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CLEVELAND — If Cleveland and Akron seem like odd choices to host the international Gay Games, that’s because they are. The eight previous hosts for this quadrennial affair have been gay-friendly cities where those who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered feel comfortable.
Cleveland and Akron don’t have “gayborhoods” and their LGBT communities generally keep a low profile. That will all change Saturday with the opening ceremonies for Gay Games 9 at Quicken Loans Arena in downtown Cleveland. The games run through Aug. 16.
Gay media outlets pilloried the decision to bring the games to northeast Ohio, which was competing against the more gay-friendly cities of Boston and Washington. But those lobbying to bring the event to northeast Ohio pushed the idea that holding the events in the heart of the Rust Belt would provide an opportunity to chip away at barriers that persist.
“The biggest reason for the region to host the Gay Games is the kind of legacy it can leave for northeast Ohio,” said David Gilbert of Positively Cleveland and the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission. “The eyes of the LGBT world and LGBT media will be on Cleveland and will give our community a chance to shine.”
Tom Nobbe, a lead organizer of the games, is a gay man, a native of northeast Ohio and a swimmer who is competing in the games. Nobbe optimistically thinks northeast Ohio is, in some ways, “post gay” — that sexual orientation is far less of an issue today for most people. Yet he hopes the games will dissolve stereotypes and show the world how skilled and athletic the games’ competitors are.
“The games are about diversity, about changing hearts and minds,” Nobbe said.
About 8,000 people have registered to participate in more than 35 events, which include traditional sports like track and field and basketball and non-traditional ones, such as rodeo and ballroom dancing. The participants come from 51 countries and 48 states.
While registration numbers are lower than for past games — Cologne, Germany, had 9,500 registrants in 2010 and Chicago had 12,000 in 2006 — Nobbe said he was thrilled by the number of participants. He attributed the lower number to the Akron and Cleveland region, which has a population of about 2.7 million, being the smallest to ever host the games.
In keeping with the Gay Games credo of “Participation, Inclusion and Personal Best,” straight people were encouraged to participate. The golf tournament at historic Firestone Country Club in Akron likely will draw a number of straight competitors.
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Nobbe is not naive about the potential for confrontations. He said he has marched in enough gay pride parades to know better, but added that police, the FBI, Homeland Security and other law enforcement agencies have worked closely with organizers and that he does not anticipate any trouble.
Phyllis Harris, executive director of the Cleveland LGBT Center, has held “competency training” for the Cleveland Police Department. She said she found their attentiveness to her message encouraging, and she is excited by the chance her hometown of Cleveland has been given.
“I want us to show up,” Harris said. “This is one of those opportunities that we happen to have and I think we’ll be all right. I would ask skeptics to get involved and put their money where their mouth is.”