CLEVELAND (AP) — If Cleveland and Akron seem like odd choices to host the international Gay Games, that's because they are. The eight previous hosts for this quadrennial affair have been gay-friendly cities with identifiable "gayborhoods" — places where those who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered feel comfortable living and hanging out.
Cleveland and Akron don't have gayborhoods and their LGBT communities generally keep a low profile. That will all change Saturday with the opening ceremonies for Gay Games 9 at Quicken Loans Arena in downtown Cleveland. The Games run through Aug. 16.
Gay media outlets pilloried the decision to try and bring the 2014 Games to northeast Ohio, which was competing against the more gay friendly cities of Boston and Washington.
A group no longer associated with Gay Games 9 joined forces with officials from Cleveland, Akron and their respective tourism boards to convince Gay Games officials that northeast Ohio would represent a big win for everyone.
Tourism officials hope the Games will turn the region into a tourist destination for the gay community.
"The biggest reason for the region to host the Gay Games is the kind of legacy it can leave for northeast Ohio," said David Gilbert of Positively Cleveland and the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission. "The eyes of the LGBT world and LGBT media will be on Cleveland and will give our community a chance to shine."
Boosters for the region had plenty of ammunition for selling the region's venues for the Games' events. But they also pushed the idea that bringing the Games into the heart of the Rust Belt would provide an opportunity to chip away at barriers that persist between the straight and gay communities through simple interactions and by dispelling stereotypes. Games organizers stress how skilled and competitive many of the competitors are and that many played their respective sports at the college level.
"The Games are about diversity, about changing hearts and minds," said Tom Nobbe, one of the Games lead organizers, in an interview with The Associated Press.
About 8,000 people have registered to participate in the Games' more than 35 events, which range from traditional sports like track and field and basketball to the non-traditional, such as rodeo and ballroom dancing. The participants come from 51 countries and 48 states.
While registration numbers are lower than for past games — Cologne, Germany, had 9,500 registrants in 2010 and Chicago had 12,000 in 2006 — Nobbe said he was thrilled by the number of registrants for Gay Games 9. He attributed the lower number to the Akron and Cleveland region being the smallest to ever host the Gay Games. The metropolitan areas for the two cities have a combined population of about 2.7 million. Games officials hope as many as 30,000 people will participate or attend events during the weeklong Games.
As a gay man and Greater Cleveland native, Nobbe called the Games the "event of a lifetime." He said he would be participating in one of the swimming events.
In keeping with the Gay Games credo of "Participation, Inclusion and Personal Best," straight people were encouraged to register for events. The Games for the first time is partnering with local, non-gay groups for events such as rowing and the open water swim. The golf tournament at historic Firestone Country Club in Akron likely will draw a number of straight competitors.
While there are no gayborhoods, organizers expect participants to find gay clubs and bars scattered around the area. They also hope visitors are made to feel welcome at businesses throughout the region. In downtown Cleveland, bars and restaurants have placed decals in their windows that say "GG9" in the hope of inviting visitors inside. The Games are expected to produce tens of millions of dollars in local spending, Positively Cleveland's Gilbert said.
Nobbe and Games co-organizer Rob Smitherman, a former college basketball player who will be playing for a team during the Games, said they have been heartened by the support they've received from the gay and straight communities. They proudly point out how industrial heavyweights like Lubrizol Corp. and Eaton Corp., are sponsors even though the companies have no obvious reasons to be supportive. Dozens of sponsors have helped the Games raise nearly $3 million in cash and in-kind contributions, Nobbe and Smitherman said.
Those contributions, the men said, are more examples of how organizers have been uniformly met with enthusiasm throughout the community. While northeast Ohio may not have a gay friendly reputation, they've seen no evidence to the contrary. Nobbe and Smitherman said many of the 2,000 volunteers for the Games are straight.
Yet Nobbe is not naive about the potential for homophobic confrontations. He said he has marched in enough Gay Pride parades to know better, but added that police, the FBI, Homeland Security and other law enforcement agencies have worked closely with organizers and that he does not anticipate any trouble.
While he might be overly optimistic, Nobbe would like to think Cleveland has reached a "post-gay" period when sexual orientation no longer matters.
"It's not an issue any more," Nobbe said.
Phyllis Harris, executive director of the Cleveland LGBT Center, at the invitation of the Cleveland Police Department, has held "competency training" for most of the officers on the force. She said she found their attentiveness to her message encouraging. And she is excited by the chance her hometown of Cleveland has been given.
"I want us to show up," Harris said. "This is one of those opportunities that we happen to have and I think we'll be all right. I would ask skeptics to get involved and put their money where their mouth is."