CHICAGO – If gays want to play flag football or darts, Chicago is the place to be. If they are looking to see how they measure up against the best gay handball players or are looking for a rousing game of bridge, Montreal is the spot.
Four years after the last Gay Games, there will be not one but two international gay athletic competitions this summer. In Chicago, the Gay Games VII will be held July 15-22. Then, from July 29-Aug. 5, Montreal will host the first Outgames 2006.
The two nearly simultaneous events are the result of a bitter dispute, primarily over money and control, between the Federation of Gay Games and organizers in Montreal, where the Gay Games originally were slated to be held. That dispute led the federation to move the Gay Games to Chicago and prompted Montreal to stage its own games.
There long has been concern that holding two events would hurt both by diluting the pool of athletes and cost them money because sponsors would choose one at the expense of the other. But organizers of both events say they're attracting plenty of athletes.
About 12,000 are expected in Chicago, and the Outgames are expecting about the same number to participate in the games themselves, an international conference, or both.
"There are enough gay people in the world to have [two] events," said triathlete Hector Torres, a radio station promotions director in Orlando, Fla.
The Gay Games and Outgames will include about three dozen events. Some are exclusive to one city or the other — sailing in Chicago, table tennis in Montreal — but runners, swimmers, basketball players, figure skaters, bicyclists and others will compete at both venues. Both the Gay Games and the Outgames are open to gay and straight participants.
Organizers of both events say they have enough corporate sponsorship and other financial support to lead them to believe they won't lose money, as have previous Gay Games.
"We are estimating about 100,000 will participate, volunteer and spectate in some fashion," said Kevin Boyer, an official with Chicago Games Inc., a not-for-profit group putting on the Gay Games. "The economic impact [to Chicago] will be $50 to $80 million."
Make that 100,001. White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, who made headlines recently when he used a homosexual slur to refer to a local newspaper columnist, has said he plans to attend the closing ceremony. But don't look for Guillen to help coach any of the athletes. He has turned down an offer to be the honorary coach for the Chicago Gay Hockey Association's Blackwolves.
While some athletes have told organizers they plan to compete in both Chicago and Montreal, many more are picking just one. Sometimes the choice is all about the individual sports. But there are other considerations, such as convenience, cost and even patriotism.
Mark Tewksbury, co-president of the organization staging the Outgames, said he suspects all those factors contributed to the lower turnout of American athletes in Montreal than he thinks there would have been if the Gay Games weren't being held in Chicago.
"That's where we got some significant fall off," said Tewksbury, a swimmer who won three Olympic medals for Canada, including a gold medal in the 100-meter backstroke at the 1992 Games in Barcelona.
At the same time, he said, "The international community seems to be coming to Montreal." There are 109 countries registered for the games, the conference, or both, he said.
In Chicago, Boyer said competitors from 61 countries have signed up. But he acknowledged he has heard of some athletes going to Canada instead of Chicago because of government policies in the United States about issues such as gay marriage.
"Certainly there are people who have told us we love Chicago, we love the gay community in Chicago, but we cannot bring ourselves to come to the United States right now," he said.
People such as Joan Darrah. She spent nearly 30 years in the U.S. Navy and had just left a meeting at the Pentagon on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when the terrorist attacks killed seven of her co-workers.
"I started to realize that if I'd been killed my partner would have been the last to know because I had been living under Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell and nobody knew about her," said Darrah, a runner who has since retired as a captain.
The memory of that day, and knowing that in Canada gays serve openly in the military, helped push Darrah and her partner to Montreal.
"At the end of the day there is a feeling I really like the Canadian attitude toward gay people," she said. "[It is] not mere tolerance, but welcoming and supportive and positive."
Boyer said his group has tried to stress, particularly to foreign athletes, that Chicago is a gay-friendly city. The group has, for example, reminded them that Mayor Richard Daley has said he has "no problem" with issuing marriage licenses to gay couples.
"There are a lot of examples where Chicago and Illinois lead the country and in some cases the world on gay and lesbian civil rights," he said.