matter to them; helping to make the Gay Games possible for the athletes who needed it now did.

So I changed my speech. I thanked them for stepping in on short notice to save the Gay Games during a deep existential crisis, much as Chicago had done decades ago. I told them no one could ever deny their role in history. I told them that for me, Guadalajara meant love.

So yeah, attendance numbers overall were down this year. I don't think that has much to do with politics or the global economy or the alleged changing role of global events for LGBTQ sports.

Remember the early days of COVID? Remember all the social behaviors, such as working in offices or gathering for parties or shopping in grocery stores, that came grinding to a halt? Remember how damn near every sports event was canceled? Remember how when things started to normalize, a lot of people refused to return to offices and decided to change jobs, even careers?

A lot of LGBTQ sports clubs did not survive that disruption. Many folded; others took to Zoom training sessions. Some individuals trained on their own and lost connections with their teams.

A year or two ago, when many athletes normally would have been training for tournaments such as the Gay Games, they were not. They may have lost vacation time with job changes, or moved on to other more manageable interests.

So participation levels were destined to be down this cycle regardless. These Gay Games were not numerical failures; they were successes built on shared values and commitments. They were testaments to the value and strength of the inclusive sports movement even in the face of overwhelming global challenges.

A mere five thousand willing to duke it out in Guadalajara and Hong Kong? That's great news for Valencia, host of the 2026 Gay Games.

Roger Brigham is a former sports columnist for the Bay Area Reporter.

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