Amsterdam turned gay overnight. That’s what happened in 1998 when 250,000 gay and lesbian athletes and fans descended on a city with a population of only 720,000 in one fell swoop. Not only was it the first time the Gay Games were held outside North America, Amsterdam was the smallest city thus far to host the Games. So for eight days packed with countless events the European capital was clearly, and never more visibly, the Gay Capital of the World. It was unprecedented in every way.
The theme Friendship through Culture and Sports set the tone. And it wasn’t just the handful of streets home to the city’s gay bars and clubs that felt the impact. Every hotel, restaurant and café was packed with gay visitors. Tram conductors led passengers in sing-a-longs. The zoo highlighted same-sex pairings on family tours. An exhibition of homoerotic Olympic Gods graced the Rijksmuseum. One hundred boats in the 3rd spectacular Canal Parade garnered international media attention. I bought a Gay Games cell phone (my first) and wrote articles for The Daily Friendship newspaper about swimmers, softball players, rock climbers, opera singers and artists. My volunteer T-shirt, cap and ID badge still hang proudly on my office door.
The Way We Were
These memories return as fifteen years later Amsterdam Pride is in full swing amidst a firestorm of controversy enveloping the LGBTQ community. Last week when I wrote here about Harvey Fierstein’s scathing attack on Russia’s anti-gay laws in the New York Times, I didn’t immediately remember his stirring speech at the opening ceremony of Gay Games ’98 in the Amsterdam Arena:
“We have arrived here on the backs of generations before us. When you step into the spotlight, stand proud for the generations to come that will be riding on your backs! Stand proud! We are not different. We are extraordinary!”
How could I have forgotten the cheers and tears of 40,000 inspired men, women and children as he roared those words? “We are extraordinary!” became the joyful rallying cry of the Games. How different from the tone taken in recent days. We who were once extraordinary have become as strident, provocative and, dare I say, unreasonable as those who rail against the gay community. I don’t need to cite specific examples. It’s easy enough to find them on LGBTQ blogs and news sites, as well as in mainstream media.
Sea of Change
But attitudes are changing as more measured, more considered voices begin to emerge. This morning ILGA Europe issued a statement “Responding to developments in Russia” that looks at the issues through sources inside the country, like the St. Petersburg-based group Russian LGBT Network. They posted an open letter on their Facebook page, which I had received yesterday via the euro-queer e-mail list. It graciously thanks global LGBTQ colleagues and friends for their support, but warns against rash actions that could do more harm than good for the Russian LGBTQ community. The remind us that what is remembered from the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City is not those who boycotted but “…Tommie Smith and John Carlos who rose black-gloved fists and bowed heads on the victory stand as a sign to racial injustice and solidarity…” Their thoughts on the Winter Games in Sochi are clear:
“Do not boycott the Olympics – boycott homophobia! Stand in solidarity with people in Russia and bring LGBT pride and values of human rights and freedoms to the Games in Sochi!”
Games People Play
Amsterdam activist, author and gay radio host G.J. Wieringa is one who changed his point of view after reading the letter from LGBT Russia. “It’s not a good idea to complicate their lives,” G.J. told me. “In order to support them best we need to listen to them, since they live what we fear.” But I’m sure his alter-ego Axa Rod will have a thing or two to say about the situation when she co-hosts the 9th International Drag Olympics this weekend at Amsterdam’s Homomonument. After all, whatever happens in the next six months, we certainly won’t be seeing events such as the Handbag Toss or Stiletto Sprint in Sochi!
For some reason the Drag Olympics has remained off the radar of the International Olympic Committee. Some may be too young to remember that when the Gay Games were founded in San Francisco by former Olympic decathlete Tom Waddell in 1982, the US Olympic Committee would not allow the Games to be called the Gay Olympics (a protracted court case did not settle the matter until 1987.) Perhaps that’s why some LGBTQ activists are wary of the announcement made by the IOC this week.
“As a sporting organization, what we can do is to continue to ensure that the Games can take place without discrimination against athletes, officials, spectators and the media. To that end, the IOC has received assurances from the highest level of government in Russia that the legislation will not affect those attending or taking part in the Games.”
Running a Marathon
Exactly what that means remains to be seen. Already high-ranking Russian politicians are sending quite the opposite message. It looks as though we have to be prepared to run a marathon and not a sprint. And whatever form protests take, I believe that visibility is the key. If we support LGBTQ and allied athletes who attend the Winter Games, use the event to make a bold human rights statement, we might be taking an important step toward stamping out homophobia – not only in Russia and other countries, but in the global sports arena as well. Then once again we could proudly say:
“We are not different. We are extraordinary!”
(For a full update on the story of Dutch activist/filmmaker Kris van der Veen who was arrested in Russia on 21 July CLICK HERE.)