‘At the Gay Games everyone can feel like an Olympian’

Next year we will celebrate 25 years since Gay Games Amsterdam 1998 took place in the Netherlands. Together with the organizers and participants, Movisie reviews this ‘Pink Revolution milestone’ with a series of 25 experience stories and looks to the future. Gay Games 11 will take place in Hong Kong in November 2023. A Dutchman who has been living and working in Hong Kong for 12 years, Dennis Philipse, assured that the global LGBTI+ event is being organized in Asia for the first time. What drives this ‘Mr. gay games?

Dennis Philipse is the founder of Gay Games 11 and also led the Gay Games Hong Kong team: “The event was scheduled for November this year (2022), but has been postponed to November 2023. It will be a co-host event with Guadalajara in Mexico in relation to the covid situation. The event in Hong Kong will continue, but it will probably focus more on Asia, since the situation in Hong Kong with the international border and the covid is still not clear. I was the leader for eight years, but A few months ago I decided to step down and have only been involved with the organization as a consultant. The team is now discussing with Guadalajara what the co-host event will look like. That will probably be clear in the summer.

Why did you quit?

“When we announced in October 2021 that the event would be postponed for a year, it was quite a big and painful decision. But there was still a lot of uncertainty around the covid situation in Hong Kong, and whether we can organize the event in the way we once envisioned, with 9 days and 12,000 participants. For the last two years I had been a full-time volunteer and I said to myself, “Now I need to start thinking about myself again.” So I’ve started to focus on my professional life again.’

Why did you start these Gay Games?

‘In 1998 I had just moved to Amsterdam. I was 25 years old, got a job at Boomerang Freecards and lived above the office on Keizergracht. I worked really hard, like 60 hours a week, and I hadn’t heard the Gay Games ad. My friends took me to the opening ceremony, but I had no idea where I was going. Yellow Gay Games flags hung all over the city and there were activities. It was an amazing event, really fantastic, and it had a very positive influence on Amsterdam.’

Live stories about the Gay Games Amsterdam 1998

Next year will mark 25 years since the 1998 Gay Games Amsterdam took place, a milestone in the Pink Revolution. For the second year, Movisie remembers this event, which is still one of the largest LGBTI+ events in the world and was organized by more than 3,000 volunteers, almost 16,000 participants and a total of around 275,000 visitors. Unfortunately, the history of this special event has never been well described. Paul van Yperen, spokesman for the Gay Games at the time, is looking for organizers, participants and visitors in a multi-year project to record his stories and asks the Movisie experts what we can learn from those experiences. The intention is to finally be able to share the history of the Gay Games in all its facets on August 1, 2023 with a total of 25 experience stories as a contribution to the celebration of the Gay Games Amsterdam 1998-2023.

From the IHLIA LGBTI Heritage Collection.

‘In 2014 I created a Facebook group, ‘Out in Hong Kong’, as a platform to organize sporting events. There are many LGBTI+ sports groups in Asia, but they are very hidden. There are more friends who play a sport together, but here you don’t have clubs like Smashing Pink. There may be some people who organize a tennis tournament together, but they don’t call it a pink tournament. So through “Out in Hong Kong” I wanted to start organizing sports events. In August 2014 we organized a first walk with sixty people and it was very cool. When “Out in Hong Kong” was successful, I thought, “What else can we do with this?” And then I remembered the Gay Games in Amsterdam in 1998. It was a great event.’

Photo by Dennis Philipse from 1997.

Why was Hong Kong chosen?

“In the bidding process there were 18 cities in North America, Guadalajara (Mexico) and Hong Kong. In Europe and America it would be mainly a big party, but here too it would have a positive effect. At the 2018 Gay Games in Paris, I met an athlete from Taiwan who had won a running medal. I thought he was cool and he was also a nice and beautiful guy so I took a selfie with him and posted it on Facebook and labelled that. Half an hour later she replied: “Hey, you can’t make me label because my friends and family don’t know I’m gay!’ I get goosebumps every time I tell this story. Because that boy should be really proud and not ashamed to be gay and to have won that medal! But Hong Kong also won the bidding process because it is a very safe city. Crime is very very low. You won’t get hit on the street no matter who you walk hand in hand with. Hong Kong also has a good infrastructure, and it is a very beautiful city, both Asian and Western.”

Legislation in Hong Kong is slowly improving, but that takes time

What is the current situation of LGBTI+ people in Hong Kong?

‘You can compare the situation to Amsterdam in 1998, when ‘gay marriage’ didn’t exist yet. But the Hong Kong Immigration Service has been recognizing same-sex marriages for a few years now. So if you get a job here, your spouse can get a visa. Legislation is slowly improving, but that takes time. On the other hand, gays in Hong Kong are still in cabinet† Across Asia, it can be quite difficult for LGBT people to come out. People usually live with their families until they are 30, whereas in Europe you start living in rooms at 18. Society is still very traditional here. Certainly, the older generation is often married to someone of the opposite sex despite being gay. On the one hand, coming out of the closet is very difficult, but on the other hand you see a new one, open mind generation.’

Do Hong Kong companies support you?

‘International companies in particular sponsor us. This is important because in the past the Gay Games used to be supported by the local government. In Amsterdam and Paris, the municipality has invested money in the Gay Games. In Hong Kong we didn’t want to ask the government for money, but we did want to ask about places to organize sports. The money comes from the sponsors. We have sponsorship deals with YouTube, Marriott Bonvoy, and lululemon, which are A-brands globally that want to tie their name to the event. Each of them was willing to put up a million US dollars. That was based on the original concept which may now need to be modified. The Hong Kong municipality has never provided the support like Amsterdam and Paris. They saw that the event also generated a lot of money for the city. †

Why is the idea behind the Gay Games still working so well after all these years?

‘In the eight years that I have been working on the event, I have dreamed day and night about the Gay Games. Sometimes I get a little embarrassed, but people saw me as Mr. Gay Games. I have read a lot by and about Dr. Tom Waddell, the founder of Gay Games, to understand what his vision was. Waddell was openly gay when he participated in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. At the opening ceremony, he walked through the stadium and was applauded by thousands of people. He wanted to give that feeling to every LGBTI+ person. Everyone should be able to feel like an Olympian. The opening in Amsterdam was fantastic. The ceremony is not addressed to the spectators, but to the participants. In sports everyone is equal, no matter where you come from, what religion you have or what your sexual orientation is, everyone is equal’.

‘There is still a lot of work to be done here and don’t forget that two-thirds of the world’s population lives in Asia.’

‘Hong Kong has been in the news a lot politically in recent years. I can imagine people worrying about it and wondering if they should go to Hong Kong. But Hong Kong is actually one of the safest places for an LGBTI+ person as long as they are not a political activist in the sense of being for or against China. The aim of the Gay Games is to bring people from all over the world together in an event bigger than themselves, using sport and culture to create a positive impact. It is very important to return to that mission. We organized this event because we believe it will bring something positive to the community here. There is still a lot of work to be done here and don’t forget that two-thirds of the world’s population lives in Asia.’

Back in Amsterdam for a moment in 1998. What did you feel then?

“It was overwhelming, so great, something I had never experienced before in my life. So many things happened and especially that image when I opened my door, I saw all those flags and I thought: wow! The Gay Games in Amsterdam were the first outside of America. Since then, there have been more Gay Games in Europe, in Cologne in 2010, in Paris in 2018, but the one in Amsterdam was the biggest. They did very well, because at that time there was almost no internet, no Facebook, no Twitter, and yet they recruited all those participants. Amazing job! What was also special and what no other city has since duplicated is that about half of the participants were women. Amsterdam has managed to achieve something very special.’

Reactions from film experts Simon Timmerman and Hanneke Felten

Hanneke Felten:

‘How great that the Gay Games are being held in Hong Kong next year! Just as it was for Amsterdam then, it can now also have a positive effect on Hong Kong. Because the city and businesses are openly supportive of LGBTI+ people, a ‘social norm’ is propagated. A social norm is what people think other people think and do. In other words: what you think is normal, is normal. Social norms strongly influence our behavior. Think about it: if you, as a pedestrian, see that everyone is walking at a red light, you tend to do that too. But if everyone waits neatly until it’s green, you’ll do it sooner yourself. It works the same way with LGBT emancipation: if people have the impression that LGBTI+ people are accepted by others -especially if they are people with status-, if they see that it is normal for them to occupy a place in public space, then they will also behave better with LGBTI+ people. So I hope that the mayor of Hong Kong will be present, just like in Amsterdam at the time: he can set a social standard by supporting Gay Games 11.’

Simon Carpenter:

‘I am delighted to read that Dennis’ experience with the Gay Games in Amsterdam has ensured that they will now be held in Hong Kong. A place where the LGBTI+ community is not yet very visible. So the Gay Games in Hong Kong are of great importance! The fact that international companies and brands want to commit to an event like this can be seen as an important and good development. At the time of the Gay Games in Amsterdam, the big companies were not so eager. All over the world, but certainly also in the Netherlands, we see that Prides, for example, are a great marketing opportunity for many large companies. Companies that dress in the colors of the rainbow, offer Pride products and provide eye-catching communications. But you still see the same companies too often doing nothing for a safe climate for their own LGBTI+ colleagues, developing products in countries that are known to be anti-LGBTI+ and the profits from all the rainbow products flowing entirely back into their own box. register. I previously wrote a column about this for Movisie. I hope that this special event in Hong Kong can count on companies that really support it. So that your contribution also benefits the LGBTI+ community in Hong Kong.’

Text: Paul van Yperen
Photo: Gay Games 11

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