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by Andy Thayer

About 55,000 people from 109 countries flooded Montreal's Olympic stadium Saturday night to hear a brief round of welcome addresses from notables, followed by a spectacular, tightly orchestrated program of performers featuring k.d. lang, Cirque de Soleil, Martha "It's Raining Men" Wash, Deborah Cox, and others.

Athletes begin to gather for Montreal’s Outgames

Mark Tewksbury, Gold, Silver and Bronze medalist in swimming at the 1988 Seoul and 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games, opens an international conference preceding the Games.

The welcome received by attendees from Lebanon to Lativa, Uzbeckistan to Uganda, was astounding. No anti-gay pickets, no loud-mouthed "Christian" saviors on street corners, just the city rolling out the red carpet as it continues to develop a plan hatched 10 years ago to, in the words of one of the country's national columnists, "establish Montreal as a 'World Gay Capital' to rival San Francisco and New York."

Unhinged anti-gay bigots harassed attendees at Chicago's Gay Games on July 19th.

Local and national politicians did much to underscore the welcome.

Gerald Tremblay, Mayor of the city's 3-1/2 million people, with no bodyguards and only one aide in tow, mixes with athletes in the tunnel leading to the stadium floor before the opening ceremonies begin.

As Martin Cauchon, a recent national Minister of Justice and Attorney General, said at the close of an international conference preceding the games, "Separate but not equal has no place in our society." Cauchon is a hero to many in Canada for going against his own party to vote for full, equal marriage rights for same sex couples. He said he favors not just legal equality, but "full social acceptance." "If we deny equality to gays and lesbians today, who's next? I strongly believe that we should not play politics with fundamental rights."

Canada's recent Minister of Justice and Attorney General Martin Cauchon

NOW President Kim Gandy reiterated her organization's pledge to not endorse any politician who fails to endorse full, equal legal rights for Lesbians and Gays, including equal marriage rights. To their shame, no national LGBT organizations have made similar pledges.

When have we heard local, let alone national politicians in the U.S. say anything remotely as bold?

Also on the podium was a recently retired Supreme Court justice, Claire L'Heureux Dube, who years ago voted as a minority of one against government contracts with religious institutions which discriminate against LGBT people, holding that the same standard that applies to racially discriminatory private organizations should hold with anti-gay ones as well.

Lesbian and tennis celeb Martina Navratilova rounded out the program, saying "I don't know about you, but I don't want to be tolerated. I want to be ACCEPTED. You tolerate someone with a bad smell, or someone who speaks too loudly on their cell phone. I want acceptance."

Retired Supreme Court Justice Claire L'Heureux Dube with tennis great and open lesbian Martina Navratilova, winner of 18 Grand Slam singles championships.

Not everything was peaches and cream with the politicians, however. When the allegedly pro-gay national transportation minister, a man who is also a member of the governing Conservative Party, was introduced at the Olympic stadium, he received a polite but unenthusiastic reception.

When he mentioned the name of the current conservative Prime Minister, and then added that he was "unavoidably" detained from attending, the stream of catcalls cascaded into a roar of 55,000 booing him, to the point that Montreal's mayor rushed to the microphone in an attempt to rescue him. No luck. The moment the minister took back the microphone, the thunderous roar erupted again throughout the domed stadium.

To those of us who've ached through six long years waiting to give George Bush or his handlers a piece of our minds, it was music to our ears. Wish it were same when Richard Daley fetes the violently anti-gay President of Poland, or dishes up birthday cake to George Bush as they engage in a mutual admiration society.

The four-day conference which preceded the Out Games provided an often sobering reality check to the boisterous festivities that rocked the stadium. Speakers from Iran, Russia, Latvia and Serbia, amongst others, gave graphic descriptions of the repression of LGBTs in their countries. Video and still pics showed police, politicians and religious leaders brazenly and violently repressing our rights to organize, assemble and speak out for our freedom. "The police were absolutely useless," said gay Latvian activist Gaston Lacombe about a series of confrontations with fascists which easily could have been fatal. Lacombe said they had evidence that the fascists have received heavy funding from organizations within the United States.

Anti-gay T-shirts provided by groups in U.S. to fascists who attacked gays in Latvia.

Latvian gay rights activist Gaston Lacombe.

Activists in Belgrade, Serbia and Moscow spoke about gangs of street-fighting fascist youths, and tolerance of them by the authorities, which makes open LGBT organizing virtually impossible.

Thanks to over $6 million (US) in city, provincial and federal subsidies to the Out Games and the conference, the conference was probably the largest-ever, truly international conference in LGBT history. The subsidies meant that many from poorer, farther nations could attend -- almost half of the 2000 attendees were from nations other than the United States and Canada.

Alice Knom, lawyer defending nine men in Cameroon who were arrested for being gay. All other Cameroon delegates were denied visas by the new Conservative Party Canadian government.

Mariela Castro Espin, Director of Cuba’s Centro Nacional de Educacion Sexual, and Maria Berenice Dias, Judge of Appeal, Court of Justice, State o Rio Grande do Sul (Brazil)

One of the most dramatic moments of the conference came in the plenary on Africa and the Arab World when Lebanon's Rasha Moumnoh, spokeswoman for Helem, the first LGBT non-governmental organization in the Arab world, was forced to give her presentation via videotape on a huge projection screen. Moumnoh, who had previously planned to attend the conference in person, said that the struggle for LGBT rights cannot be divorced from other, "non-LGBT" issues, especially in a country whose modern infrastructure is being obliterated and over 600,000 homeless refugees crowd the nation's broken highways and cities. Moumnoh reported that her organization had turned over its entire facilities to aid the refugees.

Rasha Moumnoh, spokeswoman for Lebanon's Helem

Despite the fact that other plenary speakers, particularly from the Third World, echoed Moumnoh's statement that "non-LGBT" issues like poverty can't be ignored or neatly separated out from "core" LGBT issues, conference organizers bureaucratically thwarted a proposed resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire to the very conflict which prevented one of its own plenary speakers from attending.

Part of the Mexican delegation with Iran's Arsham Parsi, Secretary-General of the Persian Gay & Lesbian Organization (second from right)

Members of Chicago's Gay Liberation Network along with Edgar Oscar Atadero, President of ProGay Philippines, led a workshop entitled "Against War?" The main theme was the need for solidarity between LGBT people and others subjected to violence and discrimination such as in war. Such solidarity is not only a moral but a practical necessity -- while LGBT people must lead our own struggles, our freedom won't come without support from the non-gay majority. For LGBT people here to expect support for our battle against growing theocracy in the U.S., we need to oppose the attempts of our government to impose its will on peoples of other countries.

(l to r) Alan Segal, a new friend from Calgary, plus GLN's Bob Schwartz, Rich Wilson & Andy Thayer

The conference ended with a "Declaration of Montreal," believed to be the first such manifesto attempting to incorporate the demands of LGBT people around the world, which will be presented to the United Nations and governments in every country. Ms. Louise Arbour, herself the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and a plenary speaker at the conference, pledged to give the Declaration wide circulation at the UN, where LGBT organizations are battling to get consultative status.

The conference added a distinctly human rights focus to the overall gathering, reminding the participants that while LGBT people can freely gather for sports and culture in gay-friendly Montreal, gay sex is considered criminal activity in over 20 countries, and subject to the death penalty in seven. The games continue this week, and the next OutGames and international conference will be in Copenhagen, Denmark in 2009.

Montreal's Olympic Stadium. The city hosted the 1976 Summer Olympics.

The Stadium as seen from the city's Mont Royale.

Gay couple takes in the view on Mont Royale.


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