For LGBT community, Russia remains a forbidding place

I was fortunate enough to represent the United States as a diver in the 1996 and 2000 Summer Olympic Games. This week I’m going to the Olympics again. I’ll be in Sochi cheering on Team USA and supporting America’s LGBT athletes as well as the Russian LGBT community.

In June 2013, President Vladimir Putin signed a bill banning LGBT “propaganda,” which threatens the human rights of the millions of LGBT Russians. It violates their freedom of speech and, if widely enforced, could amount to de facto criminalization. It also endangers the lives of LGBT Russians. Anti-LBGT violence, often committed by neo-Nazis, is a major problem in Russia, and the “propaganda” law legitimizes the hate in hate crime.

It gets worse: President Putin is depicting LGBT people as pedophiles, and new anti-LGBT laws are surfacing. LGBT Russians — who until only a few years ago were beginning to be able to live openly — face increasing fears that their sexual identity will get them in legal or physical trouble.

As a gay American, I can’t imagine what gay Russians are going through. Although not to the same degree, I also have undergone discrimination based on my sexuality. Before the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, a former coach — in an act of vindictiveness — outed me in attempt to destroy my Olympic dream.

At the time, I was out to my friends and immediate family, but I never felt the need to announce my sexual identity to the press and the public. Fortunately, my hard work and competitive spirit and the support of my partner, friends and family enabled me to accomplish my Olympic dreams.

This was a difficult and challenging chapter in my life that, to this day, stirs my emotions. I refer to it now only to point out that like most LGBT people, wherever we live, I know what it’s like to have others try to use my sexual identity against me.

In 1996, President Clinton signed into law the Defense of Marriage Act, which barred the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages legalized by states. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional. The decision, along with the end of “don’t ask don’t-tell” and the legalization of same-sex marriage in many states, amounts to a sea change in the rights of LGBT people in the United States.

In another sign of progress, this year’s U.S. delegation to Sochi includes three openly gay or lesbian athletes: tennis legend and Olympic medalist Billie Jean King, skating gold medalist Brian Boitano and Caitlin Cahow, who won two medals. I applaud President Obama’s decision to include these gifted athletes in the delegation and have been pleased to see political figures such as U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and David Cicilline stand up for equality in Russia and around the world.

In light of these changes, LGBT Americans competing in the Olympics this year can be especially proud to represent their country. That’s not to say that politics and social change will be foremost on their minds.

When Human Rights First asked me to be part of its team in Sochi, I jumped at the chance. I want to be there for American athletes who take a stand for equality. But I also want to be there for American athletes who, having prepared most of their lives for this moment, want to focus on nothing but competing.

Together — American athletes and their supporters — we will show Russians that the United States respects and honors its LGBT citizens, and that LGBT people are just that, people. We’re sons and daughters, activists and athletes. And perhaps we’ll be able to give LGBT Russians hope that better, freer days lie ahead.

But Americans, from President Obama on down, must continue to champion the human rights of Russians over the long haul and continue to call for push for repeal the “propaganda” law.

When the Olympic flame is extinguished, American LGBT athletes will pack up and head home to their increasingly tolerant country. LGBT Russians will remain in a country that, left unchecked, might keep going in reverse.

David Pichler was an Olympic Team Captain and diver in the 1996 and 2000 Olympic Summer Games. He lives in Fort Lauderdale.

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