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Organizers planning ‘most inclusive’ Pan Am Games

Pan Am Pride House to include outdoor concerts, cultural programs and sports on Toronto’s Church Street

The PrideHouseTO coalition is hosting a lounge at Ryerson University during the Sochi Olympics. It plans to expand on this concept during the 2015 Pan Am Games. Credit: N Maxwell Lander

The Toronto 2015 Pan Am Games organizing committee is working with the local Pride House organization to make next year’s event “the most inclusive multi-sport games in history” — a lofty goal that comes at a time people are eager to hear it.

It almost seems as though Toronto 2015 is trying to brand itself as the “anti-Sochi.” But if the Russian Olympics are acting as their “what not to do” guide, local Pan Am organizers are keeping that to themselves.

“We don’t want to speak about what’s happening at other games — it’s not our place — but in Toronto and this region it’s an important initiative to showcase diversity,” Pan Am spokesperson Teddy Katz says. “We’re trying to make sure that people in all communities can feel a part of the games.”

During its moment on the world stage, Pan Am organizers would be remiss if they didn’t celebrate the city for what it is, a “community of communities,” Katz says. But while Katz gives PrideHouseTO the credit for bringing the queer community into the Pan Am fold, PrideHouseTO’s Barb Besharat puts the praise back on the games’ organizing committee.

“We have a great working relationship with TO 2015,” she says. “It was under their initiative that the Pride House 2015 got started.”

Based at the 519 Church Street Community Centre, PrideHouseTO is a collaboration between more than a dozen organizations, including OutSport Toronto, Egale Canada, the Church-Wellesley Village Business Improvement Area and the University of Toronto. There are already 100 volunteers on board with various Pride-HouseTO projects, a number that will grow to more than 1,000 during next year’s games.

PrideHouseTO 2015 will focus its programming on four areas, including a community hub that will be a centralized space for project coordination, events, workshops, media interviews and watching the games. It will also feature a roster of outdoor concerts, cultural programs and sports on Church Street, called the Village Festival. “If I have my way, we’ll put some sand out and play beach volleyball,” Besharat says.

In addition, there is the policy advocacy group, which is working behind the scenes on sports-related LGBT issues, and community ambassadors, leaders across Ontario who will take part in sports-inclusion training.

The function of a Pride House has evolved significantly since the concept emerged at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, Besharat says. Instead of simply being a drop-in centre for queer athletes and allies, it has become a way to foster stronger bonds between sports and the LGBT community.

“Canada has made great strides, especially compared to many other nations, in ensuring marginalized groups are represented and can be included [in sport],” she says. “But for LGBT people, sport can still be a hostile environment. It doesn’t seem that sport and LGBT people are even talked about in the same sentence that often.”

Team Canada soccer player Erin McLeod, who hopes to take part in the Pan Am Games, has been public about her own sexuality. Lately, the goalkeeper has been campaigning to add protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation to the Olympic Charter. She says it’s great to see a major event like the Pan Am Games taking a leading role in inclusivity.

“I think it’s inspiring to know they want to do that,” she says, noting that soccer’s governing body, FIFA, already protects such rights. “It starts with the bigger organizations to just pave the way, and then it becomes a non-issue. If you have a games where race, religion, politics or gender doesn’t matter, I think it’s better for the athletes and everyone else.”