Bruni: Striking Olympic gold

New York TimesAugust 6, 2013 

Frank Bruni

Bruni

THE NEW YORK TIMES

Imagine this: It’s the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. A huge television event, watched the world over. The U.S. Olympians join the proud march of nations. They’re our emissaries, our exemplars. And as the television cameras zoom in on Team USA, one of its members quietly pulls out a rainbow flag, no bigger than a handkerchief, and holds it up. Not ostentatiously high, but just high enough that it can’t be mistaken.

Another American follows suit. Then another, and another. Within minutes the flags are everywhere in the U.S. delegation, subtly recurring bursts of color and of honor, a gay-rights motif with a message: We’re here in Russia to compete, but we’re not here in Russia to assent. We have gay sisters. Gay brothers. Gay neighbors and friends and fans and probably teammates, and we reject the laws of a land that deems it OK to arrest them for speaking their truth or us for speaking up for them.

This silent show of solidarity would wordlessly mock recently enacted Russian legislation against propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations, which, let’s be clear, doesn’t mean gay recruitment pamphlets, as if such literature existed. It’s more vague and potentially broad than that. It could mean something like “Modern Family.” It could mean logos and ribbons and, yes, flags: anything connoting pride rather than shame. Anything asserting that gay people aren’t miscreants, predators, trash.

The law is an outrageous act of hatred in a country of nearly 145 million people that fancies itself a global leader and should know better. And as the U.S. Olympians’ imagined rebuke of it sank in, the country’s authorities would be forced to stand by and seethe. Confronting the athletes would only heighten attention to what they’re doing. For the duration of the opening ceremony, before the eyes of the world, our values, not Vladimir Putin’s, would prevail.

Over the past two weeks, alarm over Russia’s anti-gay campaign has grown louder, beginning with a must-read op-ed article by playwright Harvey Fierstein in The Times. And there have been increasingly urgent calls for Americans to do something about that campaign, which extends to adoption regulations and tourist restrictions.

Fierstein has floated a boycott of the Olympics. There’s precedent. Meantime, gay bars in the United States and other countries have heeded a plea from LGBT rights advocates to remove Russian vodka from their shelves, in the hope that economic pain will equal legislative pressure on Russia to repeal its anti-gay laws. Advocates have trained their ire on Stolichnaya vodka, or Stoli, in particular.

But that focus exposes a flaw in the vodka boycott, well intentioned but imprecise.

“While Stoli’s ingredients — wheat, rye and raw alcohol — are Russian, the vodka itself is distilled in Latvia and distributed in the U.S. by William Grant & Sons USA, an American subsidiary of a Scottish corporation,” a recent post on Time magazine’s website noted.

As for a U.S. boycott of the Olympics, it would punish athletes who’ve been training and dreaming and sacrificing for years. It might redirect the conversation from how Russia treats gays to whether the United States overreacted. And it would close off the kind of statement that U.S. athletes have a thrilling opportunity to orchestrate. Maybe that statement isn’t a flag but “a visible pin, an armband, a bracelet,” as Greg Louganis, an openly gay diver who won medals for the United States in three Olympics, recently suggested. Maybe it’s something small stitched into the uniforms.

Leaders of the advocacy groups Athlete Ally and You Can Play and the website Outsports, all of which specifically promote LGBT sensitivity among athletes, oppose a boycott.

“History remembers the athletes who showed up,” Patrick Burke, a founder of You Can Play, wrote in a post for BuzzFeed.

History would certainly remember U.S. athletes who signaled their belief in the dignity of gays and lesbians, lending action to the sometimes hollow words that America serves as a beacon to the world, a city on a hill, a champion of human rights. History would also remember athletes from the many other countries that might be persuaded to follow our righteous lead.

Imagine rainbow flags or comparable symbols not just in the U.S. delegation but in the British, French, Argentine and South African ones. Imagine what that would say and how that would feel to a 14-year-old girl watching from rural Oklahoma, where she worries hourly about her attraction to other girls and its impact on her future. Or to a 35-year-old gay man in one of the many African countries where homosexual acts are punishable with lengthy prison sentences or even death. Or to a lesbian or gay Russian of any age.

That’s an Olympic moment to rival any quadruple toe loop. That’s pure gold.

Email Mr. Bruni at editorial@nytimes.com.

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