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Open competition

The first international Outgames begin this week in Montreal. Mihira Lakshman talks to a local organizer and athlete who helped make it possible.

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Catherine Meade still cringes whenever she walks by a schoolyard and hears the insults kids hurl at each other on the playing field.

“Even though it’s 2006,” Meade says, “and we’ve had the right to marry for two years now, you still walk by many school grounds, and what do you hear, ‘fag,’ or ‘dyke.’ You still hear that.”

Meade, a labour lawyer in Halifax, has helped organize the first ever Outgames, which take place in Montreal from July 25-Aug. 5. It gives gay and lesbian athletes a “safe space” to compete, she says. There will be many straight people involved too.

“If you want to participate, you don’t have to be gay or lesbian or bisexual, you just need an open mind.”

The Outgames has also enlisted the help of accredited officials from the various sport governing bodies. That means 32 of the 35 sports at the Outgames will be sanctioned—top performances will count in the records.

“By having mainstream officials, that’s also part of the integration and growth from the exposure to one another,” says Meade, who will compete in Track and Field.

Events such as the Outgames, and the Gay Games, are becoming more important in today’s climate, Meade says. She points to the major professional sports in North America, where there are about 4,900 male athletes, but none that are openly gay.

“I don’t believe for a second that there are playing.”

Meade recalls her experiences as a varsity athlete at McMaster University in the 1980s.

“I was closeted all of my years,” she says. “I don’t know what people knew or suspected. But I certainly didn’t feel like I could be honest about who I was.”

Schools are becoming more accepting of gay students and gay athletes today, but there’s still a long way to go.

“As we progress in society, people are more comfortable with their gay interior decorator,” Meade says. “We have shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and there are certain places where people are starting to get some sort of comfort level about having gays and lesbians in their midst.

“But certainly we see that sport in 2006 hasn’t become one of those places.” Meade hopes having Martina Navratolova—one of the first openly gay professional athletes—speak at the Outgames will help change people’s attitudes.

Here in Halifax, organizers of Pride Week are thrilled to see 50 athletes representing the city at the games.

“It’s a smaller gay community here,” says Patrick Daigle, co-chair of Halifax Pride Week. “We can’t compete with Toronto and Montreal. But to send so many representatives, I think it’s a way of making our community even stronger.”

Daigle says it’s also great to see elected officials taking part. Krista Snow, a regional councillor, is scheduled to compete in the weightlifting event.

While Meade can’t wait to line up in the starting blocks for her 100m race, it’s not the track meet she’s looking forward to most. Meade has also played a major role in organizing the human rights conference that is taking place in conjunction with the games.

Many athletes would have had trouble receiving permission from their home countries to go to a gay sporting event, but are able to come for a human rights conference.

It seems, Meade says, that some countries have reservations about a sporting event comprised of thousands of gay athletes, but aren’t as strict about allowing their citizens to participate in a human rights conference.

More than 12,000 athletes and delegates from 109 different countries will participate in the competitions and the conference. However, there are still more than 200 participants who haven’t received their visas.

Many have criminal records in their home countries, where being gay is illegal, and Canadian immigration officials have done nothing to help out.

“It’s shameful,” says Meade. “Being arrested and serving time are actually some of the good options. Because many are also being tortured or executed.”

“Gays and lesbians may have some difficulty playing sports,” she says. But, she acknowledges, it’s nothing compared to what some gays and lesbians face in more oppressive countries.

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