The opening ceremony for the Gay Games takes place in Paris this weekend, kicking off 10 days of athletic and cultural events celebrating diversity, love and equality. Open to people of all sexual orientations and all levels of athletic ability, the 10th edition of the Games is expected to draw 15,000 participants from more than 70 countries. Along with sports like swimming, diving, cycling and figure skating, attendees will enjoy concerts, dance performances, academic conferences and tours of the historic city.
The first Gay Games took place in San Francisco in 1982, founded and hosted by former Olympic athlete Dr. Tom Waddell. More than 1,300 competitors from 170 cities worldwide competed in a range of sports including basketball, track and field, bowling, volleyball, wrestling and swimming. Singer Tina Turner performed at the opening ceremonies.
The Gay Games were founded at the beginning of the AIDS crisis and became an important opportunity for the LGBT community to celebrate life and promote acceptance. One of its signature cultural events, a colorful aquatics show called the Pink Flamingo, included a scene creating a red ribbon in the water to honor people with AIDS. Volunteers at the Games would also provide safe-sex materials and condoms to educate the public.
The event was originally called the Gay Olympics, but the International Olympic Committee and the United States Olympic Committee sued less than three weeks before the opening ceremony in 1982. Jeff Sheehy, former president of the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club in San Francisco, claimed the lawsuit was homophobic because the Olympics didn’t go after the Special Olympics, the Nude Olympics, the Police Olympics, the Dog Olympics or other groups with “Olympics” in their name.
The 1990 Gay Games in Vancouver were the first to be held outside the United States, and also the first games in which Masters world records were set, in the swimming competition. The Games were opposed by social conservatives in Vancouver, including churchgoers who took out full-page ads in The Vancouver Sun and The Province about the “impending sodomite invasion.” The government of then-Premiere Bill Vader Zalm refused to fund the event.
The 1994 games took place in New York City on the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Sir Ian McKellen gave the closing address and urged gay people to come out of the closet, saying, “Even when you have completed the coming-out journey, the game, the match, the race are incomplete, until each sister and brother has been helped to a safe finish and participates in the joy of total honesty […] Remember no one wins on a march; no one tries to. We all march forward together.”
The 2006 Gay Games were tangled in controversy after negotiations to host the event in Montreal fell apart over disagreements about finances and other issues. The Games were hosted in Chicago instead, but Montreal decided to host their own LGBT athletics event, the World Outgames, just one week after the Gay Games. This split the playing field for both events, since many athletes didn’t have enough recovery time to participate in both. To make matters worse, the Chicago Gay Games didn’t lose any money, but Montreal’s Outgames ended up losing $5.3 million. There have been failed attempts to merge the two events since then.