CLEVELAND - Nick Gill says he was warned by a teammate on his indoor volleyball team about what Cleveland might be like before they left Portland, Maine, for the Gay Games this week.
"He was telling us horror stories about growing up here," Gill said Thursday while watching the beach volleyball tournament at a lakeside park just outside downtown Cleveland, which is staging the Games with nearby Akron.
Gill said his teammate, who was raised in Cleveland, has been "humbled" by the progress the city has made and by the warm reception Gay Games participants have received.
"People are just so thankful we're here," Gill said. "It's exceeded all of my expectations."
Other Games participants also praised Cleveland and Akron and called the host cities friendly and hospitable.
Cleveland, a former manufacturing center on the southern edge of Lake Erie, and Akron, about 35 miles south, were hardly the first choice of the international lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community when they were chosen in September 2009 over gay friendly locations Boston and Washington. Some critics in the gay media predicted the Games in northeast Ohio would be a disaster.
Cleveland, home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, has no identifiable gay neighborhoods, or gayborhoods, and its LGBT community generally keeps a low profile. But this week rainbow-hued gay pride flags are fluttering throughout downtown.
San Francisco resident Jason Garrett competed in the tennis tournament earlier in the week. He said he is heartened by how friendly people, even the taxi drivers, have been. The only discernible controversy that preceded the Games was the protests of some cabbies who objected to having Gay Games advertising on their vehicles.
Garrett said holding the Games in northeast Ohio might provide a new perspective to people who feel uncomfortable around gays and he hoped the Games would take everyone — gay and straight alike — out of his or her comfort zone.
"Maybe we can find some middle ground," he said.
Christine Lebon, a board member of the Federation of Gay Games who lives in Paris, competed in the golf tournament Monday and Tuesday at historic but soggy Firestone Country Club in Akron. Her hometown will host the Games in 2018.
She was not on the board when Cleveland and Akron were chosen for the Games but acknowledged it was a "difficult choice." She said there were early concerns that people wouldn't travel to Cleveland.
Yet Games officials report that about 8,000 people from 48 states and 51 counties registered for the Games. Lebon said that, compared with stuffy Paris residents, Clevelanders are warm and welcoming.
"People here are fantastic," Lebon said.
She and others in her group from Paris stayed at a house in the Akron area at the beginning of the week and said they did have a gripe: They couldn't find anything to eat except hamburgers and other "American" food. Told there were a number of fine dining restaurants in Cleveland, Lebon and her friends were relieved.
"We're French, you know," she said.