LGBT Events Have Emotional and Economic Impact

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Greg Larocque was hardly the first runner in a 10K race to emerge into a stadium in Sydney on a scalding hot day in 2002. Actually, he was one of the last. Yet Larocque, wearing a Team Vancouver outfit, received a reception warmer than the 104-degree temperature from fans chanting “Canada, Canada, Canada.” Making the scene more memorable was Larocque’s HIV-positive partner, Robert Michael Hayes, who was in the stands to witness it. Months earlier, Hayes had moved to Australia to be closer to his family. The pair laughed and smiled at the memory for the remaining eight years of Hayes’ life. “It was a huge gift,” says Larocque of the cheering. “That event in Sydney was transformational.” Larocque’s statement is hardly hyperbolic. Feeling the emotional lift from completing that race sent the administrative judge in British Columbia toward a path of merging gay rights activism and sports tourism. As founder of the Gay and Lesbian International Sport Association’s North American branch and president of the North America OutGames, Larocque’s mission is to create a safe zone for LGBT athletes to compete in. And through the three-pronged event—comprised of competitions, a human rights conference and a cultural celebration—he hopes to instill pride in the athletes and educate those who hold a bias against the gay community. “For me, it’s basically doing whatever I can to help LGBT people understand who they are and encourage them to stay true to themselves and live as great a life as they can,” he says. All the reminder Larocque needs of the importance of his mission comes in the form of the memories of his late partner. “I don’t do this for me,” says Larocque, who picked up running in his late 50s to lose weight. “I think of Rob and how he would have likely not engaged in unsafe practices and gotten sick if he had really understood what an important person he was… if he had not believed his family saying because he was gay he was sinful. When he didn’t value himself, he made foolish mistakes.”

Big Business

Larocque is the first to admit he’s not alone in attempting to use sports to heal scars dating back decades. As acceptance of the LGBT community has grown and more people are wiling to compete openly, sports tourism has become a powerful force in the gay movement. Ironically in this age of legalized same-sex marriage in the United States, a 2004 divorce between the Federation of Gay Games and GLISA has led to two quadrennial events that both draw about 15,000 competitors and thousands of spectators from around the world to host destinations. The fourth iteration of the World OutGames will take place in Miami in 2017, and Gay Games X will be in Paris in 2018. The lure for cities, vendors and sponsors to partner with the events is twofold. It’s a way to demonstrate openness and inclusion as diversity takes center stage across myriad industries. Then there is economic impact. The 2014 Gay Games had a total economic impact of $52 million in Cleveland, with 75 percent of 20,000-plus attendees coming from outside the region. The event was so successful, the Federation of Gay Games donated $120,000 to create a LGBT legacy fund at the Cleveland Foundation. “All of Cleveland, regardless of sexual orientation, embraced the participants with great enthusiasm,” says David Killian, site selection officer for the Gay Games. The Federation of Gay Games estimates its 2022 event, currently in the bidding stage, will generate 35,000 room nights. Apoorva Gandhi, vice president of multicultural affairs for Marriott International, says the financial side plays a role in the company’s decision to sponsor events like the Gay Games, as it did in Cleveland. But if Marriott did not have a long history of inclusion, such efforts could come across as transparent and not advance causes the company believes in, he adds. “With marriage equality, everyone says, ‘How can we make money off this?’” says Gandhi. “That’s not the right way to go about it.”

Game’s On

Even when organizations and events share values, an economically driven partnership has to make sense for both parties. That extends to destinations as well. Mega-events like the Gay Games and World OutGames require the infrastructure international hubs like Paris and Miami can provide. Second- and third-tier cities are better suited for smaller events that are key components of the estimated $63 billion of tourism generated annually by the LGBT community. That is one of the reasons GLISA offers continental games as well as its international event. Larocque is currently looking at sites for the 2020 North American OutGames. In some respects, Larocque appears to favor a smaller market still making in-rounds with the LGBT community over a destination proven to be a champion of gay rights. “My dream is to go to a second- or third-tier American city like Birmingham, Alabama, or Santa Fe, New Mexico, and show people there that we are no different than everyone else,” he says. “But if we end up in Dallas and 4,000 people attend, that’s great too.” The 2016 North America OutGames scheduled in St. Louis were called off due to low registration numbers, meaning GLISA’s next major event will be the World OutGames in Miami, May 26 through June 4, 2017. Ivan Cano, chief executive officer and co-chair of the next World OutGames, says the setback won’t add any additional pressure for his team of planners. “The pressure is making sure we do things right and produce it correctly,” says Cano, who is also former executive director of Miami Beach Gay Pride. To do so for an event with more than 30 sports that’s expected to draw more than 10,000 athletes and another 5,000 activists requires building strong relationships with both international organizations looking to participate and local groups and venues. Cano says the OutGames has already reserved more than 10,000 hotel rooms in Miami, Miami Beach and Miami-Dade County for next year. Estimates of the economic impact range from $60 million to $120 million. It will be the first time the World OutGames will be held in the United States. Antwerp, Belgium, hosted in 2013. Cano is working with Florida International University and Miami Beach Convention Center, currently closed for renovations but expected to have a section completed in time for the games. Lummus Park will serve as a central village, and hubs throughout the city with screens will make sure attendees feels like they’re part of something bigger. Unlike the Olympics, athletes don’t prequalify to participate. “Every day will be a celebration, first and foremost, of human rights,” says Cano. “Without the human rights aspect, the [sporting events] don’t stand on any legs.”

Safe Zone

Business aside, organizing sports events remains deeply personal to the likes of Larocque and Cano, who look at the bigger societal picture. Almost everyone in the community has faced discrimination or felt the need to keep their sexual identity secret. That’s what led to the formation of organizations like the International Gay & Lesbian Football Association. “It was about providing a space for people to go out and be themselves for a little while,” says IGLFA Co-President Kimberly Hadley of the group founded in 1992. [inlinead align="left"]"When people are true to themselves, they tend to be a little bit braver. When people push them, they push back."[/inlinead] The statement could sum up why many gay-focused sporting groups or events were first founded. The ties among them run deeper still. Hadley’s organization is a member of the Federation of Gay Games, and she participated in the inaugural World OutGames in 2006 in Montreal as a soccer referee. She says many homosexual adults don’t participate in sports because they were not accepted in athletics in their youth. While there’s been progress, “We’ve got a long, long way to go,” Hadley says. “There’s a lot of tolerance for the LGBT community because of the human rights aspect,” she adds. “But tolerance is not a word I like to use. I don’t want to be tolerated. I want to be accepted for who I am.” If Larocque has one regret, it’s that he was not more open about his lifestyle earlier in life. While never in the closet, Larocque didn’t necessarily advertise he was gay either, in part, he feels, because of a responsibility to be neutral as a judge. It took meeting Rob to change. “I wish I had met him sooner so we could have had more of a life together and so I could have been more active earlier than I was,” he says.

Reunification?

As the LGBT community’s challenges have evolved, the sporting groups now have the same objective as many events: to become more diverse and inclusive. One of the reasons Miami won the World OutGames bid over Reykjavik, Iceland, is because it provides an easy gateway for Latin American participants. Cano says Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Peru have been untapped markets for GLISA and the Gay Games. Using the GLISA Latin American bureau as a resource and attending gay and lesbian trade shows, the Miami OutGames organizers have connected with organizations to bring athletes to Florida. Similar outreach is going on in Asia Pacific and Europe, with GLISA successfully negotiating with organizations to postpone or move their event to add more participants. Cano says it would be in the LGBT community’s best interest for GLISA and the Gay Games to combine their resources, making it easier to expand into Africa and Latin America. “One common denominator is we are all activists and want the best for our community,” he notes. “We can’t change the past. We could work together to change the future.” The latest reunification effort got so far that a site-selection committee was named for a unified competition in 2022 called One World Event. But in February, the Federation of Gay Games ultimately decided the venture would be too “high risk”—as it described in a press release— and redoubled its efforts on the 2018 Paris games and finding a host for Gay Games XI in 2022. In its release, the Gay Games left open the possibility of teaming up with GLISA later. If that day comes, it would allow Cano to come full circle. At 19, he volunteered at Gay Games IV in New York City. “I am a product of the New York Gay Games,” says Cano. “Doing this event changed my life and made me who I am today, and I hope we inspire people to lead their communities.” Photo Credit: Gay Games