while sports are fun, gay games will leave a positive legacy long after closing ceremony

As the 2014 Gay Games (GG9) play out with eclectic events such as DanceSport at the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel and Figure Skating at Serpentini Arena, the engine behind it all is a frenetic ant farm populated with members from Northeast Ohio's private and public sectors. Uniting beneath a banner touting inclusion, collaboration and unity, their lofty goal is to establish a spirit that will endure long after the lights have dimmed and the last athlete has left the track.

Roslyn Quarto, who was on the GG9 selection committee that eventually chose Cleveland over Boston and Washington D.C., reflects on the 2009 decision: "Cleveland was where the games would make the most difference," she says, adding that the other finalist cities were further along with issues such as marriage equality. To that end, the city of Cleveland has since extended health benefits to domestic partners (July 2011).

"In DC or in Boston," adds Dan Brennan, GG9 board member and chief marketing officer of Skylight Financial Group, "the Games would have just been another thing on another day. In Cleveland, it's a big deal on a lot of fronts."

To be sure, the energy that erupted at the Opening Ceremonies was contagious. Attendees will carry it long after this Saturday's closing events, but the seeds that spawned GG9 were quietly sowed, diligently nurtured and 100-percent Ohio-grown.

Support from Red to Indigo

Browsing the GG9 sponsor page might seem like a bland exercise at first blush. But scrolling down the page will inflate with pride even the most blasé Clevelander.

The usual players are at the top (Cleveland Clinic, Coca-Cola, Key Bank, etc.), but as the list goes on (and on and on), it is peppered with a diverse collection of familiar eateries, galleries, churches, taverns and a host of area municipal organizations. For example, the Cleveland Hostel, Trinity Cathedral and the Lorain County Visitors Bureau have reached into their wallets. Even Heights Driving School in humble Broadview Heights chipped in for the cause. That tremendous breadth of support didn't happen by accident.

"Historically, what happens with these kind of events is all the big boys come and all the little people sit off on the sidelines" says Brennan. "How could you have the spirit of inclusiveness as a major tenet of the Games while excluding the people in the business community who can't write a $100,000 check?"

Brennan and Jay DiFinis co-chaired the GG9's development committee, which crafted the Rainbow Small Business Sponsorship Program. It featured opportunities ranging from red ($14,000) to indigo ($500). The response was staggering.

"Almost 200 small businesses have paid something to support the games and express their support for the LGBT community," says Brennan.

Changing Perceptions on a National Stage

Quarto, who has been involved with the games for more than 30 years as a participant and official, describes Cleveland's collective financial support as "by far the best."

"If there was a way I could identify Cleveland in the area where it will go down as the most successful Games," she says, "it will be with the financial sponsorship support from mainstream organizations and corporations." Quarto, who also is the executive director of Empowering and Strengthening Ohio's People (ESOP), lauds the major corporate sponsors, including the Cleveland Foundation, for being the first title sponsor of the event, which is officially named Gay Games 9 Presented by the Cleveland Foundation.  

"They really and truly understand the link between how the Gay Games are moving to effect change," she says, "and how that can have an everlasting effect on the LGBT community in Cleveland."

It's that sort of support that organizers of future events are looking for. One herd of lumbering elephants already has found it -- and was inking the deal with Mayor Frank Jackson last Friday in Chicago while thousands from across the globe poured into his hometown for GG9.

"The GOP is coming here. The Gay Games are here," says Quarto. "We've crossed all sorts of barriers. It puts Cleveland in a certain light."

At least for this week, that light is shining in ways that go far behind the games. The Night Before 9 party at the Cleveland Museum of Art and a 10k race along the Ohio & Erie Canal showcased Northeast Ohio's most dazzling gems to our guests while the Gay Rodeo at the rustic Summit County Fairgrounds was a slice of pure Americana. Subtler cues like the hundreds of GG9 support stickers dotting the windows of area businesses whisper: you are welcome here, please step inside.

Collectively they proclaim: You are welcome here today, next week, next year…

Neighborhood Muscle: City Wide Results

"Our involvement at Cleveland Neighborhood Progress has nothing to do with athletics," says Jeff Kipp, director of neighborhood marketing at CNP. "We love the games. We love that they're here in Cleveland, but we came on board as a lead community partner. We saw a bigger opportunity."

Kipp and his team brought together 13 Community Development Corps (CDC) across the area to foster a citywide push to "roll out the proverbial red carpet." It included Cultural Competency 101 training sessions, which were attended by more than 70 ambassadors and practitioners from participating neighborhoods last month. The course, led by Phyllis Harris, executive director of the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland, focused on the area's LGBT history and the language associated with the culture.

CNP also offered matching grants for hyper-local projects such as the rainbow flags lining Professor Avenue in Tremont and a welcome-bag drop last week at the airport and area hotels courtesy of the Kamm's Corner's CDC. The organization also co-marketed more than 50 neighborhood events to GG9 visitors. They include the Cleveland Bazaar Pop Up Shop, walking tours, worship services and a barrage of art events.

"We also market to the neighborhoods themselves," adds Kipp. "We want our neighborhood residents to come out and embrace the games and the athletes. That's the sort of impact that I'm very sure will last beyond August 16."

With efforts to promote beloved 216 staples such as the Cleveland Flea and area farmers markets, the add-locals-to-visitors-and-mix-well recipe is bound to leave a lasting impression on all parties.

Consider the moment when the young athletes donning Russian LGBT Sport Federation shirts ambled through Progressive Field for the pre-ceremony party last Saturday. They held hands, posed for photos and waved flags declaring who they were and from where they came. Given their home country's political landscape, the impact of their unmistakable joy embodied everything about Cleveland and what the Gay Games hope to accomplish.

"This not going to be a one-shot deal," says Quarto. "This is going to change the interaction between the LGBT population and the rest of the community forever."  

One thing can get lost in all the talk about support and change and acceptance.

"Sports are fun," says Quarto. "Even though it's political and we're trying to effect change, we're not sitting here fighting about whose religion doesn't believe in gay marriage or who wants special rights or why everybody can't just get along.

"We are just getting along. We're celebrating."

Photos Bob Perkoski except where noted

Erin O'Brien
Erin O'Brien

About the Author: Erin O'Brien

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit erinobrien.us for complete profile information.