Utah's conservative religious and political climate won't be on Mark Chambers' mind when he comes to Salt Lake to play basketball this fall.

It's the first time the National Gay Basketball Association will be holding a tournament in Utah.

"If we can have a positive experience and get people excited about basketball, that's the key," Chambers said.

Local organizer Jeff Sanchez agreed. Anti-gay measures such as Utah's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, he said, are "not an issue for us. We're just here to play."

Some 16 teams from across the country will compete in the NGBA tournament Oct. 28-29 at the University of Utah. Chambers said the league chose Utah as part of efforts to expand tournament locations.

"I'm excited — it's a new place to go," he said. "If you go to the same place all the time, it gets boring."

While it's the first time the tournament will be held in Salt Lake, it's not the first time Utah teams have participated in national, or international sporting events.

This month Sanchez was among about 100 members of Team Salt Lake who competed in the Gay Games VII in Chicago. The international tournament, modeled after the Olympics, is held every four years.

Sanchez, part of a bronze-medal-winning basketball team, said such sporting events provide a sense of camaraderie and openness that regular events can lack for gays and lesbians.

"I think gay athletes, in general, feel excluded from sports," he said. "There's always some part of you that holds back. It's fun to be able to compete in sports you're good at without having to worry about your orientation."

Doug Fadel, captain of QUAC, Queer Utah Aquatic Club, and co-chairman of Team Salt Lake, said such sporting events help to dispel myths about Utah.

"People were really surprised there was such a big team from Salt Lake City," he said of the Gay Games. "I'm sure that will be the impression of the basketball teams when they come."

While handfuls of Utahns have participated in the games in the past, this year marked the largest-ever showing, and most organized. Salt Lake athletes brought home several medals.

Fadel said there is also an annual QUAC Ski and Swim aquatic invitational each Presidents Day. This year, 60 people from Utah and across the country participated, and 100 are expected next year. And, he said, a good number of straight athletes participate. The teams participate in local leagues.

"It puts a face on an issue," he said. "You have to deal with them as a person. You can't deal with it as a perceived group. It's hard to discriminate against people you know and like, and see are just like you."

Gay sporting events have been around for years, and are growing in popularity, Sanchez said. There have been gay basketball tournaments since the early 1990s.

The NGBA formed about 2 1/2 years ago and has since helped organize leagues in Salt Lake and some other cities. It also hosts about six national tournaments each year.

For more information visit: www.ngba.us.


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