Perhaps no other Olympics have sparked as much controversy as the Games in Sochi. Russia has been heavily criticised in the West for its stance towards the LGBT community, and with Sochi in the spotlight, those voices have never been louder. But how justified are those criticisms? Are those who preach tolerance being surprisingly intolerant in calling for a boycott of the games? And are western societies really as accepting of the LGBT community as they argue Russia should be? Oksana is joined by Olympic gold medallist and LGBT activist Greg Louganis to dive into these issues.
Oksana Boyko: Tolerance, inclusion, empathy understanding - these are values that the LGBT community has long stood and called for. And yet the newly adopted style of LGBT advocacy is anything but tolerant and inclusive. Do calls to boycott the Olympics and other sporting events really help to fight against homophobia? Well to discuss that I’m now joined by five time Olympic medallist and one of the world’s greatest divers, Greg Louganis. Mr Louganis it’s a big honour to have you on the show.
Greg Louganis: Thank you. It’s great to be here.
OB: Now, the Sochi Olympics are almost over and so far we haven’t heard a single gay athlete complain of discrimination and mistreatment. Isn’t that a sign that all those allegations of supposed LGBT persecution in Russia were a bit blown out of proportion?
GL: Well, I’ve also been following on the Internet. I’m not watching NBC, just staying true to not supporting the sponsors of the Olympics, and so in seeing what’s happening in Russia, you know, there were arrests, there was a transgender individual that was taken away, escorted away from the one of the venues. You know, so yes, I mean there are things that are happening. I think that NBC is sweeping a lot of them under the carpet, we’re not hearing about lot of the things but you can find lot of the true information on the Internet.
OB: But isn’t this something that also happens routinely in many of the Western countries? As far as I understand, violence against gays and lesbians and transgender people has been on the increase in many of the Western countries, in particular in the United States. In 2012, I believe it was at the highest level since 1998.
GL: Yes, I mean we’ve been making strides forward in some areas and then in some areas of our own country, I mean, we’ve been taking steps backwards. But I think that with the LGBT community, you know, I was able to get married in the State of California, the state that I live in. Many of the states are following suit. You know, justifying that legislating marriage or legislating love, and that’s all it is, is unconstitutional.
OB: Well Mr Louganis, just to put things into perspective, all of those legislative progress not withstanding, according to the FBI, in 2012, around 1300 hate crimes motivated by homophobia were registered in the United States. 1300 crimes. In Russia, in the same period of time, just 12 were registered. You may dispute the Russian figures, they were compiled by one of the leading watchdogs here in the country, nongovernmental watchdogs but, you know, 12 hate crimes motivated by homophobia in Russia compared to 1300 crimes in the United States, don’t you think that, you know, we may have a bit skewed picture here and the situation in Russia may not be as critical as it is usually described, at least compared to the United States.
GL: You know, I feel that I take issue with that, because in order to register a hate crime, then you have to feel that you have support behind you. I think that a lot of times those statistics are not quite accurate because people are afraid to report a hate crime as a hate crime, so because of the climate of the mentality that they are living in. I think that more people, I think that in the Unites States, I think that we are more comfortable to say ‘yes, this is a hate crime’, because we know by law, you know, for the most part we are protected by law, you know, to not be discriminated against in most of the United States.
OB: Well, I think that Russian gays and lesbians are also protected by law not to be discriminated against. There is absolutely no criminal punishment for being gay in Russia. But unfortunately, I agree with you - discrimination doesn’t have to be legalised. Sometimes, it ‘s just social attitudes playing out, and to that point I would like to ask you a question on this style of LGBT advocacy because many people would argue that this very persistent somewhat aggressive style of LGBT advocacy is actually hurting gay people in Russia because many Russians, when they hear those calls to boycott the Olympics, they actually approach gays and lesbians as scapegoats. They believe that the West is all out on Russia because of all those concerns, and I would argue that it’s not making the lives of the LGBT community any easier.
GL: I was born gay. When I was growing up when I was child I didn’t put sexuality to, you know, my identity. I mean, that’s where I’ll ask my straight friends: ‘when did you choose to be straight?’. It's not a choice, we're born this way. It's a human right, it's a birth right, to love and be loved and, you know, that's just my feeling. What I have been saying all along, there's a gay child born in Russia every day and who is protecting that child? These anti-propaganda laws were passed to ”protect children from the propaganda”. I don’t see it as propaganda, it’s all we’re trying to do is live our lives. If you’re up in arms about me holding hands with my husband walking down the street, and you call that flaunting? Well, you know, when you have a married straight couple and they’re holding hands, their arms around each other making out, I mean, is that flaunting?
OB: I think we come to the issue of sexuality and I think there are a lot of cultural differences when it comes to sexuality, homosexuality or heterosexuality. Russia is well, new Russia is at least, a fairly young society. It is barely 20 years old and I don't know if you know that, but back in the Soviet Union, sexuality, any form of sexuality was highly supressed and many people, to be honest with you, didn’t even know about homosexuality as a phenomenon back then. For example, my grandmother didn’t know at that time that gays existed. So I think that Russia is far more uptight when it comes to any expression of sexuality: heterosexuality or homosexuality. Why do we have to accept your social norms rather than being able to evolve those norms ourselves?
GL: But we are sexual beings. Like it or not we’re, whether we are straight or gay, you know, we are sexual beings. That’s our nature.
OB: I’m sorry for interrupting, but you know that again sexuality expresses itself very differently in different countries. In Saudi Arabia they have, you know, one set of rules, and being gay there may get you executed. In Russia, people have a different set of rules. In Japan, for example, social norms are also different. I don’t understand why all those countries, why the rest of the world has to accept Western norms, especially given that many Western countries only adopted, you know, marriage equality and non-discriminatory policies toward gays less than a decade ago?
GL: It’s not a question of Western, Eastern, anything like this. This is a question of humanity. How are we treating human beings? Like I said it’s a birth right to love and be loved. The Pope has come forward in support of the LGBT community to to say who is he to judge? Who is the government to judge?
OB: But it’s not about the government. The problem is that in many post-Soviet states, in many Arab states, people have, well you can call it, a homophobic view, but essentially the society is not yet ready to accept that. Seventy-five percent of Russians support this law. I for example, don’t support it, but who am I to tell those 75% or who are you to tell those 75% of Russians that this is the way they are supposed to live their lives, this is the way that children have to be taught. Why do you think that your right to self-expression or your right to hold hands with your husband supersedes their right as parents to protect their children or not to expose their children to information that they dislike?
GL: But what if their child is gay?
OB: Well, the law in and of itself doesn’t preclude that child reaching out.
GL: Do we want to extinguish that grouping, you know, of society? Suicide rates amongst gay teens is higher than any the other populace of people. Because of whether it be inundated with religious views or, you know, with these anti-propaganda laws that are passed by a country where, you know, the government shouldn’t be in my bedroom. Well, everybody is entitled to a private life.
OB: But Mr Louganis you are arguing for expressing your sexuality in public. Absolutely, you are within your private life, within your right. When you come to Moscow, I hope it happens soon, when you come to Moscow, you come with your husband, you stay together in your hotel room, you do whatever you want but, why do you feel entitled to being able to, you know, express your homosexuality or your sexuality publicly among people who are actively asking you not to do that?
GL: Well, it’s, you know, why can’t I express myself as a human being, as an individual, as a whole person? Straight people flaunt their sexuality on a daily basis with pictures of their children, their grandchildren.
OB: Well, they flaunt their sexuality in United States, but not so in this country.
GL: Oh yes they do! I’ve seen many pictures of their weddings, you know, from the straight community from Russia. I see pictures of their children. Isn’t that flaunting their sexuality?
OB: Well, I think they would say that it’s the majority living, you know, what they call normal life, but you cannot argue that. Homosexuality is still a minority behaviour. I don’t want, you know, it used to be pathologised even in your country. I don’t want to subscribe to that way, but you have to take into account the fact that homosexuals only account for 5 to 7 let’s say or 8% of the population, and that means that this is a minority behaviour.
GL: OK, so what? So what? Blacks were a minority in the United States and they didn’t have right to vote. Women did not have right to vote, but they’re human beings. Take the labels away and they’re human beings. And it’s a birth right to love and be loved. However we express that it’s really our business and the government shouldn’t tell me how to act. I am not saying that you have to do this. I am not telling anybody that they have to do anything. All I am doing is expressing myself and have the freedom and liberty to express who I am.
OB:But Mr Louganis, on the other hand, there is this expression – ‘In Rome do as Romans do’, but unfortunately we have to take a short break now. When we come back, Western governments have up until recently had a long track record of persecuting sexual minorities and yet they are now at the forefront of the “Rainbow revolution”. How much of this is pure geopolitics? That’s coming up in few moments on Worlds Apart.
OB: Welcome back to Worlds Apart where we are discussing the politics of gay rights with five-time Olympic champion and diving legend, Greg Louganis. Mr. Louganis, I know that recently you joined the number of gay advocacy groups in calling on the International Olympic Committee to deny the hosting of the games in the future and other sporting events to the countries which have, what you describe as, discriminatory anti-gay laws. I wonder, how do you define discrimination, because it can mean anything from capital punishment for being gay to the lack of recognition of same sex marriages. What is the discrimination for you?
GL: Well, discrimination for me is, you know, the lack of freedom of expression, and, you know, whether that be anti-gay laws that were passed, or anti-propaganda laws that were passed in Russia, or the laws of Uganda where it is a crime to be who you are. My view is why are we not celebrating a human being? And every human life is valuable. I mean we wouldn’t have Tchaikovsky, we wouldn’t have Nureyev, we would have Martina Navratilova. You know, these are incredible individuals who happen to be gay.
OB: Mr Louganis, I totally agree with you. I think that because there have been so many inaccuracies and sometimes outright falsehoods on this law, I just want to make it clear that, again, in Russia at least, being gay is not criminalised. There are absolutely no punishments for being gay in Russia. The only thing that this law precludes is spreading information, favourable information on non-traditional sexual behaviour, and by the way, that law doesn’t even mention homosexuality or gay, it has no mention of that, even though I assume it’s implied.
GL: OK, but what, I mean, I’m sure that there are other non-traditional, you know, straight contingencies. What, are you going to legislate against couples who swing, trade partners or it is only a certain type of sex that you are legally able to have? So, what is propaganda? You know, it’s so unclear. The thing that’s disturbing to me with the passing of these laws is, who is protecting the child who is questioning himself, who might be LGBTQ. Who is supporting them?
OB: Well, his parents for example.
GL: Because they’ve being told by their government that they are wrong and that there is something wrong with them. And also, the other thing that is disturbing that is coming out of Russia, is that people are equating homosexuality with paedophilia. Now, if you do your research, paedophilia and homosexuality are two separate issues. They are not even near each other.
OB: I actually agree with most of what you say. I think the only correction I would make is that it is not people in Russia who are equating homosexuality with paedophilia, it is actually people in the West, who are seeing some of the disturbing videos coming out from Russia, who are equating paedophilia with homosexuality, because there are a number of vigilante groups here in Russia who try to set up paedophiles actively seeking out dates with minors. And they are presented as attacks on homosexuals which is simply a straight out lie.
GL: OK, so I don’t live in your country so I don’t know the information you are getting and what’s available to you. You don’t live in my country and lot of times the information that you are getting about us is a little skewed. So, no, I think that there is lot of education going on in the United States. That’s the reason why I‘m speaking all over the country – colleges, universities – and talking to young people, embracing the differences of other people but also celebrating the similarities. We all want to be loved, you know, and we all have right to be loved.
OB: Well, it is hard to disagree with that, but speaking more formally about the institution of marriage, do you think that the lack of recognition for same sex marriage represents a form of discrimination?
GL: Definitely, because as a gay person we’re second class citizens. This was one of my mom’s biggest concerns. She passed in 2004 and, you know, her tears, you know, when I came out to my mom telling her that I am gay, you know, she was very tearful and she said you will always be a second class citizen because you won’t be able to be married and you don’t have the same rights as the straight individual does. Love is love I mean, and so that shouldn’t be villainised.
OB: I agree with you, but Mr Louganis, I think many people feel extremely protective of the traditional definition of marriage, not only in Russia, but also in your country. And since you mentioned some non-traditional sexual behaviours earlier, like for example polygamy and polyamory, I wonder how far are you willing to go with the redefinition of marriage? Do you think that people who have polyamorous relationships should also be entitled to register those as marriage?
GL: You know, that’s not part of my culture so I really can’t answer that. All I can do is represent myself and speak for myself, you know, truly. And I fell in love with Johnny Chaillot, we got married on October 12, and I appreciate that we have that ability to do that.
OB: Well I am very happy for you, but coming back to your Olympic proposal, do you realise that if the International Olympic Committee were to accept it, the pool of potential candidates to host any big-time games would be extremely narrow and your own country, the United States, would probably not make the cut. The problem is that the United States itself has at least 12 states that have sodomy laws on the books, so will you be content with your own country being denied the right to host, let’s say the 2024 or 2026 Olympic Games? As far as I understand, the United States is actually considering that possibility at this point.
GL: In my view, sure, they should be kept to the same standard as everyone else. I mean the IOC should be, you know, set the example to say you know what, the Olympic ideals and true sport, you know, we don’t condone any type of discrimination.
OB: Mr Louganis, let me get it straight, so as a former Olympian you would actually welcome the United States being denied the chance to host the 2024 Olympic Games because of these sodomy books that exist in Texas, Alabama and some other states as well.
GL: Sure, I mean that they not be held in Alabama because, you know, the United States is so big. We have all of these different states, I mean, and we have very accepting states. You know, I don’t put them…
OB: But this is one country you have to take the responsibility.
GL: I don’t live in the United States, I live in California.
OB: That is a very interesting answer. If I could ask you one more question on politics. I know that you describe yourself as non-political person, but on the eve of the Sochi Olympics, President Obama said that he has no patience for countries discriminating against gays and lesbians, and that’s despite all those sodomy laws the United States itself has on the books, but I wonder why do you think the politicians are so eager to join the LGBT cause now? Because in Russia, many believe that all this rhetoric is more anti-Russian then pro-LGBT, given that, again, the type of discrimination that exists in your country against LGTB people.
GL: The United States is a very large country and we’re divided up into states and there are certain states that are very open-armed and accepting. There are some states that follow some traditional religious rhetoric which, you know, things are also changing in those areas where a lot of those laws that are being submitted are being voted down as unconstitutional, and I think it’s a minority that is kicking and screaming and trying to raise a ruckus. We are not anybody to fear at all.
OB: Mr Louganis, I think I asked you this question before, but let me crystalize it a little bit. You just said: ‘we aren’t people to be feared’, and yet the style of LGBT advocacy recently has been very aggressive, has been very, you can even call it, discriminatory because you, after calling for inclusion and tolerance, what you are now calling for is boycotting, isolating and shaming, and I wonder if you find this style of advocacy a bit counterproductive for the LGBT cause because, after all, it’s going to hurt LGBT people on the ground. You know, all those people in the United States of America, all those activists - they will be fine, they will make names for themselves, but those people who are living here, the LGBT community here, may be subject to more animosity than it used to be.
GL: OK, I never said boycott. I’ve never said boycott. I was all in favour of the games going on because Olympic boycotts hurt the wrong people. It hurts the athletes. I was involved, I competed in 1976, was a silver medallist in 1976. We boycotted the 1980 boycott in Moscow because at that time the Soviet Union and Afghanistan which I didn’t agree with. You know, I wanted to go there as an athlete and show our displeasure in another way and still be able to compete. In 1984, I won two Olympic gold medals but the Eastern bloc countries weren’t there so it wasn’t a full representation of the Olympic Games. I was also then able to continue on, by the grace of God, to compete in the 1988 Olympic Games and was successful there in winning two gold medals. Olympic boycotts hurt the wrong people. When you are talking about commerce and business, I believe that those boycotts do work. It makes those businesses and those people with the power to take another look.
OB: Again, Mr Lougains, I totally agree with you. In the few seconds that we have left, can I just clarify? Because you just said that you do not support Olympic boycotts and yet I saw your name, your signature, under a statement calling on the International Olympic Committee to deny future games to countries that discriminate, or you believe that discriminate, against gays. Can you clarify these two somewhat conflicting bits of information?
GL: OK, yes. OK, the petition that’s out there because I believe that it was Ukraine that was submitting a bid for the Olympic Games.
OB: Russia was also mentioned there.
GL: Russia was also mentioned; it’s been a while since I read it. Yeah, you know, I think that the IOC needs to hold themselves to their own charter which states, in Principle 6, that there is no discrimination and so, you know what, you can put China in there too. We were in Beijing and they don’t have the greatest human rights record.
OB: Well I think that by those standards, very few countries would qualify, but Mr Louganis, unfortunately we have to leave it there. I really appreciate you being on the programme and to our viewers, keep the conversation going on our Twitter, YouTube and Facebook pages and hope to see you again, same place, same time, here on Worlds Apart.