Gay Games 9 took Cleveland by storm this month. Oh, and Akron too.
Hold your snickers. Cleveland (and Akron) may not be San Francisco, Vancouver, New York, Amsterdam, Sydney, Chicago or Cologne – previous hosts of what would have been called the “Gay Olympics” had the Straight Olympics not gotten their panties in a bunch three decades ago. So “Gay Olympics” was out, even though the Straight Olympics folks had no problem with other Olympics names, like the Rat Olympics.
Still, the first Gay Games throbbed with impact. Founded in 1982 by former (straight) Olympic decathlete Dr. Tom Waddell – although he was bisexual – they served dual purposes. They showed the world that athletes come in all sizes, shapes and sexualities. Competition is open to all, regardless of sexual orientation, and there are no qualifying standards.
The Gay Games also promote personal growth. For countless men and women, the opportunity to compete with and against other LGBT people – because, face it, not a lot of straight folks are going to be there, whether it’s called the Gay Olympics, Gay Games or Gay Anything Else – marked a turning point in their lives. Some came out simply by traveling to the event. Others were inspired to come out while there. By forming a community around two previously disparate concepts – “gay” and “sport” – the Gay Games represent a transcendent moment in our history and culture.
You may be forgiven for thinking that the 2014 Gay Games did not have the impact – or generate the publicity – of previous ones. In a year in which media attention has been lavished on Michael Sam, the first openly gay player drafted by an NFL team (Will he make the St. Louis Rams squad? What was his first workout like? What was post-workout shower like?); former player Billy Bean’s hiring as Major League Baseball’s first “ambassador for inclusion”; and MLB’s belated, posthumous recognition of Glenn Burke’s contribution to the sport (the semi-closeted outfielder’s family was invited to the All-Star game in Minneapolis, where his sad life story was recalled, along with his invention of the high five – who knew?), this year’s Gay Games have seemed like an afterthought. Or, worse, an anachronism.
And if you think Cleveland hasn’t gotten much attention, what about poor Akron? They’re an official host city, too. The situation is a bit different on the shores of Lake Erie. An intriguing array of sponsors signed up. A look at the list shows that a broad swath of society is now willing to put substantial money where their mouths are, in support of diversity, inclusion and good gay fun. (It should be noted that the Gay Games include not only sports but cultural and social activities: a play called “My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding,” a Big Bloody Mary Brunch, a tour of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and much more. Take that, Straight Olympics!)
One “platinum” sponsor was the Eaton power management company; another was Marriott. Four of the “gold” sponsors were the Cleveland Cavaliers NBA basketball team, Coca-Cola, United Airlines and Wells Fargo Advisors. “Silver” sponsors included the Akron General Medical Center, GE Lighting and Cleveland Indians. On the “bronze” list: Jewish Federation of Cleveland, and the University of Toledo.
Oh, yes: The United Church of Christ was a “silver” sponsor too. They’re the first religious denomination to sign on as a major sponsor of the Gay Games. Their doing so, their website says, was “to demonstrate the UCC commitment to inclusion, diversity, justice and human rights.” And even if the Gay Games didn’t generate huge publicity outside Cleveland (and Akron), a marketing campaign from a local ad agency drew some attention. Created by Brokaw in collaboration with Kalman & Pabst Photo Group, it’s a series of fantastic sports photos. There’s a baseball player making a double play, a football player scoring a touchdown, a runner ready to burst out of the starting blocks. So far, so normal. But Brokaw came up with a powerful title for the campaign: “That’s So Gay.”
“We felt that it was time to transform an ugly and ill-received phrase, and repurpose it into something that sheds a positive light on what these athletes work so hard to accomplish,” said Steve McKeown, Brokaw creative director.
Then, tying “that’s so gay” in with something else often derided – the Cleveland and Akron metropolitan areas (I know, just check out this column) – McKeown added, “We know people in Northeast Ohio understand the significance of repurposing – as evident by the transformation of the region these last few years.”
You can take the Gay Games out of New York, San Francisco and Amsterdam. Cleveland was happy to have them. Akron, too.
Dan Woog is a journalist, educator, soccer coach and gay activist. His latest book is “We Kick Balls: True Stories from the Youth Soccer Wars.” He can be reached care of this publication or at OutField@qsyndicate.com.