Oh when the gays come dancing in

Rebecca Bryant reports on the physical -- and emotional -- revelations of Gay Games V in Amsterdam.

Published August 21, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

When you're 30 and haven't been to Europe, insecurity may gnaw but only as your friends circle, wine glasses atwirl, to reminisce about hiking the Pyrenees. When you've reached 40, still without a pilgrimage to the cultural capitals of the West, and when you hail from the hinterlands of the U.S., another type of insecurity sets in: that of being an American clodhopper in Europe. That was my state of mind as I set out three weeks ago for Amsterdam to attend Gay Games V.

I knew that I wasn't completely hopeless. Friends had tipped me about how to avoid sticking out like a sore American thumb -- leave the Nikes behind. Plus, I wasn't beginning the trip from ground zero, someplace like Springdale. The Utne Reader had awarded my departure point, Fayetteville, the title of Most Enlightened City in Arkansas. Still, it was fortunate that I had designed into the excursion a side trip. When I arrived at La Guardia airport, my friend David Kramer, rogue professor of English, whisked me off to Ithaca, N.Y. Crowned the Most Enlightened City in the entire U.S., Ithaca, I realized, would be the perfect gateway to that blossom of Western civilization, Amsterdam. During our five-hour drive to the Finger Lakes region, I confessed my insecurity.

"My dear Rebecca," came David's gallant response, "the Dutch have seen everything from the super rich looking for complicated sex to the super poor looking for complicated highs. They won't think anything of an Arkansas lesbian in tennis shoes."

Several days later, adrift in air currents over the Atlantic, I began to ponder why I was going to the Gay Games. I don't sport a rainbow sticker on my car. I don't belong to gay and lesbian organizations. When a friend gave me a book about lesbians at midlife, I yawned and tucked it away in a bookcase. But for this trip, I had actually conducted research. I knew that Dr. Tom Waddell, an Army physician, had founded the Games more than a decade after his own experience as a decathlete in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Disillusioned by the intense nationalism and by the obsessive focus on winning, Waddell had based his alternative venue for gay and lesbian athletes upon the principles of inclusion, participation and personal best. Waddell also had a more subversive objective. By parading gay and lesbian athletes aglow with sweat and esprit de corps before the world, he hoped these wholesome images would outmuscle drag queens and bull dykes for space in the collective psyche.

Waddell named the 1982 San Francisco event -- where 1,400 athletes competed in 11 sports -- the Gay Olympic Games. In a snit, the U.S. Olympic Committee obtained a restraining order, barring use of the word "Olympic," despite their previous indifference toward such happenings as the Dog Olympics and the Beer Olympics. Waddell officiated at Gay Games II, again in San Francisco, before dying of AIDS. In 1990, Vancouver, B.C., hosted the Games. In 1994, 11,000 athletes from 45 countries traveled to New York City, which estimated the economic impact at $400 million.

Sixteen hours after take-off, I am sitting at a table in Leidseplein Square, ordering a beer. Gay Games banners and posters showing the outline of a red tulip hooked to a pink triangle plaster the city. Two groups of marauding musicians pass through the crowded plaza, already musical with the twining cadence of many languages. Soon a throng surrounds a new arrival -- a street performer sitting atop a 10-foot-high unicycle. The performer lures a bespectacled, becamerad Pakistani away from his wife's side and persuades the man to light and hold aloft a torch. Against the background of the neo-Renaissance Stadsschauwburg Theatre, the performer bows, stretching a hand toward the Pakistani, "An advertisement for the Gay Games." The setting sun flirts with Amsterdam, embossing the narrow cobble and brick streets with gold. Who needs Nikes, I wonder, when the city itself fits like a pair of old shoes?

In the days preceding the Opening Ceremony, Amsterdam, which has been under the sleeping spell of summer vacation, begins to waken and send gezellig -- a Dutch vibe that conducts good times -- rippling through the Gay Games. At the same time, the Gay Games, centered at the expansive opera house (now renamed Friendship Village), begin to coalesce into the kinetic, creative energy that is unique to queer culture, and it ripples out into Amsterdam -- where the two forces meet in the magic of authentic revelry that puts Disney in its third-rate place. For once, we see what it would be like to live in a queer world. Gay men would make sure that everyone had fun, and lesbians, doing most of the work, would handle politics and practical matters.

At Hotel de Paris, where I am staying, I meet Adrian Kalil, a swimmer from Portland, Ore., who has arrived early to practice in the pool where he will race in six events. Adrian is a veteran of the New York and Vancouver Games. He tells me that he has trained intensively for two years and resents the sexual overtones in advertisements and in the officially sanctioned Mr. Cockring Contest. I understand his point, but upon later viewing the Olympic Gods exhibit at the Rijksmuseum, I recall that the original Greek Olympics were a celebration of male beauty. The Federation of Gay Games, which selects sites and contracts with local hosts, attempts to balance that tradition with sensitivity toward the goals of Dr. Waddell, for the Games have become the largest multi-sport event in the world, an event that has recently acquired strong corporate sponsorship from the likes of KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Levi Strauss & Co, Speedo, Kodak International and many others. Sensuality vs. athleticism is just one of the contradictions that organizers and participants alike struggle to contain.
Local residents notice another irony. The savvy Dutch realized that the homosexual market was much more profitable than that of college backpackers on summer vacation, plus it fit well with Amsterdam's anarchistic image, so they courted the federation with money, volunteer time and free use of dozens of sporting facilities. The new Purple Coalition government, catching the spirit, has even promised to introduce legislation that will legalize same-gender marriage. While government officials and media have primed citizens for an onslaught of 20,000-30,000 homosexuals, many Dutch remain confused about the concept behind a "Gay" Games. As I eat rijstaffels, a rice platter with a medley of Indonesian dishes, with Adrian and his local friend Eveline de Winter, she asks, "Is it not inclusion that gays want?"

I hear one answer the next day from Carina Benninga at the opening for a photography exhibit, "Sjalhomo," at the Jewish Historical Museum. Benninga is Jewish, a two-time Olympic field hockey medalist who carried the Dutch flag in Barcelona, and a lesbian. She melts me with her dark beauty as she explains, "I had a different history, being Jewish, and that made me insecure. So did being gay. Sports showed that I was worthwhile and that people liked me for who I was."
"But a separate Gay Games?" I query.
She stresses that the Games are an opportunity for homosexuals from many parts of the world to be themselves for one week. She then asks, "If there are Asian Games, Jewish Games and Commonwealth Games, why not Gay Games?"

Each day more people wearing the plastic identification badge and logo of Gay Games V swell the pedestrian- and bicycle-clogged streets of Amsterdam. On Saturday, Aug. 1, we begin to mass along Prinsengracht canal. To the rear we are flanked by a row of narrow, four-story brick buildings with decorated cornices and articulated gables. An old lady from down the street comes early to sit on the bench behind me. Locals wedge kayaks, paddle boats and motorboats between the houseboats that permanently festoon the canal. When the beat of disco music begins to reach our ears and an airplane ferries the banner "Have a Gay Time!" across the sky, we know that the canal parade has begun. One after another the floats pass. There are men in cowboy regalia and Stetsons line dancing and women jittering and glittering on a Roaring Twenties float. Sailors in white uniforms crowd the Love Boat, followed by boxers on the Fight for Aids float. I sit only 100 feet from the Anne Frank house, and when the Israeli flag sweeps by, my throat tightens.
That's the appetizer. That same evening thousands convene at Amsterdam Arena for the Opening Ceremony. In honor of its role as original host of the Gay Games, the San Francisco contingent enters first. I count representation from 61 countries, including India, Trinidad, Cuba and Romania, where homosexuals can be dealt with harshly. The single participants from Iran and Zimbabwe win the crowds' roars of approval. So do the Scots when they lift their kilts, and the mixed South African team, which sashays to drumming. The North Hampton, Mass., team carries the banner "Lesbianville, USA." It takes nearly two hours for 14,500 participants to dance through the arena and take seats. Now there are 45,000 in the stands.

As Mayor Patjin addresses the crowd, I realize for sure that I'm not in Amsterdam to make a fashion statement. (If that were the case, I would have ditched my fanny pack too.) We rise and then sit, waving the arena with an ecstatic rainbow of colors. Now I know why I came. The Dutch gained their tolerance through travel and exchange with many cultures. By the same means, a larger perspective eclipses an old worldview. In my country, a judge ruled that a murderer was more fit to parent than a lesbian. The righteous right attempts to dispense or withhold liberty in exchange for conformity to its incongruent values. Here, neither the United States nor the righteous right loom so important, so big. The world is moving on, and the momentum, it seems, is toward those inalienable rights of liberty and freedom.
Dana International, an Israeli transsexual who just won the Eurovision song contest, is onstage. A Finnish man on my left whispers that the song contest is roughly analogous to the Miss America contest. Israeli rabbis are dismayed, he says, because the country that wins must host the next contest. Dana takes the mike. "Are you free?" she bellows.
"Yes!" we scream.

The Games begin under two clouds: the firing of Director Mark Janssens for financial mismanagement and the threat of the International Skating Union (ISU) to bar any athlete or referee who participates in figure skating. The City of Amsterdam and sponsors quickly ante up additional funds to cover potential budgetary shortfalls. Except for skaters, for whom the ISU decision is a bitter blow because it translates into cancellation of their event, few who have come to compete, to spectate and to party are sidetracked by these matters.
I spend the next several days cruising sporting events. I walk into a neighborhood sport hall where shuttlecocks are flying. Roughly 500 athletes, nearly half of them German, will participate. Another contradiction manifests: On adjacent courts are a clumsy Level C men's singles match and a mixed doubles practice session among players of international caliber who can clear a backhand from baseline to baseline. The Games try to embrace both the beginner, who is as likely to be motivated by fun as by challenge, and the professional. Olympic swimmer Bruce Hayes once said, "Winning a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics was everything I always hoped it would be. But participating in the Gay Games was, in many ways, the most satisfying and gratifying experience of my athletic career."
At a University of Amsterdam sport hall, I sit by a chunky woman who looks like she might be from Eastern Europe but turns out to speak English fluently. Ardel Thomas explains the rules of powerlifting, a medley event where contestants must do squats, bench press and dead lift. A panel of three judges sits at a table, evaluating the form of each lift; if a lift does not conform to International Powerlifting Federation standards, it doesn't count. I pigeonhole Ardel as something of a Neanderthal when she tells me that she won a gold medal in the 90-kilo class. Then she goes on to say, "This is really something for me to get a gold medal and my Ph.D. the same summer. I can't believe it."
"Ph.D.?" I ask.
"Yes, in modern thought and literature from Stanford. My dissertation saved my powerlifting, and my powerlifting saved my dissertation."
Another day I show up at the Bavaria Pool and Snooker Center. By now my own dormant athleticism is aroused, and I am beginning to consider what events I might compete in when Sydney hosts the 2002 Games. It's a smoky room. The tables have ornate, wood-carved legs. Tension sits thick around each match. I watch a Japanese woman who won bronze in New York in a tight match with a European woman, maybe Swiss, maybe Belgian. They cut and bank smooth as butter. These matches can last hours. First they play nine ball (best of nine games), then they play eight ball (best of seven games). If then tied, the clincher is straight pool -- the first to sink 40 balls. A beautiful young Dutch woman stands by me and we talk and the Japanese woman wins and I am walking out with the Dutch woman, who gets on a bike, inviting me, I think -- the accent is difficult -- to meet her later at a bar.
On the fourth day of the Games, I stand on a tram, torn between volleyball and soccer. Enter a group of German women. They are Team Berlin soccer and soon persuade me that, since the sun is out, I should follow them to the soccer complex. I wander from field to field taking in games, looking for the elusive team from Austin, where I used to play. Time gets tight late in the afternoon. I'm supposed to meet friends at 5, but I don't want to leave because Berlin is playing. When a Berlin halfback sets up a remarkable cross and a striker scores, I rush off to the volunteer desk and ask directions. One of the volunteers is getting off duty and offers to walk me to the subway station, which she says is faster than the tram.
As we leave, I notice a pace problem. I am late and must hurry, but she is slow, one leg dragging. First she takes me in the wrong direction, apologizes, and turns in the opposite direction. Minou is curious about what I find unusual about the Netherlands. I tell her it is all unusual but in a good way. Several times I am tempted to thank her and rush on, but something holds me back. Finally, we board a train and sit. Minou tells me that she's a writer. I say that I've written a children's story called "Moonbeam." She wants to know what it's about, and I tell her that it's about an unusual girl who wants a friend more than anything in the world.
"I have written a story that is nearly the same," she says, "but it's about a turtle. The turtle is very slow, so slow that no one will be its friend. The turtle is sad. One day the turtle meets a snail, and the turtle wants to make fun of the snail because it is very, very slow. But then the turtle decides that this is not a good idea and makes a friend of the snail."
Startled by this gift of intimacy and self-revelation, my heart widens, and I place a hand on her leg. The motif of Gay Games V is Friendship Through Culture and Sports. This Arkansas lesbian in tennis shoes will never be the same.

By Rebecca Bryant

Rebecca Bryant is a freelance writer.

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