The Global Struggle for LGBT Identity

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Thousands of athletes from over 65 countries filled Cleveland’s Progressive Field, last weekend.

Organizers were trying to herd the crowd into a parade of nations, that would march into nearby Quicken Loans arena in celebration of the 2014 Gay Games.

Marchers waved LGBT flags from places like France, Israel, Canada, Holland and Mexico. It was all quite amazing for 65-year-old Richard Romaniuk of Cleveland who grew-up in Poland at a time when he had to suppress his identity as a gay man.

RICHARD ROMANIUK: The truth is, I really believed that if I tried hard, I’d become a man. I have to say that there was a lot of alcohol involved with this. (sardonic chuckle) And it helped, to some extent.

26 years ago, Romaniuk moved to Northeast Ohio in pursuit of a new job and a new life, finally coming out of the closet at the age of 42. While there still is a great deal of conservatism in Cleveland’s Polish community, he says it hardly compares to Poland at the time he left.

RICHARD ROMANIUK: During Communist time, a lot of people were blackmailed by the police for being gay.

Tennis enthusiast Cindy Yu is administrative and finance director of the LGBT Center of Greater Cleveland, and she’s been helping field calls from international visitors all week. She says Northeast Ohio also was a refuge for her when she first arrived from her native Hong Kong in 1988.

CINDY YU: Back in Hong Kong in the 80s, no one talked about LGBT issues. Nobody wanted to come forth as LGBT. And that’s also when the HIV/AIDS pandemic was going. So, there was a lot of stigma going on there.

22-year-old Jiayi Li from Beijing won the silver medal in the 50-meter breast stroke, this week.

He was able to make the trip to Cleveland thanks to a scholarship from the Gay Games that targets athletes who don’t have the resources to make the journey. He says parts of Chinese culture are still very traditional. Clevelander Shawn Sun --- another Beijing native --- translates.

JIAYI LI: The Chinese people think the responsibility of being a man is to have a child, so that the family has offspring for the next generation. So, if a man can’t marry a woman, the family thinks it isn’t right.

But, Jiayi Li adds, there has been some change in recent years.

JIAYI LI: More and more people have the courage to stand-up and say I am gay, right now. There are more and more non-profit organizations to promote the knowledge of homosexuality.

Translator Shawn Sun says this is very different from the Beijing that he fled nine years ago.

SHAWN SUN: For my parents, they were very shamed after they found out I was gay. Basically, they wanted to abandon me. They told me to leave --- the further the better. They don’t want me to be their son. I was devastated.

Shawn Sun has found a new family here in his adopted country. He and Cindy Yu sat together at Progressive Field this past weekend, waving at the marchers assembling for the parade of nations. Many of those marchers have also felt the sting of being an outcast. But, this day was different. A slightly nervous Richard Romaniuk and his partner Sean Martin stood together, waiting to take their place in the procession. Romaniuk said he had bad memories of being teased by the jocks in school, when he was a kid.

RICHARD ROMANIUK: All my life I had a problem with gym. For me, gym was something terrible. And when Sean said to me we are going to Gay Games, I said, “You’re crazy”.

But, Martin convinced him to sign-up for a 10K run, though they’ll probably walk it. Romaniuk said that’s just fine by him.

RICHARD ROMANIUK: It’s not about competition, it’s about sharing the moment.

A moment that seems to be building momentum --- three years ago, his native Poland elected a transgender minister to Parliament.

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