As international outrage has mounted over Russia's draconian crackdown on LGBT human rights in the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics, attention has naturally turned to LGBT Olympians like Greg Louganis, Blake Skjellerup, and Johnny Weir. That attention intensified once calls started coming for a U.S. boycott of the games, a move opposed by all three men and one that, for the record, isn't going to happen.
Last night, after opening his ESPN show with a nine-minute primer on the Russian laws and a spirited denunciation of Vladimir Putin and the International Olympic Committee, Keith Olbermann interviewed Weir about LGBT rights, Russia, and Olympic boycotts.
What followed was a telling exercise in naiveté and self-absorption.
Weir showed up to the interview wearing a Russian military uniform. While he's been known for controversial costumes on the skating rink, wearing a symbol of the military authority of a repressive nation at a time of a state-sanctioned homophobic human rights crackdown strikes me as poor taste at best, especially for a gay man who loudly proclaims himself a "public cheerleader" of "Russia's continued growth as a democracy."
If We Boycott, I Miss Out
Then there was the interview itself. In introducing Weir, Olbermann told his audience that the skater opposed a boycott, but for reasons that had nothing to do with whether or not said boycott would be effective. Weir explained his position as follows:
"[The Olympics] was all we dreamed about. When I watched my father go to more shifts at work, my mother working jobs that were far beneath her, my brother foregoing certain things so that I could have a new costume or train extra hours with my coach just to go to the Olympics."
"It would be a slap in the face to the people that made me who I am, and gave me the opportunities to be who I am: an Olympian, first and foremost, before a gay man, before a white man, I am an Olympian. That's what I worked for from age twelve."
Note to Johnny: while you're certainly entitled to view yourself as an Olympian "before a gay man," that's simply not true, biologically and chronologically speaking. You may have been training for the Olympics since you were twelve -- and believe me, I have incredible respect for the training you and other athletes put yourselves through -- but you were born gay. Sexual orientation is intrinsic to a person's humanity; being an Olympian is not. So whether or not you place your gayness ahead of your Olympic identity, you were a gay person long before you set foot on the ice for the very first time.
Weir went on:
"And a boycott would negate all of that and also, it would basically punish all of the non-LGBT athletes that would be on the U.S. Olympic team for Sochi."
Here's the thing: I'm not saying we should boycott Sochi -- I fall more into the "show up, defy the law, and speak out publicly for LGBT rights" camp (mostly because it's far too late to successfully implement any alternative plan). And as I said above, I give mad props to Olympic athletes. I can't even imagine the kind of preparation they go through or the sacrifices their families make. And like much of the rest of the world, I enjoy watching them push the human body to its outermost limits, for the glory of sport and the honor of their teams.
But arguing against a boycott solely because of the impact it would have on you and other athletes is the height of selfishness. It places a higher priority on the athletes' feelings -- or even their Olympic dreams -- than on the LGBT people and families in Russia who are being persecuted and having their most basic human rights violated.
The worst that can happen to the former is that they might lose out on a medal or a lucrative endorsement deal. The worst that can happen to the latter is imprisonment, death at the hands of an angry mob fueled by state-sanctioned homophobia, or -- if a proposed new law passes -- children ripped from the arms of their same-sex parents.
No Olympic medal is anywhere near that important.
Then there's this:
"What we need to do is... to be united, all of the Western countries that support gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender unions and lifestyles and our ability to be equal...
"Us showing our excellence and being supporters of... my lifestyle, my livelihood, my equality -- that's so important to show the world."
Ummmm, Johnny, it's 2013, not 1983. LGBT people don't have unions, we have marriages. We don't have lifestyles, we have lives -- sexual orientation isn't some kind of lifestyle choice, it's an immutable particular of a person's humanity. Those terms may have been acceptable in the 1980s, but they sure as hell aren't now. If you're going to be working the talk show circuit, you owe it to your community to update your vocabulary.
The Mother of False Equivalencies
Weir closed with an apparent reference to the Supreme Court decisions in June overturning Section 3 of DOMA and allowing Proposition 8 to fall in California:
"Just a few months ago -- I live in New Jersey, so I'm not even still considered an equal human -- I wasn't considered an equal in this country. So why should I stay away from another country that doesn't consider me equal, and why should I not show the world what I've worked hard for, and many people like me?"
The equivalency implied in Weir's statement (that the difference between the treatment of LGBTs in Russia and the U.S. is only a matter of degrees of discrimination) is utterly without merit; in addition to the difference in degrees, the two countries have a fundamental difference in trajectory. While the pace of change in the U.S. isn't moving along nearly as quickly as it needs to, the fact is that America is progressing in the right direction (towards fuller equality) culturally and politically. Russia, on the other hand, is backsliding -- the New York Times reported last month that a full 88 percent of Russians support the country's new "gay propaganda" law criminalizing public expressions of support for the LGBT community.
Do you see an equivalency there? I sure don't.
But perhaps the most telling part of Weir's entire interview with Olbermann is the last part of that last sentence, which turned out to be the skater's final words on the subject of the Sochi Olympics: "Why should I not show the world what I've worked hard for?"
See, it's not actually about the plight of Russian LGBTs as it relates to the upcoming Olympic Games. It's not about the fact that less than six months from now, the world will tune into a two-week infomercial for a quasi-dictatorial, appallingly anti-gay regime. It's all about the gold-medal ambitions of Johnny Weir.
Johnny, I wish you all the best on the skating rink and in life. But when it comes to your position as a media spokesperson on LGBT issues and sports, I wish you'd just go away.
Watch Weir's interview with Olbermann below: