When Russia passed their anti-gay propaganda law in June of 2013, I was outraged. Like most members of the LGBTQ community and supporters of LGBTQ rights, I saw it as a horrific assault on basic human rights and fundamental freedoms. While the law specifies that it only bans the, “promotion of homosexuality to minors,” the common wisdom is that the law makes it illegal to hold any public demonstrations in favor of LGBTQ rights, distribute any materials related to LGBTQ rights, state that same-sex relationships are equivalent to heterosexual relationships, or defend LGBTQ rights in any way. Essentially, the law purports to make it de facto illegal to be homosexual, trans*, or queer in Russia. Add to that Russia’s history of hostility toward homosexuality, and the increasing prevalence of hate crimes motivated by homophobia, and the entire situation becomes a human rights disaster.
More pressing was the fact that the Winter Olympic Games were going to be hosted in Sochi in February of 2014. My immediate concern shifted to the athletes, some of whom are gay. Would Russia respect international norms that prohibit discrimination? Would Russia honor the agreement it made when it was awarded the Olympics and respect the rights of gay athletes? Would gay athletes be safe while in Russia competing? Would they be arrested by Russian authorities? Fined? Jailed? The more I thought about it, the angrier I became.
After my anger subsided a bit, like many people, I called for a boycott of the games unless they were relocated out of Russia. And if they weren’t, I thought the best course of action was for us to avoid them altogether. I sincerely believed that in order to protest this blatant violation of both international human rights law and the principles embodied in the Olympic Charter, we shouldn’t participate. Ultimately, however, I changed my mind.
Growing up I played several sports. Little League baseball (softball when I was older), gymnastics, wrestling, and my favorite sport – ice hockey. I learned how to ice skate when I was three. My father enrolled me in a developmental hockey program at six. Following that, I played in a co-ed House league, and eventually I made the move to a girls travel team; criss-crossing the Northeastern seaboard to play teams from Hackensack to Plattsburg.
Hockey was my life. My teammates were my family. The game was important to me and it took dedication. From getting up at 5am for an early morning practice, to traveling eight plus hours on a bus to a tournament, to playing games in freezing cold rinks – so cold that you can hardly feel your fingers gripping the stick as you try to shoot the puck – hockey, like all sports, requires intense commitment (especially at its highest level, i.e. the Olympics). And it’s for this very reason that I changed my mind about boycotting the games; our athletes have worked too hard and sacrificed too much.
Our athletes have devoted their time and energy in order to compete on behalf of our nation. They have been training for months, going to practice early, and staying late. Giving up endless days, nights and weekends to prepare both mentally and physically to compete at the highest level. Sacrificing time with their family and friends in order to be ready. What message would we be sending them if we decided to keep them home? And further, since we aren’t keeping them home and they actually want to go compete (even the gay ones), what message are we sending them if we individually choose not to watch the games because we don’t support Putin or the way of Russian thinking? When we choose to boycott the games we wrongly shift the spotlight to those who don’t deserve it, and away from our extraordinary athletes who do. Instead, we should compete (and watch) the Games with pride – pun intended. Further, while we should be, and have every right to be concerned for the safety of our athletes, if we let those fears consume us, then we let those who denigrate us win.
Moreover, while this law is despicable, and real harm is and will be done because if it, we should send our athletes – gay and straight – to compete for Olympic gold. We should show that one’s sexuality has no bearing whatsoever on their abilities, and that in sports (as in life) hard work, dedication, and merit determines winners and losers. We should use the Olympic world stage as our protest, not shy away from it.
In closing, we are sending some kick ass athletes to Sochi next month. Athletes who have been pouring their blood, sweat, and tears into preparing. And while we may not be happy about the political situation as it relates to LGBTQ people, and we should keep fighting for LGBTQ rights in Russia (and all over the world) long after the Olympics end, we shouldn’t boycott them. As my hockey coach always said, “take your frustrations out on the ice and win!” Let’s bring home some medals!
Image via GLAAD