Raising the Profile of the Gay Games: Here's Why It Matters

Last month, I proudly powered my body over the finish line to win the gold medal for the sprint triathlon at the international Gay Games in Cleveland and Akron, Ohio. It was a highlight of my life to date and the culmination of two years of intensive preparation. A lifelong athlete, I had trained long and hard, entered races and learned how to become faster, stronger, better and my hard work paid off. Along with my sprint gold, I placed second in my age group for the 10K road race and first in my age group in a cycling event.

But as I reveled in my accomplishments and cheered on my fellow athletes, one aspect gave me great pause: The fact that the Gay Games went largely ignored by national media outlets, making it far less likely that their inspiration would be felt where it was needed most.

The largest sporting event specifically for lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender (LGBT) individuals, this year's Gay Games involved some 8,000 athletes -- almost four times the number who competed at the Sochi Olympics in Russia -- and attracted some 20,000 spectators. There was a surprise welcome video at the opening ceremonies, from President Obama, who urged all of us athletes to, "compete, celebrate and inspire others," acknowledging that it takes "courage, even to defiance, to 'come out.'" The President's words echoed through the crowded Cleveland Cavaliers stadium after thousands of participants paraded onto the court and then joined many more spectators in the stands. "No matter who you are, what you look like, where you come from or who you love, you can make it if you try."

Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Connie Schultz and her husband, Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) were visibly excited about their roles as hosts. Schultz spoke strongly about the importance of political representation for people who identify as LGBT, while highlighting her husband's record on civil rights issues. Their presence was both powerful and moving, while also bringing a level of importance and stature to the event.

All of this was hugely gratifying -- but it would have been even more so if I'd known that the stories of this day were likely to reach those who most needed to hear them, people like my younger self. Without question, my own comfort and confidence in coming out as a gay athlete would have been affected had I been able to watch the Gay Games on TV and read about the athletes' stories in the newspapers. When I was growing up, there were few LGBT athlete role models. Being "out" was not anything that I experienced.

With even professional athletes like WNBA basketball sensation Brittany Griner and Michael Sam, the first openly gay NFL drafted football player, still on display when they come out while also pursuing their athletic careers, there is no question that huge hurdles remain for LGBT athletes. If we do not see positive and healthy ways of living and being in the world, how can we imagine what is possible for ourselves?

Athletes have the power to inspire. When we have role models -- men who are basketball, soccer and ice hockey players, women who are triathletes, beach volleyball players and runners -- we can become more comfortable, confident and safe in how we identify and who we feel free to become. We can see how hard work and ambition can help us to accomplish dreams and goals. We can also see that it is all right to be exactly who we are and who we want to be.

Happily, there are signs that media interest is beginning to grow. For example, ESPNBoston.com featured a poignant story about Dr. Tom Waddell, the founder of the games, and the Guardian posted a compelling piece titled, "It's a human rights event. The Gay Games are changing the world."

The next Gay Games will take place in Paris in 2018. Even fewer Americans will be there than had a chance to be with us in Cleveland, making coverage even more critical. The media has four years to get it right. Let's hope that's enough time.