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Training in Progress: The Gay Games are Here, and So is Northeast Ohio's Opportunity to Strut its Cultural Competency 

With this weekend's arrival of Gay Games 9 in Cleveland comes excitement about how this international event will shape the city. Really, the Games have been the talk of the town since announcing the sojourn to Cleveland in late 2009. Past events prove that an iteration of the Gay Games involves nearly a decade of work in total.

Christen DuVernay, programming director at the Diversity Center of Northeast Ohio, has been at the front lines of that conversation and those efforts for years now. She helms her organization's LGBTQ cultural competency training program, which has partnered with the Gay Games to assist Clevelanders in the art of inclusivity.

Colloquially speaking, local businesses owners and agencies are tuning up their social sensitivities and rolling out the rainbow carpet for our forthcoming visitors. DuVernay says that much like the response to Cleveland's slot as the Gay Games destination writ large, the community's interest in the training programs has been huge.

This whole trip through the umbra of the international LGBTQ movement sets Cleveland on a grand stage, and businesses have shown they do not want to miss out.

"I think that it is going to have an astronomical impact on us — more than folks realize right now and especially when we're talking about 'economic impact,'" DuVernay says. "That's a buzzword right now around the Gay Games. People are like, 'Oh! They're going to bring so much money here. There's such an economic impact!'

"My challenge to that is there has always been an economic impact. I can't tell you how many of my peers have left Cleveland and left Ohio — people who are incredibly educated and really have a lot to offer to the economic development of the city, but they leave. They go to places like New York or places like San Francisco — places where they have more rights."

To combat those trends — ones seen most alarmingly since Ohio's 2004 constitutional amendment banning the recognition of gay marriages — DuVernay and many others have set out to help raise awareness across Northeast Ohio. The Diversity Center has been offering cultural competency training for years now, and they'll keep offering the programming after the Games, but there is of course a surge in interest these days.

DuVernay says that a major focus has been placed on the service industry around Cleveland. With an influx of thousands of LGBTQ customers coming up, restaurant managers are hoping to fine-tune their employees' approach to everything from everyday interactions with customers to broader corporate policy.

Consider at least part of the program to be a check-up with respect to a company's overall and longstanding approach to the LGBTQ community. DuVernay says: "We're looking at policies and procedures that relate to employees and customers: non-discrimination policies, harassment policies, even things like having gender-neutral restrooms accessible."

Remember, there are no actual legal protections for LGBTQ employees and consumers in Ohio. That falls for now to the hopefully good graces of private enterprises.

Business owners and employees have been finding out — if they hadn't contemplated this already — that it's often the small moments that comprise someone's perception of their surroundings.

"You would think, based on responses that people give, that everybody treats everybody equally and everybody gets along well," DuVernay says. "But we know through data and research that is not the case, right? We know some people get pulled over by the police more often than others. Some people get different care in emergency room settings. Some people are treated differently by shopkeepers or hotel staff. Things like that."

Given that, DuVernay and her team turn toward "microaggressions," the little incongruent interactions between people take place thousands of times each day in, say, a city like Cleveland.

The plan is to maintain the Center's cultural competency training in Cleveland's focus for years to come after the Gay Games. This isn't just about the next week and a half; there's a shot at a meaningful international legacy on the table for our city.

Tracy Baim, the co-vice chair of Gay Games 7 in Chicago in 2006 and the publisher of the Windy City Times, says the impact of the Games eight years ago remains immeasurable. Beyond the $50-million impact to the local economy, Baim says, the Gay Games brought about a more aware and connected sense of community across Chicago.

"The real legacy of the event was how welcoming the city was and how people would love to come back and experience more of it. I think the long-term tourism impact really is something you can't measure," she says, which sounds like the sort of thing Cleveland is clamoring for. Baim says that, by and large, Chicago approached the Gay Games with a pretty open mind; the need for broad educational programming wasn't as intense as it seems to be in Cleveland. As of June 1, 2014, marriage equality was legalized in Illinois.

Likewise, Kevin Boyer, co-vice chair of Gay Games 7, adds: "The Gay Games also empowered a flatter community leadership structure, especially allowing for a flowering of sports and cultural groups and more diversity of opinion than had existed when fewer powerful groups had largely managed the fight for liberty and health."

It's all about community. Cleveland's up next.

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