On Sunday the world gained another openly gay Olympic athlete: Ari-Pekka Liukkonen of Finland. His announcement comes just days before the 2014 Winter Olympic Games start in Sochi, Russia, where an anti-gay law has been in effect since last year. The Finnish swimmer said, “I wanted to start a broader discussion in connection with Sochi, because it’s sad that the legislation in Russia restricts the human rights of young people and others.”
This issue is both public and personal for the six openly gay Olympians who will be competing at Sochi. They'll join 6,000 athletes from 85 countries — some of whom will be wearing space suits, dazzlingly geometric pants or mariachi costumes.
Gay rights have taken center stage at Sochi, thanks to Russia's own targeting of the LGBT community. In June 2013, the Russian government banned dissemination of pro-gay "propaganda" that could be accessible to children. The law’s vagueness, activists note, could prohibit almost any pro-gay expression, such as public statements, rallies, rainbow flags, rainbow nesting dolls, or same-sex hand-holding. Violators can be fined or jailed up to 14 days. Foreigners can be expelled.
Then in July 2013, Russia made it illegal for foreign gay and lesbian couples to adopt Russian children, and in October 2013, the government proposed legislation that would remove Russian children from their LGBT parents. The proposal is now withdrawn.
Over the last seven months, Russia has introduced or amended at least 13 laws restricting freedom of expression, association and assembly of non-governmental organizations, particularly those that receive foreign funding — a violation of international human rights law, says Amnesty International.
The cumulative effect of Russia’s crackdown on human rights, including on those of the LGBT community, has been ugly. Russian activists note that the measures strengthen homophobia in a country where 74 percent of people already believe that homosexuality is unacceptable.
The new laws, says Human Rights Watch, have also fueled vicious attacks against LGBT individuals, including beatings, kidnappings, torture and murder. GLAAD has compiled many horrifying examples since the 2013 legislation went into effect, which you can read about here. Or watch this documentary, "Hunted," by investigative journalist Liz Mckean.
But here’s the rainbow lining: Sochi has also provided a highly visible forum for international protest and pressure in response to Russia’s anti-gay laws. For example, some 50 Olympic athletes — plus 406,000 other people around the globe — have petitioned the Russian government to "eliminate all anti-gay laws and protect all citizens from violence and discrimination in Russia."
While International Olympics Committee member Dick Pound (no, really) has downplayed the harshness of the country's “antigay stuff,” European Union Commissioner Viviane Reding confirmed that she'll boycott the Games because of Russia's treatment of minorities. German President Joachim Gauck and French President Francois Hollande have denied a boycott but they won't be attending either. Nor will US President Barack Obama. Instead, he'll be sending the largest and most openly gay delegation in Olympics history.
In response to the international outcry, Russian President Vladimir Putin awkwardly backpedaled into a pedophilia comparison. The leader — known for riding shirtless on a horse — assured the world on Jan. 17 that LGBT people attending the Olympics could “feel safe” so long as they “leave kids alone.” Sochi’s mayor then claimed there are no gay people in Sochi, leading to some entertaining fact-checking by the BBC.
The Olympics are a time to celebrate world-class feats of athleticism, flamboyant displays of nationalism and maybe some spandex-clad buns. But they’re also a time to honor human courage. Even if the mayor of Sochi does not believe in gay people, they'll be at the Winter Games.
Here are the five other openly gay athletes who will be competing at Sochi.
1) Anastasia Bucsis, Canadian speed skater
Bucsis came out publicly at Calgary’s Gay Pride Parade in September 2013, two years after telling her family and friends. The 24-year-old speed skater is on Canada’s national team and competed in the 500-meter speed skating event at the 2010 Vancouver Games. She told the Globe and Mail she was “so proud to be gay” and wanted to speak out against Russia’s anti-gay laws: “I could never promote that message of concealing who you are with all of this going on in Russia. I’m kind of happy that I did it on my own terms. ... I also have faith in Russia. I think, I hope, that things will get better.”
2) Belle Brockhoff, Australian snowboarder
Brockhoff was the first LGBT Olympian to come out in protest of Russia’s legislation, during an interview with Australia’s ABC TV on Aug. 22, 2013. The 20-year-old snowboarder and Olympic newbie said she wanted to show Putin how successful gay and lesbian athletes could be. In January Brockhoff seriously upped her game: “After I compete, I'm willing to rip on [Putin's] ass. I'm not happy and there's a bunch of other Olympians who are not happy either.” She promised to send him a six-finger salute on camera — representing Principle Six, the Olympic Charter’s anti-discrimination principle.
3) Ireen Wüst, Dutch speed skater
In October 2009, Wüst told Dutch magazine I she had a girlfriend — fellow speed skater Sanne van Kerkhof. Wüst, who is 27, won gold in the 3,000-meter race in the 2006 Torino Games and in the 1,500-meter race in the 2010 Vancouver Games.
4) Sanne van Kerkhof, Dutch short track speed skater
The 26-year-old skater has been out since at least 2009, when Dutch speed skater Ireen Wüst revealed the two were dating. Van Kerkhof competed in the 2010 Vancouver Games. But as blogger Pat Griffin points out, not all openly gay athletes are interested in public LGBT advocacy. Last November, van Kerkhof said: "It is sad to hear about somebody beaten up because he is gay. It's terrible... but we, professional athletes, did go to China as well. There are also people who live in inhumane conditions in slums and we are housed in a 5-star hotel. We can't do anything about it."
5) Cheryl Maas, Dutch snowboarder
Maas is married to Norwegian former snowboarder Stine Brun Kjeldaas, with whom she has a daughter. The 29-year-old snowboarder competed in the half-pipe at the 2006 Torino Games. Her wife, a fellow Olympian, competed in the 2002 Salt Lake City Games and won silver in the half-pipe at the 1998 Nagano Games. In October, Maas said: "In my opinion, the IOC should choose a location more deliberately. They should exclude countries where certain minorities are excluded, such as in Russia. With the choice of Russia, the IOC is taking a step back in time. Russia lives in the past, while we should look forward."
6) Barbara Jezeršek, Slovenian cross country skier
Jezeršek, who is openly lesbian, competed in the 10-kilometer race, 15-kilometer race and 4x5-kilometer relay in the 2010 Vancouver Games.