Luis Balaguer was stationed in Germany while serving in the Army back in 1988-90. This was, of course, before "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
He'd visit Cologne on weekends with a couple of soldier friends "and I loved it," he said.
"It's such a beautiful city," Balaguer said. "Just before the end of my tour of Germany, I was being investigated by military intelligence. They were trying to determine if I was gay. They were cleaning house and dishonorably discharging gays. I was fortunate ( or unfortunate, not really sure ) because I was not found out, or maybe just ignored, and sent to my next duty station and off to war during Desert Shield/Storm for seven months."
He was ultimately honorably discharged in 1992.
"Some of my friends in Germany weren't so fortunate and were dishonorably discharged for being gay. I don't know whatever happened to them. That was my last memory of Germany," Balaguer said. "Being part of that investigation was one of the hardest things I've ever endured."
In 1993, Balaguer participated in the March on Washington as part of the color guard in full military uniform. "I decided then that I was never hiding again and that I would do whatever I could to be as visible as possible, so future generations wouldn't have to endure the shame and humiliation that I had had to."
Balaguer, now 42 and living in Chicago's Edgewater neighborhood, is now the vice president for a staffing company. He is going back to Germany this summer for the Gay Games, competing in multiple swimming events.
"Going back to Germany to compete as an openly gay athlete is more than about winning a medal for me," he said. "Don't get me wrong; I love the thrill of competition and I'm training my hardest to do the best I can. If by chance I place, that would make this experience that much sweeter. I think that if I place my partner Dan [ Casper ] will be more forgiving of all of the time I've spent training. Actually, he's been wonderfully supportive. My schedule has been very rigid and he's been very understanding and accommodating. I love him so much."
Balaguer will compete in Cologne in multiple freestyle swimming meets, a sport he took up only three years ago. He also will compete in some relay races with the Chicago Smelts.
This will be his first major LGBT sporting event.
"I'd love to place, but the reality is, I started swimming much later in life than, what seems like, 99 percent of the swimmers that I swim with and I'm in a very competitive age bracket," Balaguer said. "I'm busting my [ butt ] to prepare and I'm going to be proud of whatever I achieve at the Games. If nothing else, I'm going to be in the best shape I've been in the past seven years.
"For me, competing in the Gay Games isn't just about the competition. It's about creating more visibility for gay and lesbian people. It's about paving the way for future generations [ of ] gays, lesbians and straights. I'm fortunate to live as an openly gay man, fiancé, son and business leader. I'm very happy. I don't take it for granted, for a minute, that someone before me paved the way by being visible, taking some punches along the way, and some fatal."
More about Luis Balaguer:
On the 2006 Gay Games in Chicago: "I was thrilled for us when we were named the host city for the 2006 Games. I have to admit that I didn't go to any of the events, but I did go to the opening ceremonies and the closing ceremonies. Being at Soldier Field with all of the athletes, the supporters and Mayor [ Daley ] was a very proud moment for me as a gay man. I just felt that we had arrived at another milestone on our road to equality."
Partner Dan Casper: "I've been with him for five years. Longest engagement ever, three years. We are waiting for marriage to become legal in the state. He'd argue that I actually have two partners, the other being the pool."
Schooling: Balaguer graduated from Chicago's Lincoln Park High School in 1986. He also graduated from Columbia College Chicago with a B.A. in photography, and the Keller Graduate School of Management, with a master's in human-resources management.
Hobbies: Photography, cooking, travel, biking and running
Superstitions: "I try to ignore these. My mom and my partner have enough for both of us."
Little-known fact, skill or trait: "I think that I'm pretty much an open book, so I don't know that I have anything to share. If anything, I think that a lot of people think that I take great care of body, [ by ] eating really healthy. That's so not true. My favorite lunch consists of a slice or two of pepperoni pizza and French fries. Yum! My favorite breakfast consists of multiple courses at M. Henry's and favorite dinners include a pint of French vanilla ice cream. My swim coach, Nick Early, or strength trainer, Bradley Heit, don't need to know this."
Greatest sporting accomplishment: Riding in the top 6% during the AIDS Rides. "Sure, it wasn't a competition, but it sure felt good."
Favorite sports team: "I'll cheer for any Chicago sports team."
Favorite pro athlete: "I'm not much of a sports fan, but my friends would say that my favorite pro athlete is Joe Crede … and not necessarily for his sports ability."