King's inclusion a form of protest
I have an Irish author to thank for reminding me of a quote from American history that has become my mantra as I struggle with the terms of engagement for journalists and athletes alike at the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.
The African-American activist and writer Frederick Douglass is a major presence in Colum McCann's latest novel, "TransAtlantic." One sentence Douglass utters in the book was so pitch-perfect that I hustled to the Internet to research its context.
"When a great truth once gets abroad in the world, no power on earth can imprison it, or prescribe its limits, or suppress it," Douglass said in a speech in 1888. "It is bound to go on till it becomes the thought of the world."
Douglass was talking about his belief that women were entitled to vote, a right that wouldn't be conferred in the United States for many years. His words transfer well to where LGBT rights are on the world's curve right now: A movement that is out of the genie bottle but far from universally accepted.
President Obama has named three openly gay former athletes -- tennis pioneer Billie Jean King, two-time Olympic ice hockey medalist Caitlin Cahow, and 1988 figure skating gold medalist Brian Boitano -- to delegations that will attend the Opening and Closing Ceremonies in Sochi. Boitano released a public statement Thursday about his sexuality, a subject he had previously declined to discuss.
The President has chosen to stay home himself and is not sending other top government officials as is customary. He is using protocol as a tool to help spread a truth.
King is probably the most visible gay figure in all of sport. Her presence will mean more than the president's absence. It is a symbolic body shot to the Russian legislation that subjects its gay citizens to humiliation and abuse.
As part of the official delegation, King has to be treated just like other dignitaries. She won't have to wear a rainbow pin or raise a fist or kiss another woman to make a statement. She will stand in the stadium as a champion, a businesswoman, a philanthropist and a mentor, someone whose life and potential weren't constrained because of her sexuality. She will stand as a whole person as opposed to a subhuman susceptible to "propaganda," in the language of the Russian law.
King's presence and the president's absence also represent something that, interestingly enough, the International Olympic Committee has explicitly asked athletes not to do.
Make no mistake. This is a protest. This is civilized disobedience. Perhaps other heads of state will follow suit.
I know there are people in my own country who disagree with me about homosexuality, about gay marriage, about what constitutes a family. My fellow citizens can think and say and write what they feel, or practice religions that don't sanction any bond except that between a man and a woman. However, they are not allowed to entrap and physically assault gay people, incidents that reports out of Russia indicate are on the upswing in an increasingly poisonous atmosphere there.
I also know there are people in other countries who might be offended by some of our policies and lifestyles and would resist supporting an international sporting event in the United States. The U.S. delegates in Sochi will not be emissaries from a perfect society.
There have been calls to boycott these Games, and I respect that view. There are days I feel like bowing out. I have three gay family members, all in their 20s, brilliant and beautiful and poised to give an incalculable amount to the world. I cannot conceive of a society that would impede their paths with institutionalized discrimination. I regard Russia now with far more apprehension than I did during my Cold War childhood. I know that noble gestures at the Sochi Games may not translate into any appreciable improvement in the lives of gay people there.
A growing number of people and nations have gravitated to acceptance of the whole range of sexual orientation, readjusting their sensibilities in the same way previous generations did for gender and race. One family at a time has come to understand that attraction is seldom simple, that love is love and true commitment is something to celebrate across all lines.
Yes, those "politics" have seeped into these Winter Games. There will be predictable lamentation about that. Human beings don't like tension, and this is a tense topic. But the fact is international sports and politics have always been intertwined, despite awkward efforts to separate them by those fans who simply want to escape into games, and by some athletes and handlers who would rather not be "distracted" by a petty subject such as civil rights.
I will carry my values and the faces of my loved ones in my knapsack when I go to work for three weeks in Sochi. My wish list will be no different than any other Olympics, in some ways. I will hope for a peaceful three weeks; safe conditions for athletes, staff and spectators; enough snow; and working transportation and wireless.
But there's one additional item. Since the United States has made a conscious decision to participate, I hope that participation has some constructive impact. I think the moment during the opening ceremonies when the American athletes march in and make eye contact with the U.S. delegation that includes King could be part of that.
A great truth has gotten abroad, and it is not about to duck back into the closet.