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Gay Games Make Powerful Impact on Hearts and Minds in Cleveland

Swimmers_kiss
(photo by brent mullins; photos below by cyd zeigler)

BY CYD ZEIGLER

The Gay Games bill themselves as the “games that change the world.” This week in one of America’s most purple states, they certainly changed Northeast Ohio.

Outside of religion, sports are America’s most powerful cultural force. For a sports town like Cleveland, where conversation about the Browns’ quarterback battle dominates the news, the Gay Games were the perfect tool to make inroads into the hearts and minds of Ohioans. 

ClevelandCertainly this Gay Games was smaller than any since 1986. While organizers claimed in the neighborhood of 7,000 registrants, participants at virtually every sport reported drastically smaller competitions than years past. If I had to make a wager, my best ballpark guess would put the number of actual competitors around 5,000. That’s quite small for the Gay Games.

Yet the event’s ability to affect change in this bellwether state was not diminished. You only had to walk through downtown, or even Little Italy several miles from the festival village, to see rainbow flags where you might not expect them. The power of the pink dollar was seen with rainbows plastered across seemingly every business from hot dog carts to Starbucks, from taxi cabs to the Cleveland Indians. Tower City Center, an iconic Cleveland landmark, was lit like a rainbow every night for the whole city to see. 

Yet the loudest rainbow flag was likely the smallest: a rainbow sticker on the bumper of a police cruiser parked outside the Renaissance Hotel, the de facto center of these Games. 

I made it a point all week to talk with the police officers across the city. They were in full force patrolling the swimming venue, on horses at rowing, with the bomb unit at track & field. They couldn’t have been friendlier, almost like a welcome committee in blue.

“We just want everyone to be safe,” said one cop whose K-9 Benny stole the show at the festival village. “We don’t want anyone to get hurt.”

Argentinian_soccer_team

The modern gay rights movement started when police raided the Stonewall Inn intent on rounding up a bunch of queers and drag queens in New York City. Forty-five years later their only concern in Cleveland was making sure no one bothers us again.

These Games also brought outreach to two of America’s biggest hurdles in the race for equality: The Christian Church and the GOP. The United Church of Christ was the first denomination to sponsor the Gay Games, and they did it at a high (silver) level. The Republican Party of Cuyahoga County manned a booth at the festival village all week.

The fact that Cleveland was selected over Boston and Washington DC to host the event meant a lot to the people of Cleveland. For an overlooked city that hasn’t won much in sports over the last half-century, hosting these Games was a source of pride. That the games were “gay” gave it that much more meaning. 

“I’m just so proud of this city,” a straight resident told me on the street. “We get a bad rap here in Cleveland and it’s been great to see the city really embrace the gay community.”

Yes, it was a smaller Gay Games. Yes, a big part of the reason was a lack of interest in Cleveland itself. And yes, few participants were there with the intent to shift the culture of Northeast Ohio.

Yet the lasting legacy of the 2014 Gay Games will be its role in changing how the blue-collar Lake Erie region views and treats LGBT people. Sure, Boston and Washington DC would have drawn bigger crowds. But their cultural impact would have been diminished in a state or a district with same-sex marriage and strong protections for LGBT people.

For Cleveland – for Ohio – these Gay Games were a watershed moment.

Cyd Zeigler is co-founder of Outsports.com. He has also written for CNN, MSNBC, Time and Playboy. He regularly appears on national sports media as an expert on LGBT issues in sports. Outsports is a media partner with the Gay Games.

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Comments

  1. Funny thing about the choice of Cleveland over DC or Boston: Boston is a cultural center of a certain type (a very East Coast aristocratic ho-hum type; and DC, for all its importance in certain ways and the attractiveness of its cultural institutions, becomes a cliche as a place to hold events - and is awfully expensive. Cleveland, OTOH, holds a prototypal significance in the history of American culture as it expanded beyond the need Americans once felt to imitate all things European. The Cleveland Symphony was, for decades in the last century, considered the greatest in the nation and one of the greatest in the world thanks to George Szell--and it's reputation has not been tarnished by subsequent conductors. And the collection at the Cleveland museum is one of the most distinguished in the country. As a confirmed East Coast gay-guy who has lived in New York City for over 30 years, I had much rather visit Cleveland than be bored out of my tree in Boston, of sweltered in the merciless humidity of DC. I'm delighted that Cleveland was chosen, and hope that in the future, the committee will choose more venues of less-recognized standing.

    Posted by: Daniel Berry, NYC | Aug 15, 2014 2:05:08 PM


  2. But has it really had a "powerful impacts on hearts and minds in Cleveland"?

    It would be great if it did, obviously, but I'm a bit put off by these articles where the author asserts something and just does not back it up.

    Did anyone do a survey on gay marriage acceptance before and after the games? Or whether you'd have a problem with your neighbour being gay?

    That would be interesting.

    But saying "This is true because I know it in my heart" - well, it's not very convincing. What do regular locals make of having an event like this nearby? Do they care? Does it cause traffic jams? Do they hear who wins the events? Would that matter?

    Posted by: Comisirquai | Aug 15, 2014 2:16:41 PM


  3. All these articles about how surprised everyone is about the welcome in (OMG!) Cleveland is boring. First, a lot of work has been done by everyday working gays and lesbians just living in Ohio. Second, Cleveland is so Blue their votes cancel out half of the Red votes in the state. Third, you are spending money in an area not completely recovered from decades of neglect.

    Of course they like you.

    Posted by: Gus | Aug 15, 2014 2:23:45 PM


  4. Gus, you took the words right out of my mouth, or from my keyboard. Minds are not being changed in Cleveland (by which I mean the Cleveland/Akron metro area) because they don't need to be changed. It's the rest of Ohio that swings the state purple.

    I also think Daniel Berry makes an excellent point on how the counterintuitive choice is often the right choice. I can't imagine Boston (where I lived for 9 years) or DC would have been as hungry to make this even successful as Cleveland has demonstrated.

    Posted by: Hank | Aug 15, 2014 2:38:56 PM


  5. I was there from Saturday through Wednesday, and I was amazed how much our presence dominated everything. The Games made front-page news each day I was there, we were made to feel more than welcome everywhere, and it seemed like half the people walking through downtown were associated with the Games. Traffic was amazingly light (I'm from DC, so maybe I just expect universal jams), but that was a good thing. Got to see the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame all day Monday and the incredible Cleveland Art Museum Saturday. The Opening Ceremonies were far better attended than I would have ever expected, and the show was fabulous. Just a great time from start to finish! Thank you, Cleveland and thank you, GG9 organizers!

    Posted by: Craig Howell | Aug 15, 2014 2:39:30 PM


  6. As a gay Clevelander, it's been like a fairytale having so much pro-LGBT-ness in the city. I'm just afraid it's all going to end come Monday morning. The city has really stepped up to be on their best behavior while the Games are in town. I HOPE it changes hearts & minds, but that said, I still don't feel it's safe to hold hands with my husband in our local Target.

    Posted by: Kieran | Aug 15, 2014 2:51:35 PM


  7. Cleveland is a fine city, as other posters have noted.
    Even as a world weary New Yorker, I am always impressed with what Cleveland has to offer: one of the best museums in the US and a truly great orchestra. Glad they rolled out the red carpet for the Games.

    And with LeBron back home, maybe things are really looking up out there.

    Posted by: Mike in nyc | Aug 15, 2014 3:03:34 PM


  8. Cleveland is a fine city, as other posters have noted.
    Even as a world weary New Yorker, I am always impressed with what Cleveland has to offer: one of the best museums in the US and a truly great orchestra. Glad they rolled out the red carpet for the Games.

    And with LeBron back home, maybe things are really looking up out there.

    Posted by: Mike in nyc | Aug 15, 2014 3:03:34 PM


  9. Kieran: You are in the Midwest. My partner and I (Columbus)of almost 30 years don't hold hands in public because...neither did his or my parents. Both couples were first marriages and lasted until one half died late in life.

    But our whole neighborhood (not anywhere near the gayborhood) knows we are a couple, asks about the other when apart, and both our employers are well aware and supportive.

    You'll be fine, just don't do anything that will scare the horses. BTW the anti-sodomy law was legislatively stricken in the '70's. relax.

    Posted by: Gus | Aug 15, 2014 3:03:46 PM


  10. I'm really proud of my hometown this week.

    Posted by: Esteban | Aug 15, 2014 3:09:01 PM


  11. Gotta add to the chorus of positivity here. Just preparing to head back to Willard from a friend's house here in Cleveland, and this week has been one of the most amazing that I could have envisioned :) Granted, coming from such a small town, it took a couple days to get the bearings around having to use public transport to get everywhere, but even everyone on the buses and trains were *so* helpful and supportive of us.

    Also, speaking of that police cruiser: the bf actually pointed that out to me a few days ago while we were standing at the Conv. Center, and we managed to snag a pic of it :D We weren't sure if that was done by a passer-by or had been placed on there by the forces themselves. Either way, it made a hell of a statement :)

    (BTW: final bowling update...snagged a silver medal in Team Division "B" ^_^ 622 set wasn't my greatest, but we were wonderful as a team and just ran into the best combined score of the entire week. No complaints about that!)

    Posted by: Cody Reed | Aug 15, 2014 3:12:29 PM


  12. It's just frustrating when there are straight couples walking around in stores, holding hands and wearing t-shirts that say things like "My God is AWESOME" without a care in the world about whether someone is going to follow them to their car and harrass them for worse or holding hands. That carefree experience is not a privilege I have. :/

    Posted by: Kieran | Aug 15, 2014 3:34:42 PM


  13. K: Obviously, from what was shown this week, with the overflow of LGBT persons in this town, if people were going to cause a stink about anything, they've sorta been forced to reconsider things a bit. If they're not put off by seeing umpteen thousand LGBT couples all around them for numerous days in a row, then one or two would more than likely not be a shock to 'em.

    I know what you're talking about, though. Heading back to the small-town mentality is going to be a mindfuck, for sure. However, it also has made me even MORE determined to be the best advocate for myself that I can be. It's sorta amazing how empowering just one week of camaraderie can be.

    Posted by: Cody Reed | Aug 15, 2014 3:40:43 PM


  14. Kiernan: How old are these people? Teenagers right?

    Posted by: Gus | Aug 15, 2014 3:45:39 PM


  15. Cleveland rocks!

    Posted by: Phil | Aug 15, 2014 4:25:14 PM


  16. I swam at the gay games in Cleveland this week and came away rewarded and fulfilled. Cleveland delivered a well run games in a city that clearly was tickled to have us there. Sure the crowds were smaller and things seemed spread out... but it was worth it. My best moments came in riding the bus and interacting with Clevelanders who were curious about the games. I certainly made friends I wasn't expecting... and I hope they can say the same thing.

    Posted by: Brian Krenzer | Aug 15, 2014 4:31:52 PM


  17. Gus, I'd day they were in their late 20's to mid 30's.

    Posted by: Kieran | Aug 15, 2014 4:34:06 PM


  18. "say," not "day." UGH.

    Posted by: Kieran | Aug 15, 2014 4:34:26 PM


  19. Well, they will never grow up.

    Posted by: Gus | Aug 15, 2014 5:06:54 PM


  20. Cleveland has great architecture and is actually a beautiful city.

    Posted by: Bubba | Aug 15, 2014 5:18:59 PM


  21. For the sake of discussion, Paris is the next Gay Games city---and they had huge anti-gay protests during the marriage battle there.... In fact, it seems the French are as religiously conservative as much of the worse parts of this country.

    I do hope the next Gaymes recover their more-recent size-of-event, as the numbers just make it more fun.

    Good to hear that so much has gone well in Cleveland. Yes, it was a tough sell in the local sports community here in California, and most people decided against attending.

    But that's OK.

    Posted by: TonyJazz | Aug 15, 2014 7:31:11 PM


  22. For the sake of discussion, Paris is the next Gay Games city---and they had huge anti-gay protests during the marriage battle there.... In fact, it seems the French are as religiously conservative as much of the worse parts of this country.

    I do hope the next Gaymes recover their more-recent size-of-event, as the numbers just make it more fun.

    Good to hear that so much has gone well in Cleveland. Yes, it was a tough sell in the local sports community here in California, and most people decided against attending.

    But that's OK.

    Posted by: TonyJazz | Aug 15, 2014 7:31:16 PM


  23. Frankly, I am quite shocked to hear that people avoided going to these games simply because it is held in Cleveland. As someone who grew up in Buffalo and went to law school in Cleveland, I am rather sensitive about negative comments regarding either city, especially from people who have never been to either one. Both have tremendous amounts of architecture, history, and culture, plus thriving an interesting ethnic neighborhoods that you don't see in places like Washington or Boston.

    People have to get over the notion that flyover cities are worthless pieces of junk. Anyone who says that they would not bother going to the games because it was held in Cleveland is a freaking idiot and doesn't deserve to be there in the first place.

    Posted by: Randy | Aug 15, 2014 9:18:46 PM


  24. the french aren't religiously conservative. those manif pour tous people are an ass-backwards minority. they just rant and grab headlines.
    the french love their churches because they are expressions of french art and culture. they are proud of all that beauty.
    most are nominally catholic, don't go to mass and barely give the time of day to the social regulations of the catholic church.
    cleveland sounds nice and it's not too far from rochester, ny. I think i'll head out there.

    Posted by: woody | Aug 16, 2014 9:06:46 AM


  25. The fact, as it sounds, that many people stayed away because the Gay Games were in Cleveland is very shallow. It's also insulting that people generalize about Cleveland and Northeast Ohio as being conservative and intolerant and yet they don't like it when they are stereotyped and allege they are fighting against gay stereotypes and cliches. It also shows what non-athletes these avoiders really are; I mean what competitor doesn't go to the Olympics because he or she doesn't like the host city? Cleveland is in the Western Reserve with a tradition of liberal and tolerant ideas; think Oberlin College for starters. The folks that stayed away because the games were in Cleveland perpetuate the 'gays are shallow'stereotype.

    Posted by: Tim | Aug 19, 2014 12:33:46 AM


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