3 min

Sport and politics and theatrics, oh my

Outgames off to a powerful start

WHERE THE WORLD MEETS. Lebanese athletes pause for a moment while enjoying the Jul 29 opening ceremonies. Credit: Pat Croteau

MONTREAL. It was a party that participants and observers will long remember, and not just for the fabulous costumes, famous singers and colourful theatrics. For the first ever Outgames opening Jul 29 also provided a chance to weigh in on important issues.

Montreal mayor Gérald Tremblay got ferocious applause for his work on behalf of the games and the gay community. But it was another story for Stephen Harper’s Quebec lieutenant, Michael Fortier. With the prime minister taking a pass on the event, it fell to Fortier to deliver a welcome on behalf of Canada. But the crowd responded with increasingly loud booing from the moment Fortier opened his mouth. After Tremblay intervened, the booing subdued a little, but it was impossible to hear Fortier’s speech.

Fortier was not happy with his reception, says Arjen Molle, an Outgames press secretary. No mention of the booing is made in the official record of the opening ceremonies sent by Outgames staff to media. But Molle says this just shows how the international queer community regards the Harper government’s attempt to reopen the same-sex marriage debate — a point that was also made by former tennis superstar Martina Navratalova to the media.

Over 40,000 spectators and 12,000 athletes from 111 countries partied at the Big O, Montreal?s stadium.

People from all walks of life, and countries around the world, entered the stadium through four portals and joined at the centre of the field. The sound of excitement was deafening even outside as the participants waited to enter the stadium.

“Today, we are fighting for human rights, more so for those in Lebanon,” says Remy, from Helem, a Montreal-based organization that fights for the rights of Lebanese queers around the world.

For its part, Helem found tremendous support from athletes and participants as they gathered outside the stadium entrance.

“I was overwhelmed,” Remy says in a quivering voice.

With Lebanon and Israel in conflict, Helem was approached by the Outgames to take part in the opening ceremony as a keeper of peace.

Members of the Israeli team shared in the call for peace. Gur Rosen and Dan Alogor from Team Israel had a talk with Helem members, something that would only have been possible at a meet like the Outgames.

They are also the first couple and the only one from Israel to compete in dance sport. But getting to Montreal was not easy. Despite repeated attempts to find corporate sponsors, their only success was with an Internet website.

Economics was not the only barrier facing athletes and participants. The Cameroon team was denied visas by their own government, noted one participant in the Human Rights Conference held at the Outgames.

Cameroon is not the only country to continue to criminalize homosexuality. With more than 20 countries considering same-sex activity as criminal, people’s lives are in danger because they are gay.

“Many people who are present here don’t know what their outcome is when they get back home,” says Angie Umbac from the Philippines. “Montreal has done the world a favour.”

Still, the Outgames experienced a few bumps leading up to the opening. “I wish the next games will be bigger,” says Carlos Martell from Team Vancouver who will be competing in soccer.

Athletes had to choose between the Chicago Gay Games and the Outgames. But the divide left many choosing not to go at all.

Canada has 4,500 participants, says Pascal Dessurault, spokesperson for Outgames. The rest came from outside. Some 70 percent of the 11,000 participants at the Chicago games were from the US, whereas only 2,000 US athletes are in Montreal, he adds.

“Outgames is about integrating. You can’t make social change happen in isolation,” says Mark Tewksbury, co-president of Outgames, minutes away before the start of the opening ceremony.

“Perhaps it’s only in Montreal where people are participatory and so welcoming,” says the former Canadian Olympic medalist. “It doesn’t matter if you’re gay or straight or the colour of your skin.”

But the Outgames was not universally popular even in this city. A church in the middle of the gay village held a street protest against the Games even as the opening ceremonies happened.

Tewksbury and Navratilova presented a Declaration Of Montreal to the athletes and spectators. It called for recognizing queer rights around the world, amending treaties to reflect queer rights and removing the remaining international barriers to same-sex couples.

Entertainers included Cirque de Soleil, kd lang and Martha Wash singing the anthem song “It’s Raining Men” along with Quebecers Diane Dufresne and Sylvie Desgroseillers.

Politicians in attendance included Liberal interim leader Bill Graham, leadership contender Stéphane Dion, Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe and gay NDP MP Bill Siksay. Former NDP MP Svend Robinson was recognized from the stage for his achievements on behalf of gays and lesbians.

Tewksbury was left on a high by the combined human rights conference and sporting celebration.

“I think something new has started, where there is a combination of human rights, sports and cultures — a winning formula. And here in Montreal is where it started.”