Friday, July 14, 2006

Awash in controversy Is city ready for Gay Games?

Awash in controversy Is city ready for Gay Games?
By Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz
Copyright by The RedEye
Published June 14, 2006

Just one month remains before Chicago plays host to Gay Games VII, an Olympics-like extravaganza expected to draw as many as 100,000 people from around the world for a weeklong celebration of sports, culture and gay pride.

Organizers, who have been preparing for the July 15-22 event since Chicago emerged as a possible host city seven years ago, are keyed up.

"We're feeling euphoric in that we're meeting all of our major deadlines, but we're feeling a bit crazy in that there's so much more left to do," said Kevin Boyer, co-vice chair of the Gay Games Chicago board.

Local businesses, which stand to land an estimated $50 million to $80 million from the influx of visitors, are pumped.

"It's going to be an incredible boost to the economy," said Denise Lesiak, owner of Shirts Illustrated in Lakeview and head of merchandising for the Games.

And some social conservatives, who contend the Games are an excuse to push a gay lifestyle, are fuming.

"The whole thing is a celebration of homosexuality, and we think homosexuality is wrong," said Peter LaBarbera, executive director of Glen Ellyn-based Illinois Family Institute. "This is not just about sport."

In this city where rainbow-striped pillars mark Boystown, hundreds of thousands turn out for the annual Gay Pride Parade and the City Council boasts an openly gay alderman, the race to the 2006 Gay Games has been beset by controversy right out of the blocks.

Chicago was given the 2006 Games only after the first host pick, Montreal, had a falling out over finances with the Federation of Gay Games. That gave Chicago a late start-and competition-as the Montreal organizers decided to stage the first World Outgames a week after the Chicago event.

The threat of losing participants to Canada deepened some critics' concerns that Chicago would be plagued by the financial pitfalls of past Games. Sydney's Gay Games in 2002 were almost canceled because of fundraising problems.

But as the Thursday registration deadline nears, Chicago organizers say money and attendance are on track.

More than 11,000 athletes have registered to compete in the Games, and organizers expect to reach the 12,000-person target, Boyer said.

And with a business plan that relies on stable revenue like registration fees rather than government funding, the Games are expected to finish $250,000 in the black, he said.

Other opposition has been harder to shake.

Some conservative groups oppose the federal government's decision to waive the ban on HIV-positive travelers to the U.S. for the Gay Games, saying it threatens public health.

The Illinois Family Institute and the Mississippi-based American Family Association have condemned Kraft Foods, Harris Bank and Walgreen Co. for sponsoring the event, saying the companies shouldn't endorse a sports event held for homosexuals.

In Crystal Lake, a vote on whether to allow the Gay Games to use the lake for rowing plunged the northwest suburb into an angry debate about homosexuality before the park district board narrowly gave approval.

And last year, the five Republicans on the Cook County Board of Commissioners withdrew their names from a proclamation welcoming the Games to Chicago.

Commissioner Gregg Goslin, a Republican representing northwest suburbs including Glenview and Palatine, said last week that he hadn't realized his name was on the proclamation and didn't want to rile some of the more conservative people in his party by leaving it on.

"It's just not worth having to go through dealing with angry people on a hot-button issue," Goslin said. "I try to save my energy for other things."

Commissioner Mike Quigley, who drafted the proclamation and will be playing ice hockey at the Gay Games, called the move by his colleagues "distressing" because it worked against the spirit of the sports, which aim to transcend stereotypes and boundaries. The Games are open to straight athletes, such as Quigley.

The anti-gay sentiment has not hurt the Games, Boyer said, and may have encouraged supporters to come out of the woodwork.

Organizers shocked at the rage in Crystal Lake grew heartened by the subsequent outpouring of volunteers, he said.

None of the corporate sponsors pulled out because of anti-gay pressure, and a proposal to yank Kraft's sponsorship was voted down by 99 percent of the company's shareholders, Boyer said. The Chicago Games have so far attracted 290 sponsors-more than any previous Gay Games, Boyer said-and organizers expect more than 300 by the time the Games begin.

Chicago's organizers say the hurdles they've cleared represent the social change that might result.

"It's forcing the water-cooler conversation," Boyer said, "and that's what the whole thing is about."

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