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Gay Games keep sports passion alive for soccer referee

"It's important to help bring people to the Gay Games, to show them that there can be freedom in sport and through culture."

Gay Games 9 takes place in Cleveland & Akron, Ohio, Aug. 9-16. You can register here - be part of the fun with David and 10k other LGBT athletes!

I think the nicest thing for me about events like Gay Games is the fact that we have a chance to meet people and make friends from all over the world.  For eight days, we are all equal.  We are all in an environment that is warm, welcoming, without prejudice and full of love and acceptance.

I got my first taste of the Gay Games in 2010 in Cologne, Germany, but prior to that I had more than 30 years experience in football (soccer) as a cranky goalie, a referee and a volunteer. I had been retired from playing for more than 10 years before I heard that Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, would be hosting the World Masters Games during the summer of 2005. It was here that I found leaflets promoting the 2006 World OutGames in my home country of Canada.

I was shocked to know that a totally LGBT event would be held in Canada.  Growing up in Vancouver, a city that I thought was the gay capital of the world (outside of Amsterdam), I'd never even considered another part of the country to be accepting of my sexuality. I knew that Vancouver had hosted the Gay Games many years before but when I moved to Alberta, I had never heard of them again.

During my refereeing in Montreal, I was introduced to the North American Referee Director for the International Gay and Lesbian Football Association (IGLFA). The IGLFA was in charge of the referees for the tournament as they were in Chicago for the 2006 Gay Games. I participated in the 2006 World OutGames in Montreal and took the next four years immersing myself in IGLFA to get ready for Cologne and Gay Games 2010.

I was selected as a finals referee at the IGLFA World Championships in 2007 (Argentina), 2008 (Britain) and 2009 (U.S.), and at the 2009 Outgames (Copenhagen). Finally, 2010 and Cologne arrived. The IGLFA is a member of Gay Games. Every four years, we hold our World Championship in conjunction with the event.

I had a great tournament and was picked to referee the Women's 1st Division Final. Referees receive medals if they are selected to ref a final, so at the end of the match I was also presented a Gay Games gold medal for my efforts.

It was in Cologne that I learned how unifying a Gay Games is. It's a wonderful thing to be able to bring together people from so many countries and environments and to learn about each other. For some, this may be the only time in their lives where they feel freedom of expression and feel safe from persecution, the laws of their homeland and their physical safety from society itself. It's appalling to know that there are still so many countries that do not provide equal human rights to their own citizens.

It's important to help bring these people to the Gay Games, to show them that there can be freedom in sport and through culture. To help them gain strength to go back home and continue their fight towards gaining their own freedom and to give them hope.

Sometimes there's drama, sometimes there's a little bit of fluff, but there's a whole lot of sportsmanship and hard work that goes into these athletes and their performances.  Competitions are intense, but these athletes come to not only participate, they come to challenge each other and themselves. I'd be lying if the teams also didn't come here to win, but it's different than the everyday competitions we would see at home; there is no "win at all costs" attitude.

A great example of the sportsmanship I've seen as a referee is one time when a player was on a breakaway. He stumbled and fell to the ground hard.  A player from the defending team stopped to make sure he was OK and picked him up off of the ground and then gave him a hug. The defender completely ignored the fact that the game had not stopped and the ball was still in play. It was priceless!

Yes, in the end, medals are handed out to first-, second- and third-place finishers but there are no losers at Gay Games. We are all winners.

Kimberly Hadley is IGLFA Co-President & Referee Director. Gay Games 9 in Cleveland will be her second Gay Games. She has 36 years of experience in soccer.

Gay Games 9 takes place in Cleveland & Akron, Ohio, Aug. 9-16. You can register here - be part of the fun with David and 10k other LGBT athletes!