Inside the fight to organize the Gay Games 2022

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Oa priori, the 11th Gay Games should be a triumph for Hong Kong.

The cosmopolitan, semi-autonomous Chinese city is the first Asian site for the quadrennial event since its inception in San Francisco in 1982. When local organizers won their bid in 2017 to host the 2022 Games, they thought big ladder.

They spoke of 15,000 participants from around the world competing in 36 sports, making the 2022 Hong Kong Games far bigger than the 2018 iteration in Paris (just 10,000 athletes) and the 2014 Cleveland Games. (only 8,800 competitors).

Logistics should not present any difficulty to a city then accustomed to welcoming nearly 60 million visitors a year. Spectators, athletes and officials would be transported between state-of-the-art sporting venues via a world-renowned public transport infrastructure known for its efficiency. At the end of each busy day, luxury hotels, sophisticated restaurants and trendy bars opened their doors, helping to pocket some of the estimated $127 million the Games were expected to bring in.

Then, at the start of 2020, the pandemic hit and Hong Kong imposed one of the strictest COVID prevention regimes in the world. Tourism has been killed by draconian quarantine rules and harsh social distancing measures which, to the strictest extent, enforced the wearing of face masks even when hiking on remote nature trails.

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Since then, the authorities have given in, at least partially. New arrivals have not had to undergo quarantine since September 26, although they are required to take a battery of PCR tests during their first days in the city. But the lifting of the quarantine came too late for the organizers of the Games.

Last September, they decided to postpone the event to November 2023, 12 months later than planned. When the postponement was announced, most visitors to Hong Kong had to undergo 21 days of quarantine at their own expense and no one could say when the rules would change. Delaying the Games seemed completely logical.

The Gay Games aren’t the only sporting event in Hong Kong that has run into problems. Organizers of the 2022 Hong Kong Marathon abruptly canceled the race due to COVID regulations (it has now been postponed to next February). The 2023 World Dragon Boat Racing Championships have been moved from Hong Kong to the Thai resort town of Pattaya. Oxfam Trailwalker, a 100 kilometer endurance race, was recently scrapped after participants were refused permission to remove their masks to eat and drink at checkpoints.

But the Gay Games were meant to be the brand’s centerpiece and money-spinner, positioning Hong Kong as a colorful and tolerant destination, unafraid to welcome spendthrift LGBT visitors at a time when city authorities mainland China are cracking down on various forms of sexual and gender expression – and when the local hospitality sector was in dire need of a boost in the arm. Instead, the Games faced bureaucratic headwinds and political opposition and were drastically scaled back. The difficulty in staging them also speaks to the state of LGBT advocacy in the region.

Hong Kong delegates celebrate winning the Gay Games 2022 for their city, November 3, 2017.

JAYNE RUSSELL/AFP via Getty Images

Separating Gay Games

It’s not like major sporting events can’t be held safely in the midst of a pandemic. Beijing successfully hosted the Winter Olympics in February, even as it enforced a strict zero COVID policy. But being entirely dependent on volunteers, the Hong Kong Gay Games never had the resources to institute the kind of closed-loop system that made the Beijing Olympics viable.

Instead, organizers opted to drastically scale back the Games in order to deal with Hong Kong’s COVID regulations. More than half of the events have now been offloaded to Guadalajara, a city of 1.5 million people in western Mexico that was in contention in 2017. Most athletes are also expected to travel there. Famous for its cultural events and tequila, Guadalajara does not mandate the use of face masks in public, unlike Hong Kong. Visitors are also not required to take COVID tests.

Seattle runner Nellie Waddell is one of many competitors who originally planned to compete in Hong Kong but are now heading to Mexico. Waddell, 40, isn’t fazed by the prospect of some events taking place simultaneously in Hong Kong and Guadalajara, dividing the fields of competitors.

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“Every event a runner goes to, they have to race against who’s there,” she told TIME. “Does an elite runner feel less accomplished winning the London Marathon because the world record holder is running in Berlin?”

Meanwhile, Hong Kong organizers estimate that less than half of the originally planned 15,000 athletes will show up in the city and they expect only 25,000 spectators, slightly less than the average MLB game. Financially, the event will have the chance to break even. It’s a frustrating situation. If organizers had known a year ago that the Hong Kong government would scrap mandatory quarantine, then “we wouldn’t need to co-host,” says Lisa Lam, co-chair of the Games organizing committee.

Lam says she and other organizers briefly discussed scrapping the event. “We kind of thought, are we still going to have the Gay Games?” she says. “We really did some soul-searching.” But a cancellation would have meant years of hard work by the all-volunteer staff. Corporate sponsors, not wanting to be associated with failure, pushed the idea away. “I hope this will continue in [this] trajectory,” says football coordinator Emery Fung, 28.

A view of the city of Guadalajara, co-host of the 11th Gay Games, seen through the spiers of the Cathedral of the Assumption of Our Lady, Jalisco, Mexico, April 23, 2016 (DeAgostini/Getty Images)

A view of the city of Guadalajara, co-host of the 11th Gay Games, seen through the spiers of the Cathedral of the Assumption of Our Lady, Jalisco, Mexico, April 23, 2016

DeAgostini/Getty Images

LGBT rights in Asia

When the Gay Games Federation awarded the host city duties for the 11th Games to Hong Kong, a spokesperson for the city’s bid said it was “a major step for the LGBT community in Hong Kong. region”.

In Asia, many jurisdictions pay lip service to LGBT equality. Singapore recently decriminalized sex between men while taking steps to constitutionally enshrine marriage as a heteronormative institution. Thailand’s LGBT community has grappled with systemic discrimination for years, belying the kingdom’s LGBT-friendly reputation. Taiwan has recognized same-sex marriage, but anyone wishing to marry a foreigner of the same sex can only marry a member of one of some 30 other jurisdictions worldwide where such marriages are also legal – a restriction heterosexuals are not subject to. not confronted. .

Elsewhere in Asia, the situation for LGBT people can be dire. The Indonesian LGBT community fears that penal code reforms will be used to persecute same-sex couples. Brunei threatens to punish same-sex relations between men with death (although the penalty was never carried out)

Certainly, Hong Kong has made progress on LGBT rights. In 2018, authorities revised immigration policies after the high court ruled that foreign workers could bring their same-sex spouses on dependent visas. In 2019, a gay civil servant won his appeal over spousal allowances for his husband. Last year, the High Court awarded two estranged lesbian mothers joint custody of their children.

But the court victories underscore how sparse local legislation for LGBT inclusion is. Despite record public opposition to LGBT rights, there is no prospect of marriage equality or legal recognition for transgender people. Discrimination remains widespread in many contexts.

Read more: Homophobia is not an Asian value

Conservative lawmakers have also attacked the Games, calling the potential revenue “dirty money”. One went so far as to call the Games a “threat to national security”. They claim that activists can use the Gay Games to advance political causes. Taiwanese athletes have pulled out, fearing arrest under Hong Kong’s national security law if they compete under the island’s emblem.

Bureaucracy also caused logistical headaches. The organisers’ legal status as a charity means they are lower on the waiting list than schools and local sports associations when it comes to booking public sports facilities, so they had use of private venues such as the University of Hong Kong’s swimming pool and sports complex. “We fell through the cracks in a way,” Lam said.

However, the city’s equal opportunities watchdog and tourism board have backed the Gay Games, and a spokesperson for John Lee, Hong Kong’s top official, told TIME that the government “fully respects and is committed to protecting all rights and freedoms guaranteed by law”.

After stalling for months, the Gay Games 2022 will finally open registration in October. Although the Hong Kong event is taking place in a significantly reduced form, many residents of the COVID-battered city are happy for it to happen.

“I knew it would be an uphill battle to get support from the city authorities from day one,” says Donald Tsim, a 60-year-old volunteer. “That’s why we cherish all the support we can get, no matter how big or small.”

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