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    Gay Games 10 in Gay Paree!

    By Jamie Leno Zimron–

    By all glowing accounts, the recent early August 2018 Gay Games in Paris were a huge success. The Games were totally thrilling, electric and offered a true rainbow display of diversity and talents. They additionally set the stage for an incredible celebration of LGBTQ athleticism and inclusive world community.

    San Francisco is where it all began. In 1982, Olympic decathlete Dr. Tom Waddell, along with other LGBTQ activists and athletes, conceived of the grand sporting and arts event that would be open to all players regardless of sexual orientation or qualifying ability. Now the world’s most inclusive international sporting event, this year’s Gay Games 10 drew over 10,000 participants, in 36 sports, from 91 countries.

    Many journeyed from lands where being gay is illegal, and being out can get them jailed, assaulted or even killed. They came courageously and joyfully, from Kenya, Russia, China, Uganda, Saudi Arabia and other gay-restrictive countries, sometimes with the aid of scholarships from The Games, to meet and compete with brothers and sisters from around the world and across all spectrums of gender, race, religion, nationality, age and ability.

    Homophobic discrimination continues to run deep in sports, throughout amateur to professional levels. Most gay athletes still feel compelled to hide their sexuality if they want to succeed in their careers. Opportunities for trans athletes are nil at worst and controversial at best. Sexist and heterosexist stereotypes persist, where people are still surprised to see women or gay men being strong, athletic and fierce competitors.

    While France and other countries have legalized gay marriage, there has been an uptick in homophobic hate crimes, as backlash against growing gay rights sweeps across many continents. So, The Gay Games provide a colossal experience of LGBTQ pride and unity, unprecedented opportunities for queer athletes, and powerful images and messages for people everywhere about the inherent dignity and equality of all human beings.

    Nearly one-third of this year’s participants hailed from our Bay Area mecca of athletic, artistic and gay life. We have so many individual and team medal winners to be proud of, and friends who went to play their gay hearts out and be part of making us a loud and visible force for all the world to see!

    I asked a number of friends and colleagues about their experiences in Paris, and am happy to share their stories here. For starters, Pam David, San Francisco community leader extraordinaire who has been making differences for decades, told me for the San Francisco Bay Times:

    “It was a thrill to play in my 3rd Gay Games, only 32 years after my last—the 2nd Gay Games in San Francisco in 1986! And it was an even bigger thrill to play tennis on the red clay of Paris. I loved that so many countries were represented, though wished more women were present. The economic barriers of participation are real and hard to overcome.

    But how fun it was to join over 10,000 LGBTQ athletes in Paris for 10 days. It reminded me of the ’87 March on Washington for LGBTQ Rights when we turned that city queer for a week, filling the streets, subways and restaurants. We did the same to Paris—everywhere one looked there were Gay Games participants with their rainbow ID cards around their neck (and, later, their medals). We were to be found in every Metro car, on the streets, in the cafes and the boats on the Seine—for one glorious stretch, LGBTQ people took over Le Marais and central Paris! What a testament to the memory of Tom Waddell, Sara Lewinstein, and the others who helped to launch the Gay Games in 1982!”

    Beginning also in the early 1980s, Hand to Hand Kajukenbo in Oakland has grown to become one of the most amazing and feminist martial arts schools anywhere in the world. Every day of the week, they brilliantly fulfill their mission through martial training that “empowers and positively transforms individuals and communities to create a peaceful and just society.”

    Led by Chief Instructor Sifu Sonya Richardson and her partner Aarin Burch, Hand to Hand sent a racially and gender diverse delegation of 11 students to Paris, ranging from yellow belts to 7th Degree Black Belt. They took home an astounding cache of 28 medals in a wide spectrum of categories: empty hand forms, forms with weapons, musical forms, self-defense sparring and the new categories of team forms and two person fighting set.

    Hand to Hand’s success was phenomenal, though not so surprising, to those of us in the women’s martial arts movement who have been treated for years to their dynamic demonstrations, intense instruction and powerful community. Sifu Sonya, who won gold with Aarin in the all-genders two-person fighting set competition while also teaching and officiating, informed me:

    “I am thrilled that we were awarded twenty-eight medals amongst us, but more grateful that so many heads of schools and organizers spoke to me about how kind and supportive the students of Hand to Hand are. I am as proud of our ambassadorship as I am of their training to get to the Games, and their joy in their outcomes. 

    This year’s Games hosted some 70% men and 30% women identified persons. Women may have been represented to an even smaller degree in the martial arts. I was honored and thrilled to serve as a judge for sparring, center judge for self-defense panels and to give out medals at the Games. I am grateful to our martial arts directors for their stellar efforts to include me in leadership and for the amazing days of clinics, training and competition they organized. Inspiring! Incredible! Bravo! Brava! See you in Hong Kong 2022!”

    First Degree Black Belt Zo Zotigh won 3 gold medals in Women’s Black Belt Musical Form, Women’s Black Belt Self-Defense and Women’s Black Belt Sparring. She recalled,

    “Even with all of my research, nothing could prepare me for Paris. Stepping onto the mats at the Institut du Judo made everything electric. Over the next four days I competed in four different events … and when I wasn’t competing, I was able to witness other people showcasing their hard work in styles that I had never seen before. 

    There were breathtaking forms and stunning displays of strength and power in self-defense and sparring. The comradery that all of the martial arts players showed one another throughout the Games was truly inspiring! The guidance and support from my teachers and fellow teammates helped me to bring home three Gold Medals, and lifelong friendships as well!”

    Hannah Yui is an orange belt who won gold in Beginners Women’s Empty-Hand Forms, and gold in Beginners Women’s Sparring:

    “I had no idea what to expect when I signed on for the Gay Games, but I am really glad I did! This competition, and everything leading up to it, has been a really unique and powerful experience. It gave me the opportunity to train and grow in ways I never expected.

    At the opening ceremonies, I was moved to see so many excited athletes from all over the world, including countries where it is still not ok to be gay. And while there was definitely an air of nerves and pressure during the competitions, we were all there to celebrate and support one another in our achievements as athletes. I think one of the things we all won is the Gay Games bringing us together and the new connections we built with each other.”

    Brown belt Charlene Legac won gold in Advanced Women’s Self-Defense, and gold in Advanced Women’s Sparring: 

    “Of course, I had the jitters, nervousness, heart jumping out of my chest, because I wanted to represent my school and teachers to the best of my ability. It was a challenge to channel the nervous energy in the moment of competition and not to cave under the pressure. The feeling was different with each event. Something happened during sparring, maybe a minute into my first round, where I was able to feel my rhythm and movement, and to see things coming from my opponent in a way I hadn’t experienced in training.

    I have an overwhelming feeling of gratitude, love and respect for all who participated in the Games, and for all of the work that my teachers and training partners put towards preparing us. I’m humbled by the high level of skill that my competitors brought and am thankful that they helped to bring out the best performance I had to offer.”

    Congratulations to my LPGA friend and colleague from San Diego, Christie Quinn, who took home gold in the golf competition. Her wife Karen Gutekunst was “on the bag” and by her side as caddy. I was really sorry not to be able to play golf together with them in Paris, but Christie’s got me fired up for next time:

    “Playing in The Gay Games was fun, colorful, exciting, full of joy—a bit like a sports-themed version of Pride … and it felt like the Summer Olympics! Being around so many athletes was very energizing, and there was a huge sense of community. Country pride was evident in uniforms and celebrations, and everyone was extremely supportive of their fellow competitors, teammates and friends.

    In golf we had 180 players—80 women and 100 men—with over 20 countries represented and handicaps from scratch to 20+. Flights were based on skill level and net score was awarded too. We played two different courses set in the woods and hills of the Versailles countryside. Both were narrow and heavily tree-lined. One course required precise shot-making due to some extreme dogleg holes, while the other course required power due to steep hills. The clubhouse was a charming old horse racing stable, and you walked through the forest like Hansel and Gretel! 

    Participating in a global event like this reminds us how small the world really is. We felt like a big family. The theme of Paris 2018 was All Equal and each of us felt loved, appreciated and respected. These athletes are serious, prepared and ready to play! Playing golf for your country’s colors was a whole level above what I have played for before and it’s an experience I will never forget!”

    It was actually a French educator, Pierre de Coubertin, who conceived of the modern Olympic Games in 1889. The first “Congress” was convened five years later at the Sorbonne in Paris. It would eventually grow into the International Olympic Committee (today’s IOC). From the outset, the Olympics were designed as an international festival intended to utilize sport’s capacity to develop character, promote understanding across cultures, bring political enemies together as fellow competitors and friends, and ultimately to reduce the dangers of war by strengthening peace and unity amongst all people.

    While the Olympics are exciting and fantastic, only a tiny sliver of elite athletes who devote themselves entirely to sport ever get to compete. Fortunately, there are more and more opportunities like the Gay Games for all kinds of people to participate. A partial list includes the Paralympics, Special Olympics, Maccabiah Games (international Jewish Olympics, where I have played golf three times and won some gold!), Pan-Arab Games, Asian Games, All-Africa Games, European Games, World Beach Games, World Artistic Games, Urban Games, Military Games, World Youth Games, Universiade World Student Games, World Masters Games—plus new World Mind Games and e-Games!

    The idea is to give everyone a chance to train hard, to develop their passions and skills, and to come together to experience the challenges and thrills of competition and the incomparable joys of connecting with people from all kinds of backgrounds, countries and cultures.

    As I always do my best to emphasize, whether or not you see yourself as an athlete, we’re all living in physical bodies that we get to enjoy—and are responsible to exercise and keep as healthy as we can! I will always wish I could have made it to Paris this year. But along with all the happy and proud LGBTQ athletes who were there—and possibly you too—I’m already starting to save up for Gay Games 11 in Hong Kong come 2022!

    Jamie Leno Zimron is a 6th Degree Aikido Black Belt, LPGA Golf Pro, Corporate Speaker and Holistic Peak Performance Trainer. Contact her for private lessons and coaching, or to work with your conference or company: 760-492-GOLF(4653) and jamiesensei@thekiaiway.com