Two major athletic events in North America in July drew gay and lesbian competitors from around the world. In such international gatherings many lesbians said they were relieved to compete without the hostilities they face at home.
MONTREAL (WOMENSENEWS)--Rosanna Flamer-Caldera runs Equal Ground, a gay rights organization in Sri Lanka, where it is still illegal to be homosexual. Though the law has not been enforced in recent years, jail time up to 12 years can be the punishment.
As a golfer who is openly lesbian, Flamer-Caldera had clear reasons for wanting to participate in the World Out Games, held in Montreal from July 26 through Aug. 5. The event gave her an unparalleled opportunity to relax in the company of other gay and lesbian people. "It was a joyous phenomenon," she said, and a welcome relief from what she calls "Sri Lanka's very lesbophobic and conservative environment."
In Montreal all the stereotypes and fears that she faces in Sri Lanka seemed to have no meaning, Flamer-Caldera said. The 50-year-old golfer said that in Sri Lanka, the locker rooms and bathrooms provided for athletic competitions are difficult and awkward places. She has to be vigilant about not looking around or giving the appearance of staring at anyone, "because everyone knows I am gay." She said that was one reason she has taken a break from competitions in Sri Lanka, where she has played golf on a semi-professional basis her entire adult life.
Both the Out Games and the 7th Gay Games in Chicago provided lesbian athletes from the developing world with what they said was a rarity: a sense of safety. Here in North America, many of the female participants said they feared a prejudicial atmosphere or even outright violence in their home countries. But at these competitions they said they were able to concentrate on their sports and learn from role models in the developed world where there is less discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender athletes.
Montreal hosted the first Out Games at Olympic Stadium a week after the Gay Games were held in Chicago's Soldiers Field. Montreal had originally been slated to host the Gay Games this year, but a dispute between the local host committee and the San Francisco-based Federation of Gay Games, the organization that has staged the event every four years since 1982, caused a rift, and the Out Games were subsequently created.
The events drew thousands of gay and lesbian athletes from around the world competing in 25 to 35 categories of sports, including traditional Olympic-style competitions and less typical events such as ballroom dancing and billiards. Both competitions brought high-profile lesbians to the forefront. U.S. tennis star Billie Jean King lent her name to advertising for the Gay Games while Czech tennis star Martina Navratilova gave several speeches during the week-long Out Games.
Both athletes faced controversies and lost commercial sponsorships early in their careers when they came out as lesbians. In one speech, Navratilova said she would have felt unprincipled if she had stayed in the closet. Remarking on her own experiences as well as those of Mark Tewksbury, a Canadian Olympic gold medalist who is also a spokesperson for the Out Games, Navratilova said she "lost a lot of money as well, but what we gained was dignity." She urged young athletes to do the same.
A human rights conference was held in conjunction with the Out Games, partly because it made funding and visas for international athletes easier to obtain. "We will never have an Out Games without a human rights conference," said Rachel Corbett, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian International Sport Association, based in St. Catharines, Ontario, which was created to oversee and establish rules for the Out Games. "The two events belong together and complement each other."
A large contingent of African athletes was unable to join the Out Games when Canada refused to grant visas to many in the group, which included volleyball and soccer players. Alice Nkom, a human rights activist from Cameroon who was allowed entry, was to have led the group. "I'm very disappointed," she said. "I'm so proud of the country. I cannot explain it."
Scholarships for International Athletes
Organizers made a concerted effort to get more women from the developing world to both the human rights and sports events of the Out Games through a scholarship program. "This conference enables us to get these women here," Corbett said. "It's a credible and bona fide reason to get a visa." Once in Canada for the human rights conference, many could participate in the sports events.
Flamer-Caldera, for example, received a scholarship to cover some of her costs of coming to Canada, but the lack of full funding meant she could not stay for the entire duration. She was one of six Sri Lankans who came to the event, and all received some financial aid.
Corbett said over $500,000 was spent to bring about 350 people to the Out Games from the developing world. Other donations took the form of free housing, travel and other in-kind donations by hotels and individuals.
At Chicago's Gay Games, more than 100 affiliated conferences and events were held to coincide with the athletic competitions, including workshops led by London-based Amnesty International and the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign, a civil rights group that focuses on lesbian and gay issues. The Gay Games also provided scholarships to over 200 athletes from around the world, said Tracy Baim, vice co-chair of the event.
Organizers brought in an all-female soccer team from South Africa. Many of the women, such as soft-spoken 20-year-old Kebarileng Sebetoane, were from townships, the segregated areas where blacks were forced to live before apartheid ended in 1991. Life as a black lesbian is doubly difficult there, said Sebetoane, a soccer player. "You take your life into your hands," she told Women's eNews.
No Bastion of Tolerance
South Africa promotes itself as a major gay travel destination by advertising regularly in magazines such as Passport and Out Traveler, which are aimed at a primarily white clientele from Europe and North America. But Sebetoane said that doesn't mean the country is a bastion of tolerance. Lesbian players, she said, are often taunted and kicked off of all-female soccer leagues in the townships. "It's total hell," she said. "I am just an athlete, that is how I should go playing, competing."
Dee, a 31-year-old transgender woman from the Philippines who did not want to give her last name, described different difficulties in her homeland. Dee says openly transgender women are a "token breed" in the Philippines. But in Chicago she felt a greater sense of acceptance and enjoyed "just being able to blend as a regular girl."
Dee played billiards in the Chicago competitions, which were swept by U.S. players, but said she nonetheless enjoyed the chance to be there. "In the Philippines, I get the look," Dee said. "Here I get the look and it's different. Here it's just, oh there's a girl. I'm not ashamed of my experience."
Dee sees the Gay Games as a way of redefining herself more simply, in spite of how others perceive her. "Transsexual comes after my being a woman, so that should be my main experience," she said, "then a woman of color." But these are all unnecessary categories, she sighed. "It should just end at woman."
Michael Luongo is a freelance writer and photographer in New York. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, Conde Nast Traveler, MAMM, National Geographic Traveler, Out Traveler and many other publications. More of his work is available on his website: http://www.michaelluongo.com
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