The Gay Games, presented by the Cleveland Foundation, are kicking off with an estimated 8,000 athletes representing over 50 countries and 48 US states. A number of participants are coming from countries where being LGBT is difficult, if not outright illegal.
Several participants are present because of the hard work and fundraising by the Federation of Gay Games scholarship committee. The committee was established years ago to help get participation from countries that were underrepresented in the Games.
This year, participants from nine countries received scholarships to be able to attend the Gay Games: Argentina, China, Croatia, Kazakhstan, Macedonia, Nepal, Russia, South Africa, and Sri Lanka.
After Konstantin Yablotsky of Russia received a scholarship, he returned to Russia to establish the Russian LGBT Sports Federation, which held the Open Games in Moscow this last March, following the Winter Olympics in Sochi. The Open Games faced enormous difficulty after the passage of Russia's "anti-propaganda" law. Venues suddenly canceled contracts, and participants faced harassment.
One of the scholarship recipients, South African, Hlengiwe Buthelezi, spoke to the crowd about what her experience with the Gay Games has meant to her. "Being in the Gay Games is a life-changing experience," Buthelezi said. "I am a witness to that."
She first attended the 2002 Gay Games in Sydney, and then the 2006 Gay Games in Chicago, where she won 7 gold medals for track. After she returned from Chicago, she faced tremendous difficulty.
"South African has gay rights in place, but it is still not accepted by society," Buthelezi explained. She came out, lost her job, and several friends were attacked and either killed or endured "corrective rape." Buthelezi had to go into hiding for her own safety. She founded KwaZulu Natal LGBT Recreation based in Durban, as my way to plough back into her community and pushing advocacy for LGBT struggles.
But, as she explained, she didn't let the bad experiences take her down. She established LGBT and women's sports leagues in South Africa to bring empowerment to the community through the power of sports. In 2009, the Federation of Gay Games honored her as Volunteer of the Year, and she continues to serve as the only South African member on the Federation assembly.
She continues to be an advocate for LGBT people and women, and she looks forward to the time when she can welcome others to her country.
"I would like to welcome you to the Gay Games in South Africa," she told the crowd. "But that is still in the pipeline."