For the first time in its 40-year history, the Gay Games will take place across two cities — Hong Kong and Guadalajara in Mexico — from Nov. 3 but the event might yet be remembered for a different reason: how few people take part.

Safety concerns and complicated logistics have dogged the run-up to the quadrennial Games, a nine-day diversity festival with multisports competitions and arts and culture events.

Originally the Games, first held in 1982, were due to be held in Hong Kong in November last year but the city’s strict COVID protocols led to a 12-month postponement and the decision for runner-up bidder Guadalajara in western Mexico to co-host.

Organisers have said Asia’s inaugural hosting of the Games could serve as “a beacon of hope” for the wider community across a region where intolerance is common.

The 2022 games were expected to draw 12,000 participants, 75,000 spectators and 3,000 volunteers from 100 countries for 36 events, including Dragon Boat Racing, Dodgeball and eSports.

Instead, registrations have been low, with some activists citing concerns over safety in Guadalajara, where crime and kidnapping are common, and others worried about recent crackdowns in Chinese-ruled Hong Kong.

As of the week before the event, Guadalajara had 2,458 participants registered, and Hong Kong had just 2,381. No previous Gay Games has had fewer than 8,000 participants.

Some events have already been cancelled in Hong Kong because of low registrations, including field hockey, Rugby 7s and track-and-field events.

A spokesperson for the Federation of Gay Games (FGG) said the decision to split the event had a “significant impact on registration numbers” but added that the organisers believed the choice of two locations “allows even more people from around the world to celebrate LGBTQ+ sports with us”.

Addressing safety concerns voiced by some participants and activists, the spokesperson said due diligence had been undertaken to ensure chosen host cities are safe places for LGBTQIA+ people to visit.

Several participants from Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom told Openly they felt informed and would bear in mind the socio-political context of each city as they visited.

The FGG spokesperson said they did not expect this year’s low turnout to have a lasting impact on the future of the Games but some participants warned the consequences could endure.

Safety concerns

Wayne Morgan, a senior Australian athlete who has competed in six Games already, said he believed splitting the host cities was “a mistake” and that low numbers could deter corporate sponsorship in the future.

“In my heart of hearts I wish the whole thing was cancelled and we could skip to Valencia in 2026,” he said, referring to the Spanish host of the next Games.

Morgan, 68, was one of those voicing concerns about safety in Guadalajara, where he was drugged and robbed last year while attending a conference related to the hosting of the Games.

When he went to report the attack, he said there was a queue of people at the police station reporting similar incidents.

“The officer warned: this happens a lot,” Morgan told Openly.

Guadalajara, in western Mexico, is the capital of the state of Jalisco, known as a hotbed for major drug cartels.

The U.S. State Department includes Jalisco on its “Reconsider Travel” list due to risks of crime and kidnapping.

“I’ve warned everybody travelling there: be extremely cautious. Don’t go anywhere alone,” Morgan said.

Activists have also raised concerns about the decision to host the Games in Chinese-ruled Hong Kong, long one of Asia’s most vibrant cities but shaken by mass pro-democracy protests in 2019, the COVID lockdown, the emigration of tens of thousands of residents and unease over a national security crackdown.

In 2021, Junius Ho, a prominent pro-Beijing member of Hong Kong’s assembly, said the games posed a threat to national security and the city should guard against “harmful culture”.

In August, Taiwan pulled out of the Hong Kong event, citing fears their participants could be arrested if they display the island’s flag or use its name.

Taiwan, claimed by China as its own territory, has come under increasing military and political pressure from Beijing, heightening fears of a conflict with global ramifications.

Five prominent human rights activists, now living abroad, wrote an op-ed in June calling for the Games to be cancelled and warning that the Hong Kong leadership team had “betrayed the values and principles of the Gay Games, which purport to celebrate inclusion and promote human rights”.

The five said the Games’ leadership had “aligned themselves with pro-authoritarian figures responsible for widespread persecution against the people of Hong Kong” and they warned that controversial laws could be used against visitors.

“With respect to the Games, which undoubtedly will be seen as a political event by authorities, the National Security Law’s vagueness means that Beijing could decide to either ignore the event entirely, or order arrests of participants for sedition or subversion – and there is simply no way to know which direction it will choose until the event itself,” the activists said.

Beijing imposed the sweeping National Security Law in 2020 after the sometimes violent 2019 anti-government protests.

Gay Games Hong Kong (GGHK), the organisers of the event, said they were deeply saddened by the “unfounded slurs” and rejected any call to cancel the Games.

“The inclusive nature of the Games is part of its unique strength and the purpose of GGHK is to create a positive, lasting impact on how society perceives LGBTQ+ inclusion in Hong Kong, Asia, and beyond,” it said in a statement.

The personal health and safety of all participants, spectators and volunteers was a top priority, it said.

“LGBTQ+ people in Hong Kong, whilst not having some of the rights that other countries and regions have implemented like gay marriage, are able to live openly and authentically in public and there are no safety concerns for LGBTQ+ tourists to be themselves while visiting the city,” it said.

It did ask all visitors to respect and observe local laws and customs.

The FGG spokesperson told Openly it’s “essential everybody educates themselves on local laws – this includes the National Security Law which specifically relates to political expression.”

Despite his experience last year, Morgan said he will travel back to Guadalajara to compete in his seventh Games.

“We have to get away from just hosting in ‘First World’ or Western cities,” he said. “This is such an important event for our community’s health, connection and global influence.”

Reporting by Gary Nunn.

GAY TIMES and Openly/Thomson Reuters Foundation are working together to deliver leading LGBTQIA+ news to a global audience.