Rob Douglas: Sexual identity politics and the Olympics
December 19, 2013
Political grandstanding may be the only remaining common denominator between the left and right in American politics.
Just as it was wrong back in July for Sen. Lindsey Graham to call on the United States to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, because Russian President Vladimir Putin granted asylum to NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden, President Barack Obama's decision this week to use the U.S. Olympic delegation as a political tool to oppose Russian laws against "nontraditional sexual relations" is shortsighted.
First, some background. As reported by the Los Angeles Times this week:
"President Obama's decision to send two openly gay athletes to the 2014 Sochi Olympics as part of the U.S. delegation continued to reverberate Wednesday.
"Christine Brennan, a columnist for USA Today, called the move 'genius.' The Human Rights First organization referred to it as a 'positive message.'
"On the other end of the spectrum, veteran Olympic reporter Alan Abrahamson criticized Obama for playing politics in the sports realm and potentially jeopardizing an American bid for the 2024 Games.
"The choice of delegates is seen as a strong response to recent Russian legislation that threatens prosecution for anyone who promotes 'nontraditional sexual relations' in the presence of minors. Critics worldwide have spoken out against the law, saying it effectively bans events such as gay rights parades."
Further, according to the Times:
"The U.S. will send tennis great Billie Jean King and hockey player Caitlin Cahow — both openly gay — along with several government officials. The delegation’s other athletes include figure skating gold medalist Brian Boitano and speed skaters Eric Heiden and Bonnie Blair.
"Sochi will mark the first time since 2000 that the U.S. delegation will not include a president, former president, vice president or first lady.
"The French and German presidents had previously announced that they will not attend the Games."
As the last sentence notes, Obama isn't the only head of state who will skip the Olympics because of the Russian government's position on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. And Obama isn't the first U.S. president to use the Olympic Games to make a political statement.
But with Obama personally boycotting the Olympics because of the host country's laws regarding sexual norms that are still evolving in almost every country around the world — including here at home — he has opened the U.S. to charges of hypocrisy.
For example, only 17 states and the District of Columbia currently allow same-sex marriage. In many of those states the right to marry came from a court, not a ballot box or legislature. American opinion of LGBT rights, while shifting in favor of the LGBT community, remains deeply divided and highly controversial. Notably, Obama's personal view on same-sex marriage didn't "evolve" to the point of public support until May 2012 — just 19 months ago.
Given Obama's very recent and politically suspect support of same-sex marriage, and the still intense generational division when it comes to the recognition of LGBT rights in the U.S., Obama's boycott lacks the personal integrity and national unity necessary to influence Russia or any other country.
Nonetheless, Obama has calculated that personally boycotting the Olympics while sending openly gay athletes as leaders of the U.S. Olympic delegation is an advantageous way to call attention to indefensible laws impacting the LGBT community in Russia. In so doing, Obama's gambit to shame Russia may have the unintended consequence of focusing global attention on inequality when it comes to LGBT rights in America.
Still, no matter what their personal views are when it comes to LGBT rights in Russia, the U.S. or anywhere else in the world, I suspect most Americans and Olympic athletes would prefer that the Olympics be about athletic competition, not sexual identity politics.
To reach Rob Douglas, email rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com