Athletics for all: Kent community shows its pride

Tom Gay, an athlete in the Gay Games, displays his medals as he walks in the parade as part of the closing ceremonies Aug. 16, 2014

Kelsey Husnick

Gays, lesbians and the rest of the LGBT community are perfectly capable of playing sports too — that’s part of the message sound boarded by the Gay Games. They’re not activities only straight men and woman can partake in. 

Gay Games 9, or GG9, was held in multiple venues throughout Cleveland and Akron August 9-16. The international, quadrennial event brought in participants from across North America, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand and various other places, according to the GG9 website. 

Freshman business major André Lewis attended GG9, and although he said he’s never been interested in athletic events before this, it was a “mind-opening” experience. 

“Through this event I learned that there’s not a lot of awareness about gay athletes, which is what this is really is about,” he said. “It’s just supporting those athletes, because sometimes people come out as gay and they lose everything. And they’re just as good an athlete as anyone else, but they get this stigma that they can’t perform to their utmost [potential].”

This stigma isn’t a new one — the first Gay Games was dreamt up in 1980 and held in San Francisco in 1982, according to the website.

“Gay athletes were a hidden and marginalized community within the greater marginalized and beleaguered LGBT community,” the website reads. “Being gay and being an athlete was an either-or proposition: Be a jock or be a queer.”

Now, athletes are starting to come out more frequently, creating a realization that LBGT athletes do, in fact, exist, and they’re good at what they do. 

Michael Sam’s announcement of his homosexuality hit home at Kent State. When the former University of Missouri football player came out in February, Kent State wrestler Sam Wheeler tweeted anti-gay remarks that caught national attention, resulting in Wheeler’s suspension from the wrestling team. 

Sam was the first openly gay potential NFL draftee, and later joined the St. Louis Rams as a defensive end.

Director of Athletics Joel Nielsen said in a university-released statement after the incident, “On behalf of Kent State University, we consider these comments to be ignorant and not indicative of the beliefs held by our university community as a whole.” 

This was demonstrated in early August when Kent State held its own version of GG9, the Pride Games Kent State Edition. 

Junior criminology and justice studies major and president of Pride! Kent Brandon Stephens jumped at the opportunity to team up with the Student Recreation and Wellness Center because he said he wanted to further dispel the notion that LGBTQ community members can’t be involved in athletics. 

“Of course we don’t think that (stigma is) fair, so we wanted to show people that the LBGTQ community can join in on that and have fun and be just as good as everybody else,” Stephens said. 

The two organizations then recruited the LGBTQ Center and the Women’s Center to put together a day full of friendly competition. Stephens said about 40 people came out to participate in dodgeball, volleyball, a giant slip-and-slide and a glow run around Allerton Sports Complex and the Rec Center. 

The games attracted both LBGTQ and straight Kent community members, Stephens said.

“We ended up having a lot of familiar faces from the Rec — a lot of students who spend a lot of time at the Rec were there competing and having fun and showing their support… As well as quite a few people PRIDE! was able to pull in who also had a lot of fun with it. It was really refreshing to see such an open and accepting group of people,” he said. 

The Pride Games turnout was similar to the crowd in Cleveland. Lewis said GG9 attracted a diverse group of people from all ages, ethnicities, family structures and sexual orientation. Despite the name “Gay Games,” Lewis said the week was for everyone — men, women, homosexual, heterosexual — it didn’t matter. 

“At one point in the Closing Ceremony the host was out there and he said, ‘How many of my gay guys are out there? Lesbian? Transgender? And last but not least — ready — where are my straight friends out there?’ And at least a third of the crowd was straight,” Lewis said. “(The host) was like, ‘Oh I love straight people — they’re so cute. The things is we need more of you guys for there to be more of us.’ “

The Games embrace this inclusivity, declaring themselves “the Games for all.” They didn’t even care about athletic ability — Lewis said there was a 90-year-old runner in a track event. 

It’s an attitude that seems to span across the region.

Lewis said, “It made me feel really good to live in Northeast Ohio. This event really put us on the map. When they first were deciding whether or not to bring the Gay Games to Cleveland, supposedly it was a unanimous decision. Everyone was like, ‘Yeah!’ No one paused, there wasn’t that one person who was like, ‘Well I don’t think we should.’ Everyone was on board with it.”

While in Cleveland for the events, Lewis said he walked down streets lined with flags and saw buses adorned with banners welcoming GG9 participants, and restaurants throughout the city held after parties during the week.  

“The feeling of walking around downtown Cleveland during this whole event… I found myself very relieved. It took me a minute and then I felt really relaxed,” Lewis said. “And it’s kind of sad to say that — and it’s not that I can’t be on a day-to-day basis — but I just don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable… But during that week I was able to just walk around holding my boyfriend’s hand.”

Lewis and Stephens agreed that Kent is gay-friendly and accepting, for the most part.

“I would say that there’s still work to be done — as there always is. And you’ll find that no matter where you are,” Stephens said. “But overall, I would say that Kent State and the Kent community really do try very hard to make it an open and accepting environment for everybody. “

That’s why Stephens said Kent Pride! is talking about making the Kent Pride! Games a yearly event.

Lewis said the real importance of the Games comes from realizing that people can be accepting, while spreading awareness to the broader community. 

“I think it’s important to the point where it encourages people who are gay — whether they are in the closet or not — to be comfortable with who they are, even in a sports setting,” he said. “Just to show them that people don’t care, because I think people make the situation worse in their mind than the situation really is sometimes.

“Yes, there are people who don’t agree with the things that you are and the things that you do, but more often than not I find that there are more people that just don’t care. It’s like you are who you are — it’s cool. Especially in this area… There are a lot of gay-friendly people in Kent. A lot of my friends who are gay have gone (to Kent) for that reason.”

Contact Kelsey Husnick at [email protected].