I'm proud to participate in my first Gay Games this summer. As luck would have it, the event coincides with a homecoming, as the games will be held in the Cleveland/Akron area in the state of Ohio where I was born and raised (and discovered my identity as a gay man and came out).
I remember back in 2006 when I first learned of the Gay Games. Let's be clear -- I did not consider myself to be an athlete back then. I did, though, still consider myself an LGBT activist. I was working as government relations associate at AIDS Alliance for Children, Youth and Families in Washington, D.C. A representative from the games came to the nation's capital to testify for a waiver for HIV positive foreigners entering the U.S. to participate in the Chicago-based games to the President's Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. It's unfortunate that this ban was in place to begin with, but it was powerful to see democracy in action and poignant to note how LGBT sports will almost always be political because we're still not recognized as equal under the law.
Oh, what a difference a few years make! Since then, the ban was lifted, allowing all athletes into our country to compete in the Gay Games without this unnecessary burden (and HIV-positive foreigners aren't prohibited to enter the country for other purposes). And professionally, I've moved on to head up the Empire State Pride Agenda in New York. One might argue the U.S. and even the world is a much different place when it comes to LGBT equality now than it was in 2006. Thankfully we're in a better place with increased visibility and equal rights under the law, though we still have a long way to go before all members of our community are protected in all facets of our lives.
Another big, personal change that came about in 2006 shook up my world and helped me to discover my own inner athlete. It was that spring that my mother had a heart attack. We almost lost her. Thankfully she survived, and it was during that summer when she was in rehab that I decided to take charge of my own health. It wasn't necessarily a conscious decision to be healthier, but I was certainly very aware that my mom's health scare could easily translate into what might happen to me if I didn't do something more to live healthfully. One day around that time, I found myself walking into a local gym and joining.
It was not long after that I also joined a kickball team. We had the gayest kickball team in Washington D.C., composed of mostly lesbians, gay guys and a few straight allies. I remember playing another team and someone yelling homophobic epithets. It was in that moment that a shift occurred. I no longer cared how other people judged the way I moved. I moved as strong as I could regardless of how I looked in my knee-high hot pink socks (Full disclosure: I also wear sweatbands.) I realized that I was good. I could run fast, toe-touch and throw hard. I realized that maybe my running wasn't stereotypically masculine, but I was running faster than anyone else.
Around that time I started to do more training and to take trapeze classes. I also started to run races, often three to five miles. In 2007, I ran my first triathlon and, in 2009, I started to run longer distances, including half marathons and the New York City Marathon (which was actually not bad for the first 18 miles, though the rest of the race was a different story entirely). I've won some races in my age group, many in my home state of Ohio.
My absolute favorite race is the annual Kelly's Island Race each June which I run with my dad. The race takes place on an island in Lake Erie which is not hugely populated and where I have fond memories of camping as a kid and celebrating my best friend's wedding. My dad runs in the race for the beer at the end (something I can respect because as a kid I told my baseball coach I only played so I could get a pop at the end -- oh, and I call it soda now).
It's not always easy. When you're training for anything or trying to exercise, you're going to have off days. You're going to have bad times. Those are necessary to fine-tuning our skills and trying harder. You have to take the good with the bad, just as with many things in life.
When I heard this year's games were going to be held in Cleveland, I got excited. People were surprised by the choice, though I'm not at all shocked because it's a pretty progressive and welcoming community. For me, the games being held in Ohio is a personal symbol of progress. Here is this huge event that takes years to plan that is proudly being hosted in the place where I grew up (a very different message from the one I received in grad school when the state changed the constitution to ban same-sex marriage). Ten years later, here's a more welcoming, affirming message that's coming from society that me and people like me are embraced with open arms.
In just a couple weeks, I'm looking forward to embracing all of my identities as a gay man, an Ohio native, an activist and an athlete. Most of all, I can't wait to have my family cheer me on.
Hot Spots to Visit in the Cleveland Area
1. Cleveland Museum of Art
2. University Circle
3. Little Italy and Coventry Village
4. Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
5. Sushi Rock
6. Great Lakes Brewing Company
7. Cuyahoga Valley National Park