Gay Games 2022: how the man behind Hong Kong’s winning bid made his dream come true
After a painful split from his long-term boyfriend, Dennis Philipse founded LGBT+ outdoor activities group Out in Hong Kong, and its popularity encouraged him to push for the city to host the showpiece sports event
Heartbreak has left many devastated, but for Dennis Philipse it was the springboard to greater things.
Not only did it put him on the road to being an LGBT+ role model, he also spearheaded the bid for Hong Kong to host the 11th edition of the 2022 Gay Games, which they won.
In 2014 the then 41-year-old was getting over the split with his long-term boyfriend, and had been without full-time employment for months. He did not know many people in the city and the prospect of making new friends at bars, clubs or hook-up sites did not appeal to him.
During this time Philipse noticed that despite people in the LGBT+ – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and others – community being involved in sports groups in Hong Kong, it was difficult to join them.
Then it hit him: why not organise an outing for members of the LGBT+ community to hike to the Twin Peaks of Lantau, Hong Kong’s biggest island, followed by lunch and some stand-up paddling? He drafted the flier and released it on social media. Thirteen people showed up.
“I thought that this is a nice opportunity for people to do things together,” he recalls.
A few months later, he took a bolder leap, by establishing the Out in Hong Kong Facebook page, to create an outdoor group for the local LGBT+ community. To Philipse’s surprise, its first event, a hike over the Dragon’s Back in Shek O, attracted 53 people one Sunday morning. It was the start of a sporting group that flourished, now has 5,000-plus members, and organises a plethora of events that include hiking, trail running, swimming and camping.
“When you go to a bar or a club, people can play a role. Some are very nice when drunk, while people normally introverted can be more extroverted with alcohol. But when you hike for four to six hours, you will see the real, raw person,” he says.
This is the dynamic behind the group, which is a mix of locals and expats, where sports and fitness activities facilitate bond-building. “By literally helping someone over a mountain – that builds friendships,” Philipse says.
He observed the many different ways members used the group. Locals who never attended an LGBT+ event got easily absorbed into it. Before long people of all backgrounds were joining outings knowing others wouldn’t judge them.
As membership grew, Philipse enlisted several organisers to sustain Out in Hong Kong, and building this community changed the Dutchman indelibly.
It also proved the catalyst for rallying various communities for an even bigger cause – the Gay Games. When it is held for the first time in Asia in 2022, the nine-day spectacle of sports, culture and the arts is expected to attract 15,000 participants and 25,000 visitors to Hong Kong, and inject HK$1 billion (US$130 million) into the economy.
The mega-event has had a special place in Philipse’s heart since it was staged in his home city, Amsterdam, in 1998. At the time The Netherlands was not as progressive as it is now, and it took place a few years before full legalisation of same-sex there marriage in 2001.
He loved the opening ceremony and how it impacted the city – people held hands on streets while parties filled Amsterdam with positive vibes. Houses were covered with yellow flags and pink tulips to show their support.
“The community … everybody was behind the event,” he says. Since then, he had toyed with the idea of sparking a similar effect in Hong Kong. But it wasn’t until he gained the confidence and community-building skills through the success of Out in Hong Kong that he believed the idea could come to fruition.
In 2015, he reached out to the Federation of the Gay Games about the possibility of Hong Kong officially putting in a bid to host the event, and they joined the bidding contest a year later.
This meant fashioning a 300-page bid proposal, recruiting volunteers, and rallying support from different communities that included the business sector, the LGBT+ community, sports groups and government departments.
The two-year-plus campaign was gruelling for Philipse, who juggled this “gay job” alongside his full-time day job at US tech company ServiceNow.
He also faced scepticism from the gay community. A common reaction was: it’s a nice idea but Hong Kong is not ready for this. “That response was often because people did not know about the [Gay Games] concept and explaining it takes some time,” he says.
As the campaign gained pace, Philipse noticed a positive shift in local observers’ sentiments when the city made the final shortlist, edging out cities like Atlanta and San Francisco in the US along the way.
The contest finally came down to Hong Kong and two other cities – Guadalajara in Mexico, and Washington, the US capital.
In October 2017, when the bid team flew to Paris for the decision and learned they had won, he recalls rubbing shoulders with French city officials and fashion icon Jean Paul Gaultier (a Gay Games ambassador).
He pulls out his phone to show a recent message from a former sceptic. It reads: “I thought it was not going to happen, I’m sorry for being ignorant,” and ends with words of gratitude and encouragement for Philipse’s spirited efforts for the LGBT+ community in Hong Kong.
“I get these kind of messages regularly now,” he says. Some converts now ask how they can help. “That’s really cool,” he says. “That’s the power of the snowball effect where people really get involved in something bigger than themselves.”
The Gay Games has been in existence for nearly 40 years and the Hong Kong edition will host 36 sport events, including dragon boat racing, trail running and “vertical runs” up the ICC building. Aids-themed memorial events like a Rainbow Run (a core feature of the Games) pay tribute to those lost to the disease, including Gay Games founder Dr Thomas Waddell, an Olympian who died of Aids in 1987.
Importantly, the Games is open to everyone – not just gay people.
“[It’s] organised by the LBGT+ community but everyone’s welcome to participate regardless of your sexual orientation, gender, disability, race, [ability] level; you just pay a registration fee and participate,” Philipse explains.
The Hong Kong team flew to the 2018 Gay Games in Paris, where more than 10,000 participants from around the globe took part. Philipse met as many people as he could and observed as many sports events as possible for insights to help prepare for the Hong Kong showpiece in 2020. The team also had a booth at the village hub to promote the city and the upcoming Games.
“People kept asking to sign up to the event four years ahead,” he remarks, saying it was one of its most frequent requests at the booth.
“We were prepared for registration two years ahead but not four years out … they were so eager to come to Hong Kong.”
This experience had a profound impact on his team, too.
“The magic of the event is that it’s about sports and connecting people and building friendships. It’s also about people realising that being LGBT+ is being normal, just like every other people,” he says.
Back in Hong Kong, Philipse continues to participate in Out in Hong Kong activities, but the time-consuming nature of his “gay job” changed his overall fitness regimen.
Previously he was a trail runner who took part in such races as the HK100, a 100km event, but not any more. Now he works out at the gym four times a week with a trainer for body-weight exercises.
Transcendental meditation is crucial to his routine too. He practises this in the mornings to restore order to his mind and make him less hyperactive.
“It’s like cleaning the cache in your computer that is filled with garbage … it also helps with creativity and connecting the dots to bring your mind to think at a higher level. Not worrying about the smaller things but having a helicopter view,” he says.