Athletes at the first Gay Games in San Francisco danced the night away to disco anthems of defiance from Gloria Gaynor and Diana Ross.
More than 40 years later, and half a world away, Hong Kong hosted the 11th edition of the Games — a coming-out party for LGBTQ sports in Asia that struggled through six years of disruption but ultimately survived.
Delayed by the pandemic, targeted by conservative politicians, snubbed by many regular Games participants and greeted with mild curiosity by the majority of citizens, it didn’t match what the bid book had mapped out back in 2017.
That’s before you factor in the oddity of a co-hosting arrangement with Guadalajara, introduced when confidence in Hong Kong’s accessibility for travelers was at its nadir.
However, as organizers begin to reflect on what they were able to achieve — and co-chair Lisa Lam told the South China Morning Post they were “exhausted” by their efforts — there is a sense of pride at having pulled it off in the end, and hope for a legacy too.
Bon Ng first got involved with GGHK as a legal counsel and later became its director of sports. He spent the first seven years of his life in Hong Kong before moving to Australia but returned to the city 10 years ago.
He mentions venue acquisition as a major challenge, with the local government providing only one public space — the 3,500-capacity indoor Queen Elizabeth Stadium. The original plan was to hold sports, arts and culture in 36 separate categories; that number was cut to 18, with around 2,400 athletes taking part.
“There was a lot of hesitancy about these Games and I can understand that,” Ng tells Outsports. “It all revolves around the uncertainty, which prevents you from wanting to commit.
“Having worked in the sports industry for many years, I find these events are often chaotic in the back end but things tend to work out and people have a good experience.
“That’s what happened here — and I think we delivered something that was uniquely special to Hong Kong. It had an amazing energy about it.”
It’s a lot harder to convey that enthusiasm when TV cameras aren’t broadcasting your sporting competitions to an international audience. But while spectators weren’t flocking to events in large numbers, word of mouth and social media had a noticeable effect.
“We weren’t expecting a lot of people to watch beyond friends and family but for quite a few sports, people came in off the streets saying they had heard there was a competition happening or they’d seen a post on Instagram and wanted to take a look,” says Ng.
“They were genuinely interested and keen to support so we were more than happy to accommodate them.”
Dragon boats make a splash
Before the opening ceremony, there had been talk of potential protests as local anti-LGBTQ lawmakers attempted to whip up public opinion against the Games.
But Ng never encountered agitation himself. “I had to do my due diligence and roam around the venues just to check but personally, I didn’t see any protestors,” he insists.
“I was told that there were two people going around to different locations. Our security team and the police both said it was likely they had been paid to read from a script. I can’t verify that but I am confident to say there was no trouble.”
With apprehensions easing rapidly after the opening ceremony attended by senior government official Regina Ip went without a hitch, Ng and the team were able to focus their attention on the individual sports.
Dragon boat racing proved to be the flagship event of the Games, with more than 500 participants in 44 teams competing out on the Shing Mun River. A quarter of those teams came from overseas.
“We had a lot of corporate teams supporting from a diversity and inclusion perspective but we also had a lot of people who had never done dragon boat before,” says Ng.
“We had a mechanism to allocate them to teams and got some really good feedback. And the Hong Kong people who have raced here before said there was a camaraderie to this competition that made it unique.”
GGHK organizers will now be strongly advocating to make dragon boat part of future Gay Games, starting with Valencia 2026.
“We’re going to be talking to the Federation about it,” says Ng. “We know there are teams in the UK and in Australia and while I wouldn’t say it’s the same as rowing, it’s in the same area but allows for a bigger group of people to come together and challenge themselves.
“We’d really push Valencia to add it as an optional sport.”
The soccer tournament provided a stirring story in Lotus Sports Club, the inclusive Cambodian team that is the subject of an acclaimed feature documentary which has been on the international festival circuit for the last 12 months.
LSC’s coach ‘Pa Vann’ Sovann, a trans man in his 60s, is a father figure to his players, many of whom are also queer. It was the first time they had ever traveled abroad as a club.
The aquatics events were also held outdoors, which was something of a gamble but fortune smiled on the organizers. “We were blessed because we had four days of tremendous warm sunny weather,” says Ng. “The athletes really enjoyed that.”
Several sports had an all-gender category which allowed athletes to compete together regardless of their gender identity. It was the first time this had been in operation at a Games and worked well in running sports events, according to Ng.
“We decided it’s more about beating your own time rather than beating other people’s,” he explained.
“In our consultation process with the FGG, we said that we wanted to improve on the perception of inclusivity. An all-gender category allows for that — whether you identify as trans or non-binary, you can join in without anybody questioning it.”
Controversy reached its political peak three days before the Games began when a petition was filed against it by a group including pro-Beijing legislator Junius Ho, who spoke of a “sugar-coated poison” that threatened the stability of the administrative region.
The scaremongering didn’t work, however. “I think everyone realized that this was just white noise and it didn’t affect any of our events,” explains Ng.
“Joanie [Evans, the FGG co-president] talked about changing hearts and minds by bringing people together through sports and I think we achieved that. It was a step in the right direction for mutual recognition and respect.”
He says an LGBTQ organization called Diversity Games is well positioned to take the inclusive sports legacy forward in Hong Kong and while an Asian equivalent of EuroGames or Sin City Classic is probably “a few steps away”, the groundwork has been laid.
“One of the main things we had to battle against was this preconceived notion of what a Gay Games is. People had fears and insecurities about it and would worry about the consequences of having the Games in Hong Kong,
“But what we’ve built here instead is a network that connects people — the community, the corporate sector, as well as government.
“If we want to bring something like this again to Hong Kong, we can look back to these Gay Games to show that it can be done, how professional it was, how people loved it and how very little trouble came out of it.
“For an Eastern mindset, that kind of reassurance is such a positive thing to have.”
As a strong ally himself, it gives Ng great satisfaction. “I’ve worked in Beijing and Hong Kong and I’ve had a lot of friends from the community in both places.
“I’ve seen them struggle and tried my best to open up those conversations. It’s one of the biggest reasons why I wanted to join Gay Games, to show that it’s not just for people who are LGBTQ.
“Society in Asia is still quite conservative and an event like this can go a long way towards making society here more welcoming.”
He doesn’t want his personal Gay Games journey to be over. “Our goal here in Hong Kong was to create an experience for everyone to enjoy.
“Now I’m thinking about going to Valencia because I want to see it from a non-organizer perspective!”
3/ Lam told HKFP after the closing ceremony on Saturday that she hoped the event could "show people what inclusivity really looks like in action."— Hong Kong Free Press HKFP (@hkfp) November 12, 2023
The next Gay Games will be held in Valencia, Spain, in 2026.
Photo: Hans Tse/HKFP. pic.twitter.com/m9QjECYSnE
The dates of May 31 to June 6, 2026, have already been chosen for Gay Games XII, and the hope will be for a much higher turnout of athletes in the Spanish city and a less stressful build-up.
Meanwhile, members of Hong Kong’s LGBTQ sports family can take the weight off their feet or choose to spend more time on the dance floor — either way, they’ve earned it.