Byline: Tara Malone Daily Herald Staff Writer
Jeff Wedig never missed a vault.
Every time his son Chris took a turn on the parallel bars or competed for a high school gymnastics title, the Round Lake man watched from the stands.
Wedig returns to the bleachers this weekend, watching his now openly gay, 30-year-old son take part in the Gay Games, held for the first time in Chicago at what organizers and opponents alike call a critical - and controversial - time in the gay-rights movement.
Bans against same-sex marriage have fueled debate and, in some cases, legal action, in Congress and 19 states, including, most recently, Illinois. The mere fact that HIV-positive athletes needed special consideration to get into the country - where immigration law bars entry to any foreigner with HIV - seemed more discrimination than precaution to some health officials.
Such issues take a back seat to the real draw of the Gay Games in Wedig's eyes: his son, Chris, who will vie for medals in bowling and volleyball.
"It's important for me to watch my son compete in a sport," Wedig said. "It's a thing a dad does whether it's the Gay Games or not."
Still, the weeklong event expected to draw 11,500 athletes - homosexual and heterosexual alike - from 65 countries, shoulders a significance beyond any routine athletic tournament or pick-up game.
Like Jackie Robinson in baseball and Billie Jean King in tennis, athletes in the Gay Games hope to shatter biases that dog the gay and lesbian community nearly a quarter century after the games began.
"The fact is racism, sexism and homophobia still exist," said Tracy Baim, co-vice chair of the Gay Games Chicago board and publisher of Chicago-based Windy City Times. "The stereotype is all lesbians play sports and all gay men don't. The Gay Games helps break down those stereotypes."
And the Games help put Chicago on the gay rights map, Baim said, citing a perception of Illinois as a "fly-over state."
Controversy drove the weeklong games to Chicago. A dispute between the Federation of Gay Games and the city of Montreal, initially named as the host, spurred federation officials to switch host cities two years ago. Montreal responded by deciding to host its own international gay sports event - the Outgames - later this month.
Regardless of the location, both champions and critics of gay rights see the events as an opportunity to spread their beliefs.
For some in the Chicago area, the message is that the games promote immoral behavior, even though the participants themselves deserve love and respect.
The Illinois Family Institute - architects of the proposed same- sex marriage ban that remains under review by the state election board - plans a weeklong "truth and love offensive" complete with lectures, debates and street ministry outside a gay-friendly gym and social club in Chicago's Boystown neighborhood.
"The message is compassion, the message is loving people but not loving homosexuality," said Peter LaBarbera, executive director of the Glen Ellyn-based group. "This is absolutely an opportunity to present another side."
Others cast a different view, sticking to a theme of inclusiveness, of recognizing gay and lesbian athletes who work, compete and play much like everyone else.
"It's one of the hardest things in this movement ... convincing people gay people do things just like normal people. They get up, they go to work, they do their business," said west suburban resident John Cepek, vice-president of the national Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays organization.
Crystal Lake is likely to see the biggest splash.
Some 70 rowers will compete Sunday in the city, a location that drew the ire of many suburban residents this spring when hundreds packed Crystal Lake park board meetings to weigh in on the local competition. …