Sports Complex

Parting the Waters: Gay games rowing in the suburbs

By Jim Provenzano

The small, conservative suburb of Crystal Lake is 50 miles northwest of Chicago, where Gay Games VII will take place this summer, but it was at the center of a controversy over allowing the rowing competition for the Games to take place on its lake.

In a 3-2 vote on March 7, the Crystal Lake Park District Board voted to approve use of their lake for Gay Games rowing events. The council had previously held a 2-2 vote, preventing the rowing event from being approved.

The first meeting, held March 3, was contentious, with many of the 90 attendees voicing hateful opinions about gay people and misconceptions about what the GLBT rowing tournament would entail.

"I do not believe the Crystal Lake Park District should be a vehicle for the promotion of an agenda," said Commissioner David Phelps, one of the two "no" votes.

That agenda, according to opponents, would involve "nudity, open sex, and lewdness," just one of the many comments made by conservative Crystal Lake residents.

Scheduled for July 16, rowing is one of the smaller events of 30 Gay Games sports, which are expected to draw 12,000 people to the Chicago area July 15-22. With a population of 38,000, Crystal Lake has previously hosted nongay events with up to 10,000 visitors. Still, opponents maintained that the size of the Games rowing event was a concern. Others barely veiled their contempt for having a gay event in their town.

Tracy Baim, co-vice chair of Chicago Games, Inc. (CGI), says about 300 rowers and spectators would be expected to attend the event. Unlike previous and larger events held at Crystal Lake, Gay Games organizers have offered to pay for extra police and emergency patrols.

Jerry Sullivan, a fifth board member who was on vacation when the first vote was cast, wanted to take a revote, and the council held another meeting on Tuesday, March 7, at a larger hall. More than 300 people packed the event. After almost four hours of presentations and public testimony, a vote was taken, approving the rowing tournament.

At both meetings, many Crystal Lake townspeople repeated stereotypical depictions put forth by the American Family Association (AFA). One leaflet handed out to townspeople by a local pastor quoted the AFA's antigay statements verbatim. The AFA had previously launched a boycott of Gay Games sponsor Walgreen's. Using photos appropriated from a circuit-party photographer Chris Geary's website, the AFA and the Illinois Family Institute, which used International Mr. Leather photos in its complaints, have tried to paint the Games as an all-out orgy.

But GLBT rowing competitions are among the more reserved of events. Rowing premiered in 1998 at the fifth Gay Games in Amsterdam, and was part of the Sydney Gay Games in 2002. Both rowing tournaments were held in quiet suburban neighborhoods with no controversy, and were watched by a small crowd of enthusiastic spectators, all of whom were clothed.

Those facts eluded opponents of Chicago's rowing events. Kevin Boyer, co-vice chair of the Chicago Games, says that Scott Puma, attorney for Crystal Lake District Council, and member Sullivan assured the group that all laws related to parking, traffic, and lewdness would be enforced.

Had Crystal Lake voted against hosting the Games rowing events, it would have faced a potential lawsuit for violating a new Illinois law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, but a lawsuit would not have given Games organizers time to hold rowing events in Crystal Lake. The city of Lakewood and the city of Crystal Lake still need to vote on the council's approval, but Baim says that is merely a formality. In a marked contrast, the suburban town of Oak Park will host Gay Games badminton, soccer, tennis, and track-and-field events, and has welcomed Gay Games organizers with no controversy.

So, why hold an event in such a problematic town, despite this victory over prejudice? Boyer says that other rowing venues were considered as options.

For sports coordinators like Susan Urbas, president of the Chicago River Rowing & Paddling Center, who helped select the site, Crystal Lake had a practical purpose. "There simply is no suitable body of water for this type of sprint-racing event in Chicago or the near suburbs," she says. "Although we row and hold other racing events on the Chicago River, it is not wide enough for four- to seven-boat-across sprint races."

Before the Crystal Lake controversy began, some of the leading GLBT rowing clubs had already chosen to attend Montreal's OutGames instead, since that venue will use an Olympic facility. As a result, the Chicago rowing event may be even smaller than previous Gay Games rowing tournaments.

And there may still be future protests. Rev. Joel Anderson of Crystal Lake's Harvest Bible Chapel told the "Chicago Tribune" that he plans to bring hundreds of members of his congregation to the rowing tournament to convey their agenda that homosexuality is immoral.

Park District Director Kirk Reimer told the "Tribune" that many of the e-mails and letters he received from townspeople against the event were virulently antigay, saying, "Based on some of the e-mails and phone calls I've gotten, it could get ugly."

Baim says the highly publicized meeting provided an opportunity for Crystal Lake gay residents to voice their opinions, proving that gays are not invading the town, but are residents of it. Several people came out as TV cameras were running.

"We don't want to force ourselves on a community," says Baim, who noted that the second meeting was more balanced in opinions, with many straight residents supporting the Games. "So many gay people there in Crystal Lake also showed up and spoke out. We need to work with them, and find what's best for the Gay Games and what's best for Crystal Lake."

Jim Provenzano is the author of the novels PINS and Monkey Suits. Read more sports articles at http://www.sportscomplex.org. He can be reached care of this publication or at sportscomplex@qsyndicate.com.

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