When my swim-teammates first mentioned the Gay Games to me late last year, visions of drag queens racing in stiletto heels floated through my mind. Then I noticed how diligently all the guys on the team were preparing and I too began to strive for my best. Eight months later, I was trained, toned, and psyched. Ahead of me was a week in which I would compete with other gay athletes from around the globe, who had worked just as hard as I to be there. The following are five highlights from a week of competition that challenged and profoundly moved me.
The 50m Fly
My goggles had flown off during my breaststroke. I had inhaled water during my 200 IM and almost didn't finish. 'It's just a bunch of homosexuals swimming,' said one of my friends, trying to cheer me up. But for me, the slogan of the games'Participation, Inclusion, and Personal Best'had made an impression. I wanted these races and none more than the one coming up, the 50m Fly.
The whistle blew, and tugging at my goggle straps, I mounted the block. On my mark, I coiled my body. My vision narrowed until the only thing I could see was the black lane line shimmering beneath the water. All I could smell was steamy chlorine. The gunshot went off, and I sprung through the air and entered the water. Instantly my body engaged, stretching out. My arms reached forward. My legs kicked powerfully.
I found my rhythm and everything else slipped away, drowned by the sole goal of reaching the far wall. In 50 meters, it was done. I won my heat and placed fifth overall. Most importantly though, I shaved three seconds off my time, a new personal record for me.
My second night in Chicago I was exhausted, but the day would be the first time I didn't have to be at the pool at 8 a.m. This, of course, meant party! I was waiting for the train down to Boystown, when a group of lesbians walked onto the platform. All of them were openly wearing their Gay Games ID badges'and we were nowhere near Andersonville, where the Games were headquartered. You wouldn't see me wearing my badge'and not just because it looked dorky.
I've been out and proud and un-self-conscious for several years. However, there has always been a part of me'my biggest, gayest part'that, unless I'm safely in West Hollywood, I've kept hidden. The next day, though, as I was hurrying through the streets of downtown, head-achey and desperately trying to make my 11 o'clock architecture tour, it was all I could do not to run into random people sporting their Games badges.
The truth is, there were gay people everywhere. In any part of the city I could spot a Gay Games T-shirt, a badge, or the ubiquitous Gay.com backpack. It felt right. It was a taste of what life could be and should be like. In Chicago, whether alone or surrounded by athletes I didn't feel like I had to hide, no matter where I was.
The last night of the games, at three in the morning, I dragged myself onto the subway. I looked down and found, amazingly, I was wearing my Gay Games pass.
Somehow the Opening Ceremony got stuck in 1987. The presentation was divided into acts with names like 'Exclusion' and 'Expression.' We were in the middle of 'Oppression' and the end was nowhere in sight. I slouched in my seat and glanced at the field just in time to see the microphone pass to yet another angry lesbian (perhaps an improvement on the angry gay men, who just sound whiny). I groaned and closed my eyes.
There had been a wonderful moment, though, when I ran onto the field with team California. There were thousands of people in the stadium and they were all cheering for us and I felt proud to be there, competing. But this moment had gotten lost in the stream of profanities that this woman, who had the microphone, was now spewing.
A week later, I reclaimed the moment, seated at the Closing Ceremony. In contrast to the Opening, this event consisted of one big act, which could have been titled 'Celebration.' From record-breaking to personal bests to the individual victories each participant won over his or her insecurities, there was much to be proud of.
And there were dancing cowboys.
We had five minutes to go. The diving exhibition had just finished. A cute diver in a red Speedo smiled at me as he walked by. Whether it was because he was friendly or he couldn't believe my outfit I'll never know because then another guy came over and started rubbing sesame oil on my skin in between my suspenders. I reached into my only article of clothing, black pleather hot shorts, and readjusted. I made sure to tuck the tip down just like our choreographer said and then marveled one last time at the irony of my situation as a musical theater guy turned jock turned musical theater guy. Then we were on. I marched onto the pool deck as the opening strains of 'Big Spender' blared out of the sound system.
We were representing West Hollywood in the Pink Flamingos, the competition held at the end of each swim meet. It's a sort of pageant that combines elements of dance, drag, and synchronized swimming. And, of course, fabulous outfits.
For even as the eight of us'in our sexy lederhosen'finished our Fosse routine, the real stars of the shows, the 'aqua-genarians,' came out dressed in aged showgirl drag. They began their number to 'The Cellblock Tango' from Chicago. Sure enough, when they saw that the eight of us preferred each others' company, they promptly disposed of us by bumping us into the pool. Then, in waves, they too dived in the water. Reunited in 'death' we all splashed around to the finale. The crowd went wild!
The Second City
Chicago. It was my kind of town. The love affair began the moment I arrived in The Loop. The first thing that struck me was the greenery. There were parks everywhere'not just tennis courts and country clubs like Los Angeles'but real parks with ample areas of grass to play soccer on or to fly kites.
The museums provided highbrow diversion during the days, and Boystown provided lowbrow diversion at night. Best of all, drinks and cover prices were much more affordable than either Los Angeles or New York and the interiors of the bars were creative and inviting. So were the guys.
More than any other factor, it was the people of the city that seduced me. Mayor Daley said it at the opening ceremonies: 'Gay and lesbian people are welcome in Chicago.' While the profusion of rainbow flags over awnings of restaurants prompted one of my friends to cynically quip, 'We support gay money, I mean marriage,' you could not escape the good nature of the people. From the firefighter (hot) who gave me a ride to the track and field stadium to the 4-year-old girl who had an imaginary tea party with me on the subway, Chicagoans were approachable and helpful. So thank you, Windy City, for one spectacular week.