Image: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
US President Barack Obama sent an unexpected video message to open the International Gay Games, which have just kicked off in Ohio.
President Obama’s video appearance shocked many of the 25,000 people attending the opening ceremony which was held on Saturday at the Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland.
The President’s public endorsement of the games came as a particularly welcome surprise to LGBT+ participants and supporters, primarily considering their presence in the Midwestern state, which is currently seen as a key battleground over same-sex marriage in the US.
In a TV feed from the White house, the President said: ‘Since 1982 the gay games have given lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender athletes and supporters around the world a chance to come together, to compete, celebrate and inspire others.
‘We have also seen America change in this time,’ he added.
‘Even since 2006 when the Games were last held in the US – in my home town of Chicago – we have come a long way in our commitment to the equal rights of LGBT people around the world.
‘I am proud of my administration’s record and the citizens who have helped push for justice.’
President Obama also made reference to the fact that many LGBT+ people across the world face harassment, discrimination and hatred in their own countries.
‘I know some of you have come from places where it requires courage and even defiance to come out, sometimes at great personal risk,” the President acknowledged.
‘You should know that the United States stands with you and your human rights, just as our athletes stand with you on the field of these games.
‘So let’s get these Games underway. Have a great time in Cleveland and Akron – and Go Team USA,’ he said.
The Ohio-based games are the ninth to be held since they began in San Fransisco and around 8,000 athletes are expected to take part in the week-long competition.
But the choice of Cleveland and Akron hosts of the games has been questioned by some LGBT+ people, not least due to Ohio’s current fight over the legality of gay marriage.
Last week a Federal Court based in Cincinnati heard petitions to overturn Ohio’s ban on same-sex weddings, which was decided in a referendum in 2004.
Campaigners believe the ban is unenforceable because last year the US Supreme Court pronounced the Defense of Marriage Act – under which states had banned gay marriage – unconstitutional.
Also, the previous eight cities to hold the games have been regarded as more ‘gay friendly’ locations, with large and established LGBT+ communities.
Some gay media outlets originally slammed the decision to choose Cleveland and Akran as hosts. In the selcection process, the Ohio cities were up against Boston and Washington, both of which have large LGBT+ communities.
But the co-chairman of the games, Steve Sokany, said the choice of the location for the games was about ‘changing hearts and minds’.
He added that the games had attracted a number of local sponsors – including the United Church of Christ.
It is estimated that the gay Games will bring around $50 million to the Ohio economy.
‘The tide is turning and I think these games can have a tremendous impact,’ Sokany told reporters . ‘We are trying to challenge stereotypes.’
Competitions held at the games include a marathon, a triathlon, figure skating, golf, basketball, volleyball and softball, as well as other traditional track and field events.
Athletes have come from 51 countries and 48 states to take part in the games and despite the event’s name, athletes do not need to be LGBT+ to take part, with organisers working under the motto “Participation, Inclusion and Personal Best”.
One of the games’ organisers, Ohio resident Tom Nobbe, told the Associated Press he did not anticipate any trouble from anti-gay individuals or homophobic groups, but said that Homeland Security, the FBI and local Police had been involved in preparing for the Games.
Executive director of the Cleveland LGBT Centre told the same news agency that she had provided “competency training” for the city’s police department and was encouraged by the force’s response.
In 2010 a committee was set up to bid for London to host the next Gay Games, which will be held in 2018
But although the city made it through to a shortlist of three, organisers eventually elected to hold them in Paris.