(CNN)For nine days in the fall of 1998 in Amsterdam, Donald Tsim had never felt more free to express himself. He could walk into any restaurant with his partner, walk on any side of the street, with no problem.
Tsim was participating in the fifth Gay Games and was experiencing life outside of the closet for the first time. Growing up in Hong Kong, he hid his sexuality from friends and family. And even though he had lived in London for years, Tsim had never felt comfortable expressing his true self in public until the Gay Games.
“In those nine days it was like an LGBT heaven in a sense that wherever we go we don’t have to worry about being recognized as gay or lesbian, and we didn’t have to worry about being hated or not being served,” says Tsim, who won a bronze medal in badminton at the Amsterdam games.
A year later, a family emergency called Tsim back to Hong Kong, and he went back to hiding his sexuality in a society that he says is significantly less tolerant.
Till this day, Tsim has not had an open conversation with his family about his identity. He never had the chance to tell his mother before she died, but he suspects she knew because she had stopped asking if he had a girlfriend.
“My two sisters, my sister-in-law and my mother knew in secret. My younger sister sometimes buys gifts for my boyfriend,” Tsim, 55, said. “I think it’s women’s intuition.”
Hong Kong’s chance
Now Tsim’s home city is one of three vying to host the 2022 Gay Games, and he hopes that bringing the event to Hong Kong will help challenge the stigma that LGBT communities face in Asia.
“Hopefully for those nine days Hong Kong will see lots of people holding hands together, maybe kissing, and actually realize it’s OK to be different,” says Tsim.
“It’s still conservative — that’s the word I’ll use,” Tsim says about Hong Kong. “They just look at you strangely.”
A UNESCO survey published in 2015 found that about 70% of LGBT students in Asia experienced some form of bullying at school. But the same survey found that “younger respondents are typically more likely than older ones to call for societal acceptance” of homosexuality. (Comparatively, a study published by the US the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention in 2016 found that 34.2% of LGBT high schoolers had been bullied at school.)
Dennis Philipse, who co-chairs the Hong Kong bidding team and is originally from the Netherlands, agrees that the LGBT community is still marginalized and restricted in Asia. Though he does not think that hosting the games in Hong Kong would have an immediate impact on LGBT rights in the region, he hopes that it would raise awareness.
“There will be more visibility of the LGBT community rather than just protesting and doing a parade,” Philipse said. “For nine days, the barista from Starbucks will meet gay people and the taxi driver will have gay people in his car.”
Founded by Tom Waddell, a gay Olympian, the first Gay Games were hosted by San Francisco in 1982 and are held every four years, like the Olympics. The games’ mission is to promote equality through an international sports and cultural event that is gay-friendly and inclusive, as heterosexual participants are welcomed as well.
Hong Kong’s endeavor for the games started three years ago when Philipse sought volunteers through his Facebook group “Out in HK” to be part of the bidding committee. He now has more than 40 members, with a number of government and commercial entities throwing their support behind the bid.
The 2022 Gay Games host city is expected to be announced in November. Hong Kong is short-listed with Washington, D.C., and Guadalajara, Mexico.
Philipse estimates the games could draw as many as 15,000 competitors and 40,000 spectators,bringing a possible tourism boost of HK$1 billion. And while he says the event “is not about proposing gay marriage or making changes,” it does try “to change the attitude and mentality, which makes it easier to make changes within the community.”
“Things will evolve, and that happens by perception, when people have better perception and attitude towards the (LGBT) community,” Philipse said.
Reliving the dream
Tsim’s wish is that he can experience in Hong Kong what he did in Amsterdam in 1998: To walk into any restaurant as an openly gay man, able to express his feelings for his partner without fear of ridicule or judgment and to be treated like any other couple in a restaurant.
“I would say I’ve lived a positive life with my first boyfriend until he passed away, and that changed me to come out. From coming out and playing in LGBT sports groups, I learned that there’s another life other than going to pubs,” Tsim said.
“Then I had my first experience at the Gay Games and realized there’s another way to promote inclusion in this world. And that’s why I’m all for the games to happen in Hong Kong.”