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To Chicago, with skates

Generosity lands lesbian trip to Gay Games

CAN'T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG?: 'It's unfortunate to have both games so close to each other, competing against each other,' says hockey player Jennifer Cham. Credit: Jonathan Taggart

For some, the upcoming Gay Games and Outgames are the culmination of years of training and sacrifice; a goal that is set far in the future then slowly worked on day by gruelling day until it’s finally realized.

For others, a trip to the Gay Games falls into their lap with a flick of Lady Luck’s wrist.

“I’m a nurse at Vancouver General Hospital,” explains hockey player Jennifer Cham, “and one of my friends had gone to New Orleans to volunteer” in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. “When she returned, she told me it was a life-changing experience and she encouraged me to go.”

The 34-year-old Cham quickly took her friend’s advice.

“I contacted the Red Cross in Alabama and they desperately needed help. They arranged for me to go down there on Oct 5, about a month after the storm.”

But the day before Cham was scheduled to leave, the Red Cross called her back and said they didn’t need the extra help after all.

Suddenly she had an airline ticket and nowhere to go.

“I had been asked earlier to be a part of the Northern Lights hockey team that was going to the Gay Games in Chicago,” she continues, “but I had to turn them down because I couldn’t afford it. It was just too expensive. But then, after the cancellation, I wondered if I could switch the ticket to Chicago. I applied for a bursary from Team Vancouver to help with the rest of the costs, and I’ll be staying with a friend down there, so bit by bit it seems to be working itself out.”

Like thousands of other athletes headed to Montreal for the first-ever Outgames (Jul 29-Aug 5) and to Chicago for Gay Games VII (Jul 15-22), Cham is facing the one obstacle no amount of training can overcome: financing.

“My financial difficulties stem completely from the fact that tuition costs are so high these days,” she says. “I’m attending The Boucher Institute of Naturopathic Medicine. It’s one of two accredited naturopathic schools in Canada. Student loans will not cover the full cost of tuition, much less living expenses. I try to work during school, but the workload is tremendous, so I haven’t been able to work consistently.

“As much as I want to attend the Games, I didn’t want to increase my debt load for it. I would feel guilty getting in deeper debt to finance a hobby.”

This isn’t the first obstacle Cham has had to overcome in her quest to be an athlete. From an early age, the Vancouverite had to fight family prejudices to play the one game she truly loved: hockey.

“I didn’t participate very much in athletics as a child at all,” Cham recalls. “I was expected to be at home studying. I was raised in a very conservative home, a very religious home. My mother is Mennonite.

“I did play a little bit of soccer and a little softball,” she amends, “but I wasn’t allowed to play hockey.”

It was the physicality of hockey that scared her parents, Cham continues. Then there was the pastor at her church who warned her mom: “Would you want to see your little flower get hurt?”

Persistence and years of battles finally paid off when her parents gave in and let her play when she turned 13–“a little on the late side,” Cham notes.

As if parental challenges weren’t enough, Cham says there were also times as a kid when homophobia crept its way into her athletic life.

“I recall when I was younger hearing whisperings among the parents saying that our hockey coach was gay and that kind of thing. They didn’t take their children off of the team because of that, but I know some of the parents didn’t approve of her ‘lifestyle,'” says Cham.

“I can honestly say that I didn’t ever feel any sort of discrimination being athletic in high school, but I wasn’t out,” she says, “and when I think back, if I had been out, I’m sure I would have had to deal with that.

“I think the reason why I didn’t have as many problems as some is because I grew up in a city like Vancouver,” she adds after a moment’s reflection. “I spent some summers in Prince George and other places in the Interior and things are a lot more negative. So I can say, I’m really grateful to have grown up here.”

Cham, who is attending Chicago’s Gay Games and not Montreal’s Outgames, says she regrets the competition the two events have sparked between their host cities, but she hopes the queer community can benefit from two world-class events in the future.

“I think it’s unfortunate that we can’t cooperate within our community,” she says. “It’s a big enough struggle as it is; it’s disheartening. Maybe it can turn into a positive if we can get two excellent gay and lesbian sports events out of it. But as far as this year goes: it’s unfortunate to have both games so close to each other, competing against each other.”

Her team only picked Chicago and the Gay Games, she notes, because they received its information package first.

Ultimately, Cham hopes both events serve as a platform to help queer causes all over the world, but especially south of the 49th parallel.

“I feel very privileged to have grown up in a place like Vancouver where I feel comfortable being open. In terms of exposure, especially in the United States, where George Bush has made it very clear what his position is on homosexuals, I feel very proud to be part of the group representing the city in this type of positive activity,” she says. “I think that type of exposure is very important since some parts of the States are still very homophobic. Hopefully, we can provide positive energy and we can get people to broaden their perspective and be more open and more accepting of who we are.

“I want to be a positive influence,” she concludes.