From Bruce Arthur in the National Post:
LONDON — In 2010, the Vancouver Olympics featured the first Pride House, and a speed skater from New Zealand named Blake Skjellerup dropped by one day. When he publicly came out as a gay man later that year, he cited a couple things in his decision: Seeing how comfortable out Australian diver Matthew Mitcham was in 2008 in Beijing, and that small, welcoming space at the intersection of Davie and Bute.
The Pride House in London is a part-time affair, moving around and hosting various events, and occasionally renting two rooms in a little brick building next to a marina in East London. It is a minnow in the Olympic ocean, but an important one. And in 2014, it will not exist.
“It’s like a flag in the sand,” said Louise Englefield, who is running Pride House here, and who founded the equality-based group Pride Sports. “It’s a visible place that allows LGBT people to have a place in the Olympic movement, that we really have a place in the Games. And since there are only 23 out athletes at these Games …”
There will be no Pride House in 2014 in Sochi, due to a ruling from a Russian judge outlawing the promotion of homosexuality. Pride House here was given support, if not outright approval, by the London organizing committee; the International Olympic Committee, however, has refused to take a stance on the matter. It banned South Africa from the Games from 1964 to 1991 over apartheid, but it won’t weigh in on this.
“We aren’t responsible for the running of or setting up of Houses,” says IOC spokesman Mark Adams. “That is done by the [National Olympic Committees] or other relevant organizations. So in this case it isn’t a decision of either us, or the organizing committee in Sochi. From our side, the IOC is an open organization and athletes of all orientations will be welcome at the Games.”
“That’s a lie,” says ex-NBA player John Amaechi, who is doing commentary for the BBC here, and who is out. “They have no backbone. Look, [South Africa] was perhaps the only notable, noble thing that the IOC has ever done. It’s the only outspoken, outstanding, political move that made them, for just a brief moment, worth their existence. The idea that they have differentiated between race and other things is truly, truly worthy. Because what’s the explanation? Being racist is important. They’re explicitly saying that being racist is important, we won’t allow it, but being homophobic is okay.
“There’s already a lie. I would say implicit, but it’s not, it’s a very explicit lie within sports, and within the Olympics especially. Because most sports have rhetoric about fairness and equality and that type of stuff, but really only the Olympics … have at their core a set of five principles, one of which is that sports is a human right. Which means everybody, and it’s a very eloquent way of saying sports is for everybody.
“And so you’re in this situation — it’s not simply that the Pride House isn’t happening [in Sochi] because there’s no funding, or because there’s no interest. It’s explicitly not allowed. So by doing that you have already said sport is not for everybody. Explicitly, there are people who are not allowed to do sport, and if they are allowed to do sport, they must do it in a way that suits us.”
Outsports.com counts 23 openly gay and lesbian athletes at these Olympics, compared with 10 in Beijing and 11 in Athens, but just three men: two in dressage, including gold medallist Carl Hester, and Mitcham. Among the women, Megan Rapinoe won gold in women’s soccer after coming out just before the Games; German cyclist Judith Arndt won silver in the cycling road race.
But that is 23 publicly LGBT athletes out of nearly 11,000, one of whom, South African archer Karen Kultzer, came out to Outsports during the Games. “I am an archer, middle aged and a lesbian,” she said in a statement. “I am also cranky before my first cup of coffee. None of these aspects define who I am.”
Amaechi says there are seven out male athletes at the Games before being corrected; he demurs, wondering how many are publicly out. But he says, “Oh, there’s a lot more than that.”
“There are plenty of athletes [at basketball], a number of them on the women’s team, and a number on the men’s teams, who have had a word with me privately,” says Amaechi. “There’s not one of the men who would meet me in a public place. Because they know there’s a danger there for them when they come back. What if you play for the Utah Jazz, and have a set of owners who are absurd? What if you play for the Orlando Magic, whose owners donate to [the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage], an organization that shouldn’t exist? What if you play in Russia? What if you play in China? Things aren’t as easy as we think for all these people.
“In most locker rooms in the NBA right now there are guys who are out, who bring their quote-unquote manager to every game. Some of them even have somebody who is their partner and people know about it, and come to the Christmas party. And it’s within the locker-room, and there’s no issue. They don’t talk to the media about it, nobody does, but it’s known within the locker-room, and it’s no big deal. Most of the guys have the Charles Barkley [attitude], which is, can you play?”
But they are not comfortable enough to be themselves in the public sphere. Athletes who have come out have often said they performed better afterwards — Rapinoe told reporters before the gold-medal game, “I’ve been playing a lot better than I’ve ever played before,” and that coming out was “a weight off my shoulders.”
But it’s not just the more gay-friendly countries of the world who could, or would, host this travelling carnival. The IOC wasn’t too worried about human rights in China, either. Englefield says the plan is to ask every national house to stage a Pride House for a day in Sochi, since trying to establish an independent one would invite prosecution. It’s a laudable goal; as Canadian chef de mission Mark Tewksbury says, “the big challenge is Sochi. That’s where it’s really needed.”
“I think the most important thing,” says Englefield, “is what are the IOC going to do now?”