Gay Games dividing Illinois city


CRYSTAL LAKE, Ill. (AP) – Among the items on the City Council’s agenda seems a simple matter: Whether to give rowers a permit to have a boat race this summer on a small man-made lake.

But because the rowers are gay – participating in something called the Gay Games – what would normally be a mundane debate about parking and street closures is instead a heated battle between those who see the event as a threat to their small-town way of life and those who see such views as simply small-minded.

On Tuesday, the City Council was scheduled to discuss whether to allow the Olympics-style Gay Games to hold its rowing event in this bedroom community of 40,000 about 50 miles northwest of Chicago.

One look at the angry letters to the editor that have frequently appeared in the local newspaper reveal it isn’t the logistics of the race that’s on residents’ minds.

“Make no mistake: The purpose of the Gay Games is to legitimize homosexuality and make it appear as a wholesome lifestyle choice,” wrote Tim Coakley, a critic of the games.

In the same day’s paper, Perry and Christine Koste dismissed such views. After wondering if Crystal Lake’s motto should be “homophobic capital of the Midwest,” they asked, “How proud are we to live in such a narrow-minded, backward hateful community?” The debate over the Gay Games was the subject of two contentious hearings before the city’s park district last month.

The full board ultimately voted to approve the race, sending it to the City Council.

If the City Council approves it, the race would only need permission from neighboring Lakewood, which also borders the lake, before the event can be held. Officials in Lakewood say they plan to approve the games.

One of the Gay Games’ missions is to raise awareness about gays to reduce stereotypes – a point organizers kept discussing during the park district hearings, said spokesman Kevin Boyer.

“It is very difficult to disregard what these people said and just deal with how boats are unloaded and loaded,” Boyer said. “You are going to say this is not right and this is why the Gay Games are needed.”

Most of the events for the Gay Games are set in Chicago. Organizers have said the weeklong competition set for July is expected to draw 12,000 participants, tens of thousands of spectators and pump more than $50 million into the economy.

The games, which started in 1982 in San Francisco, are held every four years and are open to gay and straight participants. Other sports include badminton, basketball, cycling, flag football and racquetball.

The furor in Crystal Lake about the games goes to the heart of why many people say they stay in or move to such a community.

Coakley said one reason he and his family moved to Crystal Lake a decade ago was because “there is more of a family values kind of atmosphere” there.

It’s the same with Sunita Stone. “Crystal Lake is a G-rated place,” she said. “There’s no reason to start making things racy. If you want to go to Chicago to do that, that’s fine. I’m not going to go there.”

Such talk doesn’t surprise Al Hunter, a Northwestern University sociologist who has studied local communities. Hunter said that as suburbs have grown, a number of businesses and industries have abandoned big cities in favor of outlying areas.

That means that as people work closer to home, they travel less to the city and identify less with it, he said. The Gay Games, he said, may feel like an outside invasion.

Mayor Aaron Shepley said the Gay Games organizers have made the event more about a statement on gays and lesbians and not rowing, thus putting Crystal Lake at the center of a debate about social values.

“To the extent that part of the agenda of promoters was to draw attention to a social platform, they’ve been successful,” he said. “And to an extent, it’s been at the expense of Crystal Lake’s image.”

Still, Shepley believes the City Council will vote to allow the rowing competition and said Gay Games organizers will be treated like anyone else who has an event in the town.

“This is only an endorsement of the First Amendment and the anti-discrimination laws of the state,” Shepley said. “That’s all it is – following the law.”

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AP-ES-04-04-06 0429EDT