Patricia Nell Warren

Lesbian Fencer Speaks Out in Beijing

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | August 14, 2008 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Gay Icons and History, Politics, Politics
Tags: Imke Duplitzer protests, Olympics, out athletes

German fencing champion Imke Duplitzer -- Fechten3.gifone of the 10 out athletes in Beijing -- may have missed a gold medal yesterday in women's individual épée, but she should get a diamond-studded platinum medal for speaking out on human rights. Gorgeous gutsy Imke is right in the middle of that firestorm in China, around the PRC's human-rights policy. As far as I know, she is the only one of our 10 who has spoken up.

It's surprising that the American LGBT media haven't paid much attention to this extraordinary story involving one of our own -- though they've had Duplitzer on their lists of who's out in Beijing. Yet Duplitzer's protest activities have been highlighted by a wide variety of mainstream media, from CBS News, USA Today and Time, to New Republic, Earth Times and Spiegel (all of whom neglected to mention that she is a lesbian).

Duplitzer unsheathed her verbal sword before she ever got on the plane, during a lengthy pre-Olympics interview with Epoch Times. The dark-haired fencer made some thoughtful comments on the complexity of issues facing athletes (including herself) who want to follow their consciences, but who also want to have sports careers and the opportunity to compete internationally. She pointed out that athletes boycotting the Beijing Olympics would risk damaging their careers. For herself, the choice was to go to Beijing and make her position known. Duplitzer scored a big touché on the IOC by criticizing what she describes as the Committee's failure to give much guidance or support to athletes on how to handle this delicate issue.

According to a report I found on Yahoo and other sources, Imke also joined eight other German athletes who posed for the cover of a German magazine, Suddeutsche Zeitung, protesting the arrests of Chinese dissidents.

Duplitzer put her own sports career on the line to make these statements. She and some other German Olympic team members have modest professional incomes and don't make millions at their sport, so they were financially strapped and barely able to get themselves to Beijing.

After arriving in Beijing, Duplitzer skipped the opening ceremonies as a protest. Last but not least, she joined with 127 international athletes, including some gold medalists and 40 individuals who are actually competing in Beijing, in signing a respectful but frank open letter to Chinese president Hu Jintao. They asked that the PRC seek peace in Tibet, end the death penalty, and protect human rights in China. The letter was issued by Amnesty International and International Committee for Tibet. The quiet activism by athletes competing in Beijing has been virtually ignored by U.S. network Olympics coverage, who aim to keep American viewers entertained and focused on the "feel good" side of the Games. Unlike speed skater Joey Cheek, who found his visa revoked by China because of his pre-Games protests, the 40 letter-signers have evidently been treated with a more hands-off approach by Chinese authorities -- so far, anyway.

Meanwhile, the Games go on, and competition for women's individual épée just ended. Unfortunately Imke had only one shot for a medal in her specialty. The épée is one of three types of sword used by today's sport fencers (the others being the saber and foil). She narrowly missed the podium, finishing 5th in the overall épée rankings. There's some Beijing footage on YouTube that shows her fencing in the quarter-finals, and losing 15-11 to Hungarian épéeist Ildiko Mincza-Nebald (who went on to bronze).

Beijing did not include women's team épée in its program, so Imke is out of luck for this Olympiad. Ironically, the Chinese have been out of luck in fencing medals too -- at least, so far --though they love martial arts and have been hungry to end European domination of this ancient sport.

A veteran of the German military, Imke is also an Olympics veteran -- of the 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008 Games. At Athens she took silver in women's team épée, and has an impressive lifetime roster of national, military and world-championship medals. Some time prior to the Athens summer games in 2004, Imke posted the news of her lesbian orientation on her personal website -- which is where I found her when I was researching my 2004 article on the LGBT presence in fencing.

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Thanks for covering this for us, Patricia. It's a big risk for any of the athletes to speak out, let alone any queer athletes.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | August 14, 2008 8:43 PM

Thanks for the sharing this, Patricia!

And bravo to Ms Duplitzer for finding a way to remain true to herself and her values while navigating the difficult waters of international sports.

And btw, am I the only person who finds the agressive nationalism of some of the American athletes at the Olympics off-putting, especially in light of our actions in Iraq? Have their been any symbolic actions on the parts of American athletes to acknowledge the horror of the war?

As a former competitive fencer myself, I was especially happy to see this post. One of my heroes from back in the day was foilist Jana Angelakis, who competed on the U.S. Olympic team in 1984 (and qualified for the boycotted games in 1980). She was profiled as an out athlete in Curve in 2004. (I don't believe she's ever been as political as Duplitzer, though.)

I'll reiterate Patricia's point about these athletes putting their careers on the line in a sport with very little money for its athletes. Fencing is also very equipment intensive, and stuff breaks pretty often. A new foil or epee blade rated for international competition can run $130-150, and one needs to have several at any given time (not to mention $1000-1500 worth of protective gear).

Kudos to Duplitzer for speaking out.

Bruce, I share your curiosity about this. My guess is that our athletes have been told off the record to keep quiet about this subject, because of the U.S.'s financial relationship with China. I'll keep covering this subject, and see what I find.

You can follow the link I provide to the Time Blog, where the letter and signers are posted. Unfortunately the nationalities are omitted, but there are somed notable names, including German gold medalist equestrian Ulla Salzgeber.

Good for her! She makes me proud of our community yet again!

We've actually been covering gay and lesbian athletes in Beijing at Southern Voice. It's been interesting to watch their progression.

Hey Ryan -- I checked out Southern Voice's Beijing coverage. Thanks to everybody at your publication for tracking all our athletes.

The TV coverage, from what I've been reading on various web forums, is skewed from what you're getting in America. Too bad I don't speak German!

But it is interesting that they signed a letter to ask for an end to the death penalty, among other things. Would they have done the same thing if the games were in America?

Alex, the same thought crossed my mind. Every single thing that the Amnesty letter asked of China, they could ask of the U.S.: an end to the death penalty, more protection for dissent and human rights, and a commitment to peace with other countries where we have no business engaging in "military actions."