Russia’s draconian anti-homosexual laws have prompted many calls to boycott the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, but that doesn’t mean that the gay athletes themselves are planning to skip the festivities. Having trained all their lives for this moment, the athletes mainly just want the opportunity to compete.
However, many out gay athletes also aren’t looking to ignore the controversy altogether. Their hope is that their visibility at the Olympics will help to advocate for the rights of the LGBTQ community around the world — whether overtly or implicitly. Here are four of their stories:
1. Belle Brockhoff
The 20-year-old is not only one of Australia’s top female snowboarders, but someone who is considered good enough to medal at the Games. When news of potential problems in Sochi arose, Brockhoff made news of her own by coming out publicly. “It wasn’t an option for me because I want to live honestly as myself. I knew I’d be more comfortable being out than hiding who I am regardless of Russia’s anti-gay laws.”
Though now out and proud, Brockhoff doesn’t exactly characterize herself as carefree about her impending Olympic experience. Stressed about potential consequences, she’d prefer to let her performance do the talking and keep her advocacy limited to something like a rainbow badge. “It’s definitely a little bit scary when you think about, like, arrest and deportation, pulling out of events and all that stuff,” she admitted.
2. Blake Skjellerup
The 28-year-old gay New Zealand speed skater has mixed feelings about the Olympics being held in Russia: on the one hand, he believes human rights records should be weighed more heavily when choosing a location, but on the other hand, he is happy that the occasion is bringing additional attention to Russia’s discriminatory laws. Skjellerup promises to be an outspoken advocate for the LGBT community at the Games, and has even already secretly met with gay activists in Russia to discuss conditions in the country.
Skjellerup was closeted during his previous trip to the Olympics because he didn’t want the potential media attention to distract from his training, but this time he is happy to put a public face to the fight for equality. “I am not going to go back in the closet in any way,” Skjellerup said. “I will express my feelings and emotions openly.” If given the opportunity, that would even include to Vladimir Putin. The speed skater says he would “love” to get to tell the Russian leader exactly how he feels about the bogus laws in person.
3. Anastasia Bucsis
This 24-year-old Canadian hopeful looks poised to make a return trip to the Olympics after achieving her personal best speed skating times this year. Although she assures everyone that she’s just a “boring” woman who spends most of her time practicing on the rink, she chose to speak out after learning of Russia’s homophobic laws. “Having more LGBT athletes come out during the lead-up to Sochi will promote acceptance, awareness, and education regarding gay athletes and their contribution to sport,” she said.
Bucsis explains that another main motivation for coming out was that she grew up without sporty LGBT role models and hopes to change that for other young people. “Taking on an advocacy role seems natural because I am proud to be both an athlete and gay,” she said. “I am ready to help any athlete out there who is considering coming out of the closet. It’s the best decision I ever made.”
4. Johnny Weir
While the 29-year-old figure skater has publicly condemned Russia’s ridiculous propaganda legislation, the gay American also insisted it wouldn’t keep him from competing. “Would the Olympics be in Saudi Arabia, in Palestine, in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Mars, I would go because that’s what I’m trained to do and that’s what I’ve devoted my life to,” Weir said. “If it takes me getting arrested for people to pay attention and for people to lobby against this law, then I’m willing to take it.”
Alas, injuries have ultimately forced the two-time Olympian to skip the events necessary to qualify for the 2014 Games, but Weir is still heading to Sochi anyway, this time as a skating analyst. In this role, Weir has vowed not to rock the boat or do anything openly defiant. “I’m not a politician and I don’t really talk about politics. You don’t have to agree with the politics, but you do have to respect the culture of a country you are visiting,” said Weir.