How the U.S. Is Protesting Russia's Anti-Gay Laws During the Olympics

The U.S. Olympic delegation will look different than in years past, with specific additions and omissions to protest Russia's anti-gay laws. Who will represent the country in Sochi?

By Chris Hoenig

They're not calling it a protest, but the United States' disapproval of Russia's anti-gay laws are equally clear both in who will and will not be representing the U.S. at the opening and closing ceremonies of February's Winter Olympics in Sochi.

The official U.S. Presidential delegations include three openly gay athletes—former tennis player Billie Jean King, figure skater Brian Boitano and ice-hockey player Caitlin Cahow. King will attend the opening ceremony on Feb. 7 as part of a delegation led by former Attorney General/Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, while Cahow will attend the closing ceremony as part of a delegation led by Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns. This will be the first time since 2000 that a current or former President, Vice President or First Lady will not lead the nation's representatives.

"I am equally proud to stand with the members of the LGBT community in support of all athletes who will be competing in Sochi and I hope these Olympic Games will indeed be a watershed moment for the universal acceptance of all people," said King. Joining King and Napolitano, currently President of the University of California system, at the Feb. 7 opening ceremony will be U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, 1988 figure skating gold-medalist Boitano and Presidential Advisor Robert Nabors. Boitano also announced he's gay for the first time publicly on Thursday.

Cahow and Burns will represent the U.S. at the Feb. 23 closing ceremony alongside five-time speedskating gold-medalist Bonnie Blair, five-time speedskating gold-medalist Dr. Eric Heiden and McFaul.

"An impressive group of officials and iconic athletes will represent our government at the upcoming Olympic Winter Games in Sochi. We're honored to assist their participation in any way that we can and certain that America's elite athletes will put on a great show," the U.S. Olympic Committee said in a statement about the delegations. Neither the White House nor the USOC statements refer directly to Russia's anti-gay laws or the sexual orientation of the delegates.

First Lady Michelle Obama led the U.S. Presidential delegation to the 2012 Olympics, while Vice President Joe Biden did so in 2010.

In October, the USOC extended its nondiscrimination policy to include sexual orientation. In announcing the policy expansion, USOC CEO Scott Blackmun also expressed support for U.S. Olympians who have spoken out publicly against Russia's laws. "We have told our athletes, your athletes, where we stand and we have given them the freedom to express themselves in the run-up to the Games however they see fit. I'd point to the comments made by Nick Symmonds and Bode Miller as good examples of that," Blackmun said. "It is important for us to emphasize that we believe the law is inconsistent with the fundamental principles of the Olympic and Paralympic movements."

Russia's anti-gay propaganda laws, enacted in June, ban gay-pride rallies and the sharing of information about the LGBT community with youths. There has been concern within national and international Olympic committees that the broad wording of the laws could make it a crime for athletes to wear pins or otherwise demonstrate their support for the LGBT community during the Games. Violating the laws carries thousands of dollars' worth of fines.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he hopes the Games will showcase a more modern Russia. More than $50 billion is being spent to host the Games, the most in Olympic history, but while the money is being spent on modern technology—the country has been storing snow for years to make sure all of the events can take place in Russia's only subtropical region, where the average high temperature in February is 50 degrees Fahrenheit—many world leaders see the new anti-LGBT laws as archaic.

German President Joachim Gauck and French President Francois Hollande have already announced they are boycotting the Winter Games.

Vickers "Vic" Cunningham, a former Dallas judge who's running in the Republican primary runoff election for Dallas county commissioner on Tuesday, decided to provide his children a monetary incentive to condone homophobia and racism. Cunningham set up a living trust with a clause rewarding his children if they marry a white, straight Christian.

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The Equal Justice Initiative, sponsor of this project, has documented more than 4,000 "racial terror" lynchings in the United States between 1877 and 1950.

The first memorial honoring the victims includes sculptures and art depicting the terror Blacks faced; 800 six-foot steel, engraved monuments to symbolize the victims; writings and words of Toni Morrison and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; and a final artwork by Hank Willis Thomas capturing the modern-day racial bias and violence embedded in the criminal justice system and law enforcement.

Among memorial visitors were civil right activist Rev. Jesse Jackson and film director Ava Duvernay. According to the Chicago Tribune, Jackson said it would help dispel the American silence on lynchings, highlighting that whites wouldn't talk about it because of shame and Blacks wouldn't talk about it because of fear. The "60 Minutes Overtime" on the memorial just three weeks earlier was reported by Oprah Winfrey, who stated during her viewing of the slavery sculpture, "This is searingly powerful." Duvernay, quoted by the Chicago Tribune, said: "This place has scratched a scab."

The Montgomery Downtown business association's President, Clay McInnis, who is white, offered his thoughts to NPR in reference to his own family connection to the history that included a grandfather who supported segregation and a friend who dismantled it. "How do you reconcile that on the third generation?" he asked. "You have conversations about it."

A place to start: The Montgomery Advertiser, the local newspaper, apologized for its racist history of coverage between the 1870s and 1950s by publishing the names of over 300 lynching victims on Thursday, the same day as the memorial opening. "Our Shame: the sins of our past laid bare for all to see. We were wrong," the paper wrote.

The innumerable killings of unarmed Black men and the robbing of Black families of fathers, mothers, and children today not only strongly resemble the history of lynchings, but also bring up the discomfort and visceral reactions that many have not reckoned with.

Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and the man who spearheaded this project, told NPR: "There's a lot of conflict. There's a lot of tension. We're dealing with police violence. We deal with these huge disparities in our criminal justice system. You know, if everything was wonderful you could ask the question, 'Why would you talk about the difficult past?' But everything is not wonderful."

WFSA, a local news station, interviewed a white man who had gone to see the Legacy Museum downtown, also part of the EJI project, located at the place of a former slave warehouse. He talked about how he was overwhelmed by the experience and that "Slavery is alive in a new way today."

Reactions on social media were reflective of the memorial's power and the work that is continuing toward progress.

During a launch event, the Peace and Justice Summit, Marian Wright Edelman, activist and founder of the Children's Defense Fund, urged the audience to continue their activism beyond the day's events on issues like ending child poverty and gun violence, according to the Chicago Tribune: "Don't come here and celebrate the museum ... when we're letting things happen on an even greater scale."

Perhaps the reason to honor and witness the horrific experiences of our ancestors is to seal in our minds the unacceptable killings of Blacks today, and the work we ALL have to do now to stop repeating the past.

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