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Sean Fitzgerald, co-president of the Federation of Gay Games, waves a Progress Pride flag as he stands on Second Beach along the Stanley Park seawall, in Vancouver, B.C. on Monday, June 5, 2023. Fitzgerald competes in water polo and swimming at the Gay Games.

Sean Fitzgerald, co-president of the Federation of Gay Games, waves a Progress Pride flag as he stands on Second Beach along the Stanley Park seawall, in Vancouver on June 5. Fitzgerald competes in water polo and swimming at the Gay Games.Kayla Isomura/The Globe and Mail

Catherine Meade learned about the Gay Games when she saw a small ad for the event in a newsletter at a women’s bookstore in Edmonton, inviting registrations to the 1990 edition in Vancouver, the first hosted outside the U.S.

She understood the importance of such an event: Years earlier, she had been a varsity sprinter at Hamilton’s McMaster University – but had never come out to her teammates. “I decided right away I was going,” said Meade, who is a lesbian and a woman of colour.

She was injured and couldn’t compete in the games, so she volunteered to run the track meet, travelling to Vancouver with friends. At the opening ceremonies, Meade was moved watching thousands march into B.C. Place.

“I thought, this is such an amazing, uplifting experience, and I’m going to make sure that next time I’m bringing other people with me. This was my first inclusive sport experience, and it was life altering, life affirming.”

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Catherine Meade competing at the 2006 World Outgames in Montreal.Supplied

The Gay Games were conceived more than 40 years ago by Tom Waddell, an American physician and Olympic decathlete, to empower LGBTQ athletes and artists through sport, culture and fellowship. Waddell wanted to recreate the Olympics’ power to bring people of different backgrounds together through the international language of sport. Celebrating queer athleticism on a global stage would be revolutionary for LGBTQ people – many of whom had felt shut out of mainstream sports because of their sexuality.

The first games took place in San Francisco in 1982 and were a huge success, starting with Tina Turner’s performance at the opening ceremony. During the event, 1,350 athletes from 12 countries participated in 17 sports.

This year, the Gay Games – held every four years – are back for the first time since before the pandemic. The principles of participation and inclusion remain the same – and, sadly, are as important as ever. From the 2022 World Cup, where the illegality of homosexuality in Qatar made headlines, to professional athletes declining to wear Pride jerseys, sport today can still feel unwelcoming for many LGBTQ people.

“Continuing to create those opportunities, I think it’s critical,” Meade says of the games, which she has attended five times. “We always wanted to win, but there was an overall feeling that there was something bigger going on beyond the competition that mattered even more.” She recalls meeting people who could never express their sexuality in their home countries, where their lives, safety and jobs would be at risk.

The 11th edition will take place Nov. 3-11 in Hong Kong and the Mexican city of Guadalajara, both first-time hosts. (Participants will take part in the city of their choosing.) The Gay Games welcomes anyone over 18, no matter their gender, athletic ability or sexual orientation. There are no qualifying standards, and all can take part in the gender category they choose. Sports have different categories for the various registrants, to strive for fair competitions.

At the 2018 Gay Games in Paris, 288 Canadians participated, among more than 10,000 who took part from 91 countries in 36 sports and 14 cultural events. The Globe spoke to some athletes and officials who are gearing up for this year’s event.

“A world I didn’t know existed”

Sean Fitzgerald barely sat in his seat on the flight home from New York after participating in his first Gay Games in 1994. Neither did the dozens of other athletes who mingled in the aisles, trading stories about the most inspiring sport experience they’d ever had.

Fitzgerald had grown up “the little gay kid,” as he puts it, despite not even being out. Schoolmates picked him last for activities including swim classes, even though he was a record-breaking racer.

He was in his early 20s when he joined friends headed to New York. Fitzgerald competed in triathlon, his eyes opened wide at the event that drew more than 12,000 participants from 40 countries – bigger than an Olympic Games.

“It showed me a world I didn’t know existed,” he said. “To suddenly have a place where you can go be yourself and participate, to see what’s out there, and what other cities and clubs do. At that event my two worlds merged for the first time. To have the camaraderie of that many people was incredible.”

Fitzgerald, who lived in Pennsylvania and Georgia much of his life and now resides in Vancouver, has travelled all over the world to compete in LGBTQ-friendly sporting events. He plays with several inclusive associations, including ones for curling, volleyball, softball and swimming.

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Sean Fitzgerald, co-president of the Federation of Gay Games, sits outside Second Beach Pool in Vancouver, B.C. on Monday, June 5, 2023 as he holds a ball used for water polo. Fitzgerald competes in water polo and swimming at the Gay Games.

Sean Fitzgerald sits outside Second Beach Pool in Vancouver as he holds a ball used for water polo.Kayla Isomura/The Globe and Mail

He’s also co-president for the Federation of Gay Games (FGG), one of three leaders from Canada on the volunteer board. On top of helping organize the 2023 edition, he’ll participate in his eighth games in Mexico, in swimming, and with his water polo club the Vancouver Whiskey Jacks, named after the Canadian bird known for its friendliness.

Fitzgerald expects up to 500 Canadians will register to take part in November.

“When you’re not competing, you’re out cheering on friends in other events, or there’s entertainment in the Games Village. Canadians like to take a siesta from the cold weather, right?”

“Now I feel like I belong”

Vong Sho, who will make the trip to Hong Kong to compete at badminton and volleyball, is proud that an Asian country is hosting for the first time. He’s of Laotian heritage, born in Thailand, raised in Winnipeg and now living in Toronto.

“I use the Gay Games and other sporting events as an excuse to go somewhere I’ve never been before,” said Sho, who has five medals from his previous two appearances – 2018 in Paris and 2014 in Cleveland.

Growing up, he and his family were active in Winnipeg’s Lao community, loving when big groups would gather at community gyms to play badminton. He came out at the end of high school, before starting at the University of Winnipeg.

“It was a rough time for me, a bit of an identity crisis,” he said. Finding a new community helped. He joined a gay-friendly volleyball program called the Golden Boys, a play on the gold statue atop the Manitoba Legislative Building.

With every move since, one of his first tasks has been to join gay-friendly sport groups – everything from racquet sports to dodgeball and curling.

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Vong Sho, who has five medals from his previous two appearances at the Gay Games, at the Mayfair Club in Toronto on June 6.Aleksandar Antonijevic/The Globe and Mail

“A common activity is sort of how I bond with people. So the first time I really felt like, ‘Oh, now I feel like I belong,’ was playing gay sports.”

He made the podium in all three of his sports at the 2014 Gay Games – earning medals in badminton, tennis and volleyball – something he was told no one had ever done. It’s been fun to travel with teammates, attend huge opening and closing ceremonies, and meet people from all over the world, he said.

Sho will also be a performer at the games in Hong Kong. He’s a comedian and specializes in “sharing the gaysian perspective on culture, sports and trending topics.”

“It’s the only audience I could do this material with,” Sho said of the set he’s creating. “So that excites me.”

“It can be a tipping point”

Carlos Delgado is set to attend his first Gay Games. Seeing its debut in Latin America has special meaning for the Montreal resident who grew up in Ecuador, which was conservative and frowned upon homosexuality when he was young.

He took up tennis at age nine in his home country, and eventually went to the U.S. to play on scholarship at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He returned to Ecuador for a few years after graduation, but didn’t feel he could be out there at the time.

His career moved him to Toronto, Washington and eventually Montreal. Along the way he took up tennis again, playing with the Toronto Gay and Lesbian Tennis Association and Montreal’s Tennis Lambda. He was amazed to learn of the Gay and Lesbian Tennis Alliance, a global organization, and its annual world tour, which involves more than 70 amateur tennis events for a community of more than 10,000 players ranging from beginner to elite.

“It was a whole new world to me,” Delgado said.

He recently won a singles title at the Canadian Gay Open, the country’s largest GLTA-sanctioned tournament, in Toronto on Victoria Day weekend. He was also a doubles finalist.

But while he’s competitive, he also loves the social aspects of tennis associations and events. When he takes part at the Gay Games in Guadalajara, he hopes to talk to people from less progressive countries, who might be inspired to create their own inclusive sport opportunities back home.

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Gay Games tennis talent Carlos Delgado in June.Supplied

“I hope for them to have their own gay sports leagues and their own gay tennis tournaments. Having Guadalajara host an event of this magnitude is such an opportunity for more progress. It can be a tipping point for other less progressive or less accepting cultures in Latin American and Caribbean countries to learn from.”

Keen to win at the Gay Games, Delgado will extend his tennis season into the fall, and cross-train at an inclusive Montreal boxing club.

“Competition matters,” he said. “But having that sense of unity and acceptance is what I’m looking forward to, and continuing to build those support systems that we all need.”

“It’s vital for us to hold the games”

“You see each other every four years and it’s like a homecoming, like a family,” said Kimberly Hadley of Edmonton, an officer of sport on the FGG’s board and an organizer at the 2023 Gay Games, her fourth. “It’s exciting to meet new people from new countries that have never been there before. Some people are more athletic or more artistic, but we’re all there for the same reasons.”

Just how many athletes will attend the games this year – as they venture to two new parts of the world – is tough to predict. Timing is one issue: The Gay Games were initially scheduled for 2022, with Hong Kong as the solo host, but the event was delayed as the region struggled to reopen after the pandemic. Guadalajara was added as co-host in February last year.

Another consideration is how athletes will choose to spend their travel dollars in 2023. Many of the individual sports bodies usually take a year off from holding their biggest international events during a year with a Gay Games. But many who cancelled in 2022 are back this year, forcing some athletes to choose between a world championship event or the Gay Games, or to fork out for both. Participants must pay a US$200 registration fee for the games, plus added costs for some sports, along with travel costs.

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Kimberly Hadley of Edmonton, who has been the Officer of Sport for the Federation of Gay Games since 2016, is a key organizer of the 2023 Gay Games in Hong Kong and Guadalajara.Supplied

“The games are going to happen. They have all the government support in the world,” said Hadley, who has been working with both host cities. “I think it’s vital for us to hold the games in places like this, because we’re reaching people that we haven’t been able to reach before.”

She remembers a time even in Canada when she hid the fact that she was a lesbian, for fear she’d be evicted from her apartment or lose her job while living in Alberta.

A Gay Games Scholarship Program provides funds to help bring participants from disadvantaged, underserved countries, and “these are the ones that matter the most in my heart, those who come on scholarship from a country where they can’t be out at home,” Hadley said. “When they come to the games for those nine or 10 days, they can be themselves wholly 100 per cent. They don’t have to be afraid that they’re gonna get arrested or beaten. It lights a fire inside of them.”

If you go…

  • This year’s Gay Games will be held in two locations: Guadalajara, Mexico and Hong Kong. The games will run simultaneously in both cities from Nov. 3 to Nov. 11, 2023.
  • Planning to visit Mexico? Visit for events and registration details specific to that location. For Hong Kong, visit
  • Both sites list suggested hotels and in Hong Kong, Marriott Bonvoy is an event sponsor and offers booking packages for Gay Games guests. Visit
  • For funding and support to attend, visit the Gay Games federation website,, to see if you are eligible for a participation and/or registration fee-waiver. Note that some employers provide subsidies or organize company teams to attend the Games.

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