FEATURE | Gay Games to begin despite safety concerns, but numbers low

02 November 2023 - 14:15 By Gary Nunn
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Participants pose for photos at a news conference on November 2 2023 ahead of the Gay Games in Hong Kong.
Participants pose for photos at a news conference on November 2 2023 ahead of the Gay Games in Hong Kong.
Image: Tyrone Siu/Reuters

For the first time in its 40-year history, the Gay Games will take place across two cities — Hong Kong and Guadalajara in Mexico — from November 3, but the event might yet be remembered for a different reason: how few people take part.

Safety concerns and complicated logistics have dogged the run-up to the quadrennial Games, a nine-day diversity festival with multisports competitions and arts and culture events.

Originally the Games, first held in 1982, were due to take place in Hong Kong in November last year, but the city's strict Covid protocols led to a 12-month postponement and the decision for runner-up bidder Guadalajara in western Mexico to co-host.

Asia's inaugural hosting of the Games could serve as “a beacon of hope” for the wider community across a region where intolerance is common, organisers said.

The 2022 games were expected to draw 12,000 participants, 75,000 spectators and 3,000 volunteers from 100 countries for 36 events, including Dragon Boat Racing, Dodgeball and eSports.

Instead, registrations have been low, with some activists citing concerns about safety in Guadalajara, where crime and kidnapping are common, while others are worried about recent crackdowns in Chinese-ruled Hong Kong.

By the week before the event, Guadalajara had 2,458 participants registered and Hong Kong had just 2,381. No previous Gay Games has had fewer than 8,000 participants.

Some events have already been cancelled in Hong Kong because of low registrations, including field hockey, rugby 7s and track-and-field events.

The decision to split the event had a “significant impact on registration numbers”, but organisers believed the choice of two locations “allows even more people from around the world to celebrate LGBTQ+ sports with us”, a Federation of Gay Games (FGG) spokesperson said.

Addressing safety concerns voiced by some participants and activists, the spokesperson said due diligence had been undertaken to ensure host cities are safe for LGBTQ+ people to visit.

Several participants from Canada, Australia and the UK said they felt informed and would bear in mind the sociopolitical context of each city as they visited.

The FGG spokesperson said they did not expect this year's low turnout to have a lasting impact on the future of the Games, but some participants warned the consequences could endure.


Wayne Morgan, a senior Australian athlete who has competed in six Games, said he believed splitting the host cities was “a mistake” and that low numbers could deter corporate sponsorship in future.

“In my heart of hearts I wish the whole thing was cancelled and we could skip to Valencia in 2026,” he said, referring to the Spanish host of the next Games.

Morgan, 68, was among those who voiced concerns about safety in Guadalajara, where he was drugged and robbed last year while attending a conference related to the hosting of the event.

When he went to report the attack, there was a queue of people at the police station reporting similar incidents, he said.

“The officer warned: this happens a lot,” Morgan added.

Guadalajara, in western Mexico, is the capital of the state of Jalisco, known as a hotbed for major drug cartels.

The US state department includes Jalisco on its “Reconsider Travel” list due to risks of crime and kidnapping. “I've warned everybody travelling there: be extremely cautious. Don't go anywhere alone,” Morgan said.

Activists have also raised concerns about the decision to host the Games in Hong Kong, long one of Asia's most vibrant cities, but shaken by mass pro-democracy protests in 2019, the Covid lockdown, the emigration of tens of thousands of residents and unease about a national security crackdown.

In 2021, Junius Ho, a prominent pro-Beijing member of Hong Kong's assembly, said the games threatened national security and the city should guard against “harmful culture”.

In August, Taiwan pulled out of the Hong Kong event, citing fears its participants could be arrested if they display the island's flag or use its name.

Taiwan, claimed by China as its territory, has come under increasing military and political pressure from Beijing, heightening fears of a conflict with global ramifications.

Five prominent human rights activists, now living abroad, wrote an op-ed in June calling for the Games to be cancelled and warning that the Hong Kong leadership team had “betrayed the values and principles of the Gay Games, which purport to celebrate inclusion and promote human rights”.

The five said the Games' leadership had “aligned themselves with pro-authoritarian figures responsible for widespread persecution against the people of Hong Kong” and they warned that controversial laws could be used against visitors.

“With respect to the Games, which undoubtedly will be seen as a political event by authorities, the National Security Law's vagueness means that Beijing could decide to either ignore the event entirely or order arrests of participants for sedition or subversion — and there is simply no way to know which direction it will choose until the event itself,” the activists said.

Beijing imposed the sweeping National Security Law in 2020 after the sometimes-violent 2019 anti-government protests.

Gay Games Hong Kong (GGHK), the organiser of the event, said it was deeply saddened by the “unfounded slurs” and rejected any call to cancel the Games.

“The inclusive nature of the Games is part of its unique strength and the purpose of GGHK is to create a positive, lasting impact on how society perceives LGBTQ+ inclusion in Hong Kong, Asia and beyond,” it said.

The personal health and safety of all participants, spectators and volunteers was a top priority, GGHK added.

“LGBTQ+ people in Hong Kong, whilst not having some of the rights that other countries and regions have implemented, like gay marriage, are able to live openly and authentically in public and there are no safety concerns for LGBTQ+ tourists to be themselves while visiting the city,” it said.

It did ask visitors to respect and observe local laws and customs.

The FGG spokesperson said it's “essential everybody educates themselves on local laws, this includes the National Security Law, which specifically relates to political expression”.

Despite his experience last year, Morgan said he will return to Guadalajara to compete in his seventh Games.

“We have to get away from just hosting in 'First World' or Western cities,” he said. “This is such an important event for our community's health, connection and global influence.”

Thomson Reuters Foundation

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