Out in the Cold: LGBT Visibility at Olympics Key to Ending Homophobia


Last summer I spent a few days in Moscow to watch the Rugby Sevens World Cup. The tournament was held in the main stadium for the 1980 Summer Olympics—a stadium where U.S. Olympians never competed, due to a boycott over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Fiji and South Africa compete in the quarterfinals at the 2013 Rugby Sevens World Cup in Moscow
Fiji and South Africa compete in the quarterfinals at the 2013 Rugby Sevens World Cup in Moscow.
Photo by the author.

The stadium has seen better days; during a downpour, large chunks of paint fell down onto the stands. And even though tickets were affordable and the rugby competition was outstanding, the stadium was nearly empty.

During the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Sochi last week, my thoughts again turned to Russia and the attention it has received from the international human rights community since I visited last summer. In June 2013, the Russian Duma passed a now-notorious law banning gay “propaganda.”

As athletes in Sochi wrap up the first full week of competition and the international spotlight shines on Russia, it’s important to take stock of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) rights in that country and what advocates for human rights can do to combat discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity around the world.

First, a primer on why the Sochi Olympics in 2014 are important to LGBT rights in Russia and the rest of the world:

The Olympic Charter rejects all forms of discrimination

Every two years, the world gathers to celebrate human potential. The feats of speed, grace, teamwork, and power that we call the Olympic Games demonstrate that people from all over the world and all walks of life can achieve greatness.

The International Olympic Committee has established an Olympic Charter, which includes a set of principles for Olympic competition. Principle 4 recognizes the connection between sports and human rights:

The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.

Echoing nondiscrimination provisions in each of the major human rights treaties, Principle 6 states:

Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.

The Olympics are an important stage for LGBT visibility

Dutch snowboarding Olympian Cheryl Maas. Photo courtesy of Mikus Kļaviņš.
Dutch snowboarding Olympian Cheryl Maas.
Photo courtesy of Mikus Kļaviņš.

The Olympics are a unique and highly visible competitive venue: men and women from around the world are selected to represent their countries in international competition, and millions of people around the world follow the events. This year, over 6,000 athletes from 85 countries are competing in Sochi. It should come as no surprise that some Olympians are LGBT. Seven competitors at the Sochi Olympics–all women–are openly gay:

  • Australian snowboarder Belle Brockhoff
  • Canadian speed skater Anastasia Bucsis
  • Austrian ski jumper Daniela Iraschko-Stolz
  • Slovenian cross country skier Barbara Jezeršek
  • Dutch short track speed skater Sanne van Kerkhof
  • Dutch snowboarder Cheryl Maas
  • Dutch speed skater Ireen Wüst

(By comparison, 23 of the over 12,000 athletes in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London were openly gay.) On Sunday, Wüst became the first openly gay athlete to take gold at Sochi. Iraschko-Stolz won a silver medal in ski jumping events on Tuesday, and Wüst won silver in competition on Thursday.

LGBT visibility in sports is an important tool for combating discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity

From television to politics to news reporting, LGBT visibility is an important part of the fight against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. People who are taught to be homophobic may revisit those beliefs when they discover that someone they know and respect is gay. And LGBT youth, who may face harassment, bullying, and threats at school and even at home, and who are twice as likely as their heterosexual peers to attempt suicide, may find hope in the faces of prominent, successful openly gay people.

Sports—particularly Olympic sports—cut across cultures and languages and bring people together in a way that other collective experiences cannot. So the visibility of Olympic athletes—past and present—who are openly gay can help overcome prejudice and discrimination directed at LGBT people around the world. These athletes can also be positive role models for at-risk LGBT youth.

During the opening ceremony on Friday, IOC President Thomas Bach recognized this unifying power of Olympic competition, and called on competitors to be role models for the principle of non-discrimination:

Olympic Sport unites people. . . . Yes, it is possible to strive even for the greatest victory with respect for the dignity of your competitors. Yes, Yes, it is possible – even as competitors – to live together under one roof in harmony, with tolerance and without any form of discrimination for whatever reason.

(Viewers in the United States may have missed this part of Bach’s statement, which NBC edited out of its coverage. Some have criticized the edit as an apparent “diplomatic concession to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s homophobic agenda.”)

Momentum is building for more prominent athletes to come out

Much has changed since those Moscow Olympics. In 1981, former No. 1 world tennis competitors Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova came out. In 1994, U.S. Olympic diving medalist Greg Louganis disclosed that he is gay, and two years later, two openly gay U.S. divers competed in the Atlanta Olympics. Today, several current WNBA players are out, including Minnesota Lynx athletes Amber Harris, Jessica Adair, and Seimone Augustus (also a 2012 Olympian).

Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas with British Prime Minister David Cameron launching a campaign to eliminate homophobia and transphobia in sports. Image courtesy of UK Home Office, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:David_Cameron_and_Gareth_Thomas.jpg
Welsh rugby star Gareth Thomas with British Prime Minister David Cameron launching a campaign to eliminate homophobia and transphobia in sports.
Photo courtesy of the UK Home Office.

Progress in men’s professional sports has been slower. The first professional male athlete to come out while still competing was Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas in 2009. In the United States, only a handful of male professional athletes have come out to the broader public during their careers: basketball player Jason Collins, boxer Orlando Cruz, and soccer player Robbie Rogers.

In many cases, successful female athletes are already challenging traditional gender norms. So professional female athletes and female Olympians may not face as many obstacles and challenges to coming out as their male counterparts. Male Olympians who excel at sports many people view as feminine like figure skating and gymnastics face institutionalized homophobia.  And gay male professional athletes, particularly in hyper-masculine team sports like rugby and American football, challenge traditional notions of masculinity.

That’s why Missouri NFL draft prospect Michael Sam’s announcement on Sunday that he is gay seemed so earth-shattering.

All eyes are on Russia, and Russia’s law banning gay “propaganda”

With this growing recognition of the power of LGBT visibility in sports, the world’s eyes turn to Russia. Many people who are excited about the increasing acceptance and visibility of openly gay athletes, and the growing willingness of athletes to come out to their teammates, coaches, and the broader public, have been dismayed that Russia is hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Russia’s 2013 law prohibiting gay propaganda—the topic of the next post in this series—has posed problems for LGBT people in Russia, Olympic competitors, governments that have expressed a commitment to LGBT rights, and the international human rights community.

This post is the first of a five-part series in The Advocates Post about LGBT rights in Russia and the Sochi Olympics. Part 2  will examine the provisions of Russia’s propaganda law, its effect on children, and its origins. Part 3 will explore how Russian authorities are enforcing the propaganda law. Part 4 will examine the societal effects of discriminatory laws such as those in Russia and other countries. Part 5 will analyze a variety of approaches that human rights advocates in Russia and around the world are taking to press for reform of these laws.

More posts in this series:

Russia’s “Gay Propaganda” Law: How U.S. Extremists are Fueling the Fight Against LGBTI Rights

Locking the Iron Closet: Russia’s Propaganda Law Isolates Vulnerable LGBTI Youth

The Wild East: Vigilante Violence against LGBTI Russians

Moving Forward: Four Steps and Six Strategies for Promoting LGBTI Rights Around the World

By: Amy Bergquist, staff attorney with the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights

Top image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

35 thoughts on “Out in the Cold: LGBT Visibility at Olympics Key to Ending Homophobia

  1. While I’m boycotting the Olympics because of Russia’s laws (and for other reasons), I agree 100% with you that having openly gay athletes competing in the Olympics is a great way to combat discrimination and to help people understand the LGBT community a bit better. Good luck and I hope for the best.

  2. Really great article. You would think this day in age we wouldn’t hear about peoples rights being violated, and it’s sad that these athletes cannot be themselves due to how some people view the LGBT community

  3. I have a question and I hope it is read with the respect it is intended: What is so important about ‘coming out’? I, and other hetrosexuals, do not go around announcing “I”m straight!”. In no way am I saying they should live a lie. I just don’t ‘get’ the need to announce one’s sexuality.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Last year, right after NBA player Jason Collins came out, MSNBC had a really helpful discussion of the importance of professional athletes coming out. As the panelists suggest, the end goal is to make coming out a “non-issue,” as you suggest it should be. But I don’t think we’re there yet.

      Additionally, Ellen Page recently gave a speech, in which she came out, and eloquently highlights why she felt the need to do so.

      And if you take a look at my blog post from yesterday on the effects of the propaganda law on Russia’s children, you’ll see how important it can be for isolated and vulnerable young people to know they’re not alone and that their life has value. Out, successful LGBT athletes, and other highly visible people, can help send that critical message.

      Would anyone like to comment on why it is important?

  4. Thanks for posting the article . Many nations have lessons to learn from Russia actions . I believe being LGBT is purely one’s personal choice and it has nothing to do with law & order . I wish law makers in India could learn some lessons and genuinely give its citizens the Right to Freedom and a Dignified life .

    1. I suppose there need to be created more pressure on the system and awareness among the public about the issue . And of course our respected law makers & judges must make/give laws & judgements keeping the changes which India is witnessing now , rather than passing on there personnel opinions as judgement .

  5. I’ve never been homophobic, but as a Christian, I can see how homosexuality could make some people uncomfortable. However, among the most important of Christ’s commandments are “Do not judge, or you will be judged,” “Treat others as you would like to be treated,” and “Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor (all people) as yourself.” The way I see it, my job is to love and help others as best I can. The rest I leave to God.

  6. I just tell people to watch ‘The Crying Game’. If they don’t get the knock on imperialism, and hate toward trannys, then there is no hope for them anyway.

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