• Since my column was named best in state in the Illinois Press Association contest (large weeklies) last Friday, I thought I’d reprint the one that found favor with the judges, since some of you might have missed it the first time around. It ran in July of 2006:

There is, regrettably, a cultural divide between gay and straight in this country – but you couldn’t feel it at the Gay Games last week. The only thing you could feel in and around OPRF High School was, well, gaiety.

As a word person, I always objected to homosexuals raiding our collective glossary, appropriating the word “gay,” and taking ownership of it. Granted, the word was as expendable as any. People used it more frequently in the 1930s and ’40s, judging by Hollywood films, but not much since then. People snicker or do double-takes if you use it now in its original meaning. The Christmas carol, “Now we don our gay apparel,” always elicits a smirk and a nudge.

It’s the principle I objected to more than the word. I can’t use it because now it means something else altogether.

And why “gay” of all words? I’ve never heard an adequate explanation for the choice.

But after observing the scene at the games last week, I think I’m beginning to understand.

There was undeniable gaiety (traditional meaning) surrounding this event. In all the discussions about same-sex marriage and sinfulness and homosexuality being an abomination in God’s eyes, one overriding reality kept rearing its lovely head: Gays and lesbians are very enjoyable people to spend time with. They tend to be funny, creative, smart, friendly, and invariably humane–at least the people I’ve met. And a little emotionality from males, to be honest, is refreshing once in awhile.

God may consider homosexuality an abomination, but I suspect he’d be won over by most homosexuals. They’re a very hard bunch to dislike.

Anyone who thinks gays are simply “effeminate males” would have had their stereotypes sorely shaken if they’d watched any of the soccer competition this past week. The caliber of play was quite high, and the teams I saw could hold their own with pretty much anyone, short of professionals. They weren’t messing around either. At least one yellow card was thrown while I was watching.

I’m not sure why we’re so locked into our traditional gender definitions and threatened by variations. On Wednesday afternoon, two notoriously testosterone-heavy subcultures intersected the Gay Games with no problem whatsoever. Oak Park police officers were on hand for security, and they all seemed to be enjoying the competition and interaction as much as anyone. Meanwhile, OPRF football players were making the rounds, padless but wearing their jerseys, attempting to sell discount cards as a fundraiser. They looked a little hesitant, but I’m guessing they found a receptive audience whenever they worked up the courage to ask.

On Sunday, when the temperature on the turf was 140 degrees, the fire department kindly decided to conduct a snorkel training exercise, setting up on the 100 block of North East Avenue and spraying the South Field where teams had gathered to practice with a cool mist. The best thing, said one observer, was that everywhere you looked, there were rainbows.

Over at Barrie Park, meanwhile, one athlete said he felt uneasy, not knowing the neighborhood or what kind of reception they would get, until he spotted a sign in the window of a house across the street: “Who does God shun? No one! Welcome to the Gay Games.”

We did good last week.

The Gay Games were good for Oak Park in many ways – good for business, good for making people more aware of who we are and what this village has to offer–but the games also felt like an island of sanity, an upbeat, energized oasis, away from a straight-and-narrow world too often gone mad. The athletes played hard, with pride, but didn’t take it too seriously. They were enthusiastic, joyous, merry, lively, cheerful, sportive, hilarious–the very definition, in fact, of the word “gay.”

I, for one, am glad they stopped by.

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