There are reasons why the LGBT community responds so strongly to athletes who come out publicly; it remains an extremely difficult decision to make and can lead to serious consequences, from career damage to physical and emotional harm.
The LGBT community’s connection to the world of professional sports and athletics has a strange and sometimes dark history that may go unnoticed by the rest of society. It’s often in the junior high and high school gymnasium that many gay people first experience rejection from friends and family members. For many in the LGBT community, it’s in the gymnasium where it becomes obvious that their interests and talents often veer from some older and more accepted standards.
And it's often on the gymnasium floor where sexual identification is confronted, and where many gay young people are crudely exposed as different. The tall young boy who has no aptitude for basketball, the teenage girl who wants to play hockey are often suddenly treated with suspicion.
President Obama’s decision to send openly gay athletes as part of a diverse delegation to the Sochi Olympics sends a clear message to Russian President Putin that the US doesn’t approve of Putin's crackdown on the LGBT community. Tennis legend Billie Jean King and hockey star Caitlin Cahow will accompany the US delegation to Russia.
Politicians have long used minorities to further their personal ambitions. And Putin has taken several steps in recent years to reshape Russia’s image as a strong and assertive emerging power, highlighting declining US influence whenever the opportunity arises. The former KGB leader is frequently seen preening his personal image of masculinity and power.
Putin has made it extremely risky to be out in the new democratic Russia, despite the rich contribution Russia’s LGBT community has made to art, literature, and philosophy. LGBT people who are perceived as somehow influencing Russians who are 18 and under can be severely punished, which largely defines being gay in that country as deviant and unacceptable.
The presence of gay athletes at Sochi is a milestone for the LGBT community here, as well as a message of solidarity with the community in Russia, where the wrong word or gesture could land a person in prison. Though Olympic rules prevent athletes from making political statements, the presence of our LGBT athletes and delegates will be a proud moment.