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The excitement builds….
by Eddie Robinson • Photo by John Faier
There’s a vibrant energy “coming out” of the city of Cleveland these days! Could it be the return of LeBron James to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, or maybe the media-frenzied hype surrounding Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel? Or perhaps it’s because Cleveland is the host city for the GOP’s 2016 convention, as announced last month by the Republican National Committee.
Well, one could say this city has something for everyone, and one thing’s for sure: both Cleveland and Akron have something to feel prideful about as this year’s Gay Games makes its way to Ohio from August 9 through the 16th.
This quadrennial festival—the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender version of the Olympics—is holding its ninth games this month. Launched in 1982, the international sporting and cultural event invites participants and all athletes, regardless of sexual orientation, race, gender, religion, political beliefs, athletic or artistic ability, physical challenge, or health status. About 90 percent of those who participate are members of the LGBT community (according to the Gay Games’ website gg9cle.com), with the remaining 10 percent representing mostly friends, family, and supporters of the competing gay athletes.
Cleveland is only the fourth North American host city in the history of the Gay Games, following San Francisco (which hosted the first and third events in 1982 and 1986), New York City (1984), and Chicago (2006). Host cities outside of the United States have included Vancouver, Sydney, Amsterdam, and Cologne.
The Federation of Gay Games, an all-volunteer umbrella organization, is responsible for managing the event with designated staff and board members. In the months leading up to August, organizers orchestrated a massive push to encourage participants and athletes to take part in this year’s Gay Games in Cleveland, because another North American city may not get to experience this massive sporting event in the foreseeable future. That’s according to Tony Smith, one of the International Champions Coordinators for the Gay Games who works directly with a host of volunteers within other LGBT sports organizations in an effort to promote their involvement in the games. “Four years ago they were in Cologne, Germany, and after Cleveland, the Gay Games will be in Paris,” Smith says. “The Gay Games in Cleveland will be the last one in North America at least until 2022. The host city selection for 2022 hasn’t been made yet, but I’ve already heard that future locations could be either in South America or Asia. So we’ve been encouraging participants and athletes to take part in this year’s festivities in Cleveland.”
Organizers expect some 20,000 people to flock to the city for this inclusive cultural event.
This year’s Gay Games is also the first time that two cities—Cleveland and Akron—are pairing up to host the event. Participants get to explore the newly built convention center in downtown Cleveland, as well as the Cleveland State University facilities, Case Western Reserve University, and other historic landmarks throughout the area. Several downtown venues, along with nearby University of Akron and Firestone Country Club facilities, are also to be utilized. With a 45-minute drive between Cleveland and Akron, organizers say events are to be located as close to public transportation as possible.
What’s so extraordinary about the Gay Games is that no qualifying criteria exist for athletes to compete, except that you must be over the age of 18. That’s it! Unlike the Olympics, where only the elite of the elite and the best of the best compete for top gold, silver, and bronze medals, the Gay Games welcomes everyone—gay, straight, bi, trans—regardless of skill level or expertise. However, competitors do earn medals for first, second, and third place, as well as other medals and recognition for participating in the events.
Indeed, no Gay Games event is complete without the sports component. Checking out the list of sporting events in Cleveland should transport you back to ancient Olympia, as athletes from almost every state and over 30 countries compete in about 35 different sporting activities—a truly diverse range of sports that includes softball, soccer, swimming, rodeo, bowling, volleyball, rock climbing, ice hockey, cycling, bodybuilding (I’m there!), powerlifting (contestants, do you need my phone number?), basketball, flag football, martial arts, and rowing—just to name a few!
This year’s games even include cultural competitions like choral and band performances. And party animals, take note: I’ve already asked future event planners to consider DJ’ing as a competitive category, because after all, these are the Gay Games! What better way to display pride, a fitness component, and the energetic culture of our unique and influential community than through the prolific power of (amazingly good) dance music?
The world of sports is (of course) the primary focus of the Gay Games—a weeklong celebration featuring sweaty, hardcore sporting and cultural competitions packed with adrenaline-rushed LGBT athletes and ridiculously excited sports fans from across the world. But one must also keep these happy folks occupied with some quality entertainment, right?
If the roster of activities, performers, and guest appearances is any indication, there won’t be any disappointments. The opening ceremonies include Tony-nominated Broadway actress Andrea McArdle, Olympic gold-medalist Greg Louganis, the super-iconic Pointer Sisters, and a Sirius XM OutQ colleague of mine, Lance Bass of ’N Sync! And throughout the festivities, the surprises keep flowing with marathon dance-party fundraisers for HIV/AIDS services, as well as an intense downtown-Cleveland jam that features legendary performer Boy George, with proceeds going to northeast Ohio’s LGBT community. Oh, and did I mention that a Katy Perry concert is also scheduled in Cleveland that week? So fingers crossed that the “roaring” pop tart makes a shocking surprise-appearance somewhere on the sporting camp grounds!
Even organizer Tony Smith is getting caught up in the magic of the event, calling the 2014 Gay Games “the world’s largest LGBT quadrennial party ever!”
As the events unfold, it goes without saying that the 2014 Gay Games will contribute tens of millions of dollars to the region’s economy, helping transform communities through a variety of both for-profit and nonprofit organizations, as well as corporate entities and sponsors. Even a church denomination, the United Church of Christ, has agreed to become a sponsor for this year’s edition of the 32-year-old games platform.
The impact of these games goes beyond sports and entertainment, giving participants and sponsors alike an opportunity to showcase to the world that diversity and international unity can indeed be accomplished through the power and the love of sports. I can’t help but remember those remarkable words spoken by Nelson Mandela: “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.”
As the City of Houston joins in this weeklong festival, I’ve been extremely fortunate to get to know three Houstonians who are competing in Ohio at this year’s Gay Games. Casey Arnold, Leslie Gutierrez, and Scott Newberger are representing our city, and you’ll be able to learn more about them on Sunday, August 10, at 9 a.m. CST, when we take our sports talk radio show live on the road to Cleveland on SiriusXM’s OutQ, Channel 106. These three athletes are the featured guests on a very special SiriusXM edition of The Outfield—the world’s first-ever sports talk radio show designed by and for the LGBT community.
Three Houstonians Competing in This Year’s Gay Games
Occupation: Medical field
Place of birth: Alexandria, Louisiana
Competition: Martial Arts
Eddie Robinson: Is this your first Gay Games competition?
Casey Arnold: No, it’s my second. I was in the 2006 Games in Chicago.
What led you to participate in this year’s Ohio Gay Games?
Well, it’s in the U.S., which is awesome because it makes it local, so it’s definitely something that’s easily accessible. And I enjoyed it so much in 2006 that I was ready to go back and go at it again.
How did you get into martial arts?
I’m one of those people that needs some kind of activity that sparks my interest. I find that running doesn’t really hold my attention very well, or lifting weights, which is great and fine—I do both occasionally. But I needed something that would keep me going, keep me invested. And I always liked the sport of martial arts. I liked the way that it looked. I thought it was amazing what people could do with their bodies. The flexibility that’s involved—it’s high-energy and it’s fast-paced. Even though it’s not a team sport, the camaraderie that you find in the schools is just amazing. So all of that stuff was pretty awesome.
When I first walked into a Taekwondo school, the people were all over the place: you saw legs flying, you saw people pounding on things, doing their training. And it was just awesome to see. The school was Van Binh Self Defense Academy.
I’ll never forget this one woman there who inspired me. Her name was Rolanda Dent, and she’s a lawyer here. She was the first person who approached me and asked me if I was looking at joining, and I told her yes. She sold me not only on Taekwondo, but the school itself. Being a gay individual makes it hard to find a school—you’re apprehensive about what people would think or what the training would be like, or if you would be accepted. To have this individual approach me just right off, it really spoke to me. So I joined the school and fell in love with it. There were men and women involved, and they were awesome and open-minded and open-armed, and that was the start for me—I was about 26, so about 12 years ago. So I started later in life, but it was fine.
Will there be someone or some golden moment that will help motivate you to win a medal at the Gay Games?
Yes, it’s a friend that you’re also interviewing—her name is Leslie Gutierrez.
We’re both going together, and we’re both competing in martial arts. And I think it’s just going to be that support system that’s pushing me through. We have a couple of friends that are going with us to cheer us on. We just want to [make ourselves] proud, and also our school that has been supportive of us through everything, and for who we are as individuals. We never felt like we had to hide anything.
Right now, we’re in Kuk Sool Won, the Meyerland Martial Arts School, and we talked it over with the owner of the school, Mike, who’s pretty awesome and was very supportive. And we wanted to make sure he would be comfortable with us wearing our school uniforms and showing the support for our school. And he was just extremely over-the-top supportive, and we’re very grateful for that.
Any special shout-outs that you’d like to mention—people who’ve helped you along your athletic journey?
Yes, that would be Mike Nebgen, the owner of Meyerland Martial Arts School. He’s a wonderful individual, nonjudgmental, and is extremely talented. A couple of other people—there’s Jovani, a very powerful man; I love the way that he teaches. He keeps me on the edge of my seat, and I’m always learning something new from him. And Joanna is a lady who has been nothing but kind to us from the beginning, and very supportive. Her teaching technique is to inspire and to keep people engaged, and I think that’s important—especially for a sport where we see people come and go so often. There are countless others, but I just love them all.
Occupation: Medical field
Place of birth: El Paso, Texas
Competition: Martial Arts
Eddie Robinson: Will this be your first Gay Games competition?
Leslie Gutierrez: Yes.
What led you to participate in this year’s Gay Games?
Casey was my biggest influence. He and I met through a mutual friend, and come to find out, we both had this passion for martial arts. He started telling me about his experiences at the 2006 Gay Games. And so we were both like, Let’s try it—maybe we can find a school and train. Let’s just see what happens. And so he was my biggest motivator for it. In 2010, the Games were in Germany, and we just weren’t able to make it. But when we found out that it was coming back to the States this year, we both decided to compete.
How did you get into martial arts?
I started when I was very young—about six or seven years old—off and on from childhood to adolescence. I’d get into it, then get out of it. So this has been my longest stint training. We’ve been at it for two and a half years now. And it really was the Gay Games that drove us to get back into it, find a school together, then train so that we could compete for the Games.
Were there any role models or martial artists that you’ve admired that led you to train in this sport?
Bruce Lee. Growing up, I always used to love to watch him and was fascinated by him and his abilities. So initially, as a kid, I was like, Oh yeah, that’s my hero right there! But if you look at true influences for martial arts, there’s a lot of people that we train with that are just exceptional athletes. They may not be known on a professional level, but just their drive and motivation [is inspirational] to us. They’re our biggest push; they demonstrate and show us, putting all of their effort into our training. It’s just phenomenal.
Are there any special individuals in your life, or a special moment that will help motivate you to do your best in the competition—possibly even medal?
Yes, not only for our school’s representation—having multiple instructors that train us—but even my dad. My dad has always been a really big push for me. I definitely have support from my mom as well, but he’s always been the one that would sit back and watch me as a kid growing up and try to help me improve, even though he had a little bit of training in martial arts. Even to this day, he goes to see me train, and he’s always just so proud. So he’s been my motivation. I’d love to get this medal and kind of say, “Look, Dad, we did it!”
Any other shout-outs to those folks that have helped you get to where you are today?
Definitely my friends and family, my mom and dad—they’ve been supportive of anything that I’ve done. To Mike Nebgen of Meyerland Martial Arts; Eric Romo, Mark Jenkins, Joanna Ngoti, Jovanni—these are all of our instructors that are aware of what we’re doing and are taking extra time to work with us for the competition.
Occupation: Owner of Scott Michael Designs
Place of birth: Cleveland, Ohio
Eddie Robinson: Is this your first Gay Games competition?
Scott Newberger: Yes.
What led you to compete this year in Cleveland?
Actually, I was born and raised in Cleveland and was the founder of the gay and lesbian tennis league out in Ohio; and I, along with many other commissioners and sports organizations there, was part of the bidding process in getting Cleveland the Gay Games.
And you’ll be competing in tennis, correct?
Correct. And I’m actually considering partnering with my husband in playing beach volleyball together, if the schedule will allow us.
Were you always a fan of tennis?
I’ve been playing tennis since I was 14.
Any additional training that you’ve done to prepare you for this year’s Gay Games?
I play with the Houston Tennis Club, the local gay and lesbian tennis league here in Houston, as well as USTA League tennis—and just practicing every day that I can.
Will there be a special person or moment you’ll be thinking about that will inspire you to win and perhaps even medal?
Being that I was born and raised in Cleveland, my family’s still there. [Although] I’m going to have support and encouragement from my [entire] family, to have my 80-year-old mother get to see me play tennis and compete for the first time ever is going to be a lot of motivation for me.
Any other shout-outs or additional supporters you’d like to name—people who’ve helped you along the way as an athlete?
To my husband, Reggie. He’s been a huge support system for my tennis, and he has constantly encouraged me to do better.
How long have you guys bee nmarried?
We just got married last August, so this trip to Cleveland is kinda like our one-year anniversary. We got married in Central Park in New York last year, and then went to the U.S. Open for our honeymoon while we were there.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Well, I’m just hoping to bring a medal back to Houston!
For more information on the Gay Games, visit gg9cle.com.
Eddie Robinson is a morning news anchor for Houston Public Media and sports host of SiriusXM OutQ’s The Outfield. He was featured in the June issue of OutSmart magazine.