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    Gay Olympians Standing Strong and Proud

    By Jamie Leno Zimron–

    Two gay American athletes, figure skater Adam Rippon and freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy, made heroic headlines even before the 2018 Olympic Winter Games began. They both refused to meet with Vice President Mike Pence, chosen by Donald Trump to be the official leader of the U.S. delegation in Pyeongchang, South Korea, or to attend any post-Olympics celebrations traditionally hosted by the White House. Adam Rippon, standing brave and proud, told the press: “I would absolutely not go out of my way to meet somebody who I felt has gone out of their way to not only show that they aren’t a friend of a gay person but that they think that they’re sick.”

    On The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Kenworthy questioned what he called the strange choice of Pence to lead the Americans, and then via Reuters said, “I am very proud to represent the U.S. but I don’t stand by Trump and his cabinet … I do not want to feign approval for policies that are in place and things that are being pushed at the moment.”

    During the Games, Adam’s skating has been sequined and spectacular. He hasn’t held back an iota of his outspoken, wonderfully over-the-top personality and passion for his sport, the U.S. team, and the entire Olympics experience. An article for Outsports by Cyd Zeigler declared: “Adam Rippon is allowing America to love a (really) gay athlete.” NBC tried to hire him as a commentator for his delightfully sassy smarts, but he chose to stay close with his teammates.

    While Gus wasn’t able to match his 2014 silver medal, the kiss he shared with his boyfriend just before one of his runs was caught live on TV and went viral. He tweeted: “Being here now, out and proud and living my life authentically, I’m walking away more fulfilled without a medal than I did at the last Games with one.”

    Courageously combining their athleticism with activism, both Adam and Gus are earning gold as amazing agents of social breakthrough and transformation—and have told Pence to eat his heart out!

    Rippon and Kenworthy are Olympic leaders in the charge against this administration’s virulent anti-LGBTQ attitudes and policies. For the record, Mike Pence has said he’s “a Christian, Conservative and Republican, in that order.” He supported a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, which he defended not as discrimination but as enforcement of “God’s idea” of marriage. (Seriously). He opposed repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, even when top military personnel wanted it gone. Heedless of rational American business leaders, he opposed the 2007 Employment Non-Discrimination Act protecting gay rights in the workplace.

    As governor of Indiana in 2015, Pence signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to allow businesses to refuse service to LGBTQ customers. He wants to deny gay people not only as employees, but as consumers. Pence rejected President Obama’s directives for transgender people to use the bathroom that fits their gender identity. He is fiercely anti-abortion and does not support women’s control over their own bodies and lives. Further, he warns that homosexuality and marriage equality are bringing about “societal collapse” through “the deterioration of marriage and family.”

    Trump, against all of his own campaign pronouncements and promises, has proven to be actively anti-gay. A recent Vox article calls Trump a “giant con,” who campaigned as a friend of the gay community yet has “directed its army of federal lawyers to take the anti-LGBTQ side in court cases … and done some extraordinarily petty things, like refusing to recognize Pride Month.”

    Along with his racist and homophobic Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Trump is courting the evangelical agenda to take away LGBTQ protections and to legalize discrimination in health care, social services, employment and housing, business—anywhere they can concoct in the name and guise of so-called religious freedom. Their latest attempt, just weeks ago, is the formation of a new “Conscience and Religious Freedom Division” in the federal Department of Health and Human Services Office of Civil Rights. It would let medical services actually be denied to gay and transgender people.

    With painful irony, we all need to be reminded of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, when there was an international outcry and movement to boycott the Games in protest of the draconian anti-gay measures Vladimir Putin was instituting. Those punishing policies have only escalated over the past four years, resulting in terrifying human rights abuses and the jailing, suicides and homicides of scores of our brothers and sisters in Russia and neighboring countries. I looked back at my San Francisco Bay Times Olympics’ article published exactly four years ago, and want to share some of what I wrote then. It is important to remember how Putin’s policies were sending shivers through us all, gay and straight alike:

    “Anyone, gay or not, can be fined or thrown in jail for expressing support for us—much less being us! Teenagers are isolated and bullied; kids can be taken from LGBTQ homes; and homophobic hatred, harassment and violence are all on the rise. In St. Petersburg, local organizers of a film festival and the American makers of the Oscar-winning Milk movie had to persevere through 5 bomb threats to do a screening. It is all a brutal and shocking legal reality threatening the most basic human rights and physical safety of people in Russia—and of the thousands of LGBTQ athletes, family, friends, coaches, fans, and straight allies arriving now in Sochi.”

    Fortunately, there have been no such threats in Pyeongchang, and gay athletes like Adam and Gus are shining in and beyond their sports and moving history forward. In just these four years, however, we find ourselves living through the most shocking and bitterly ironic reality going on right here in America. Every day in the U.S. now, we are facing new threats to the well-being and very lives of LGBTQ people—along with immigrants and non-white citizens—at the hands of our own leaders, Putin-style. Given the confirmed Russian meddling in our elections, major messing with the very foundations of our democracy, and Trump’s affinity for authoritarianism and for Putin himself, this is all profoundly troubling in our own country and to people the world over.

    Forbes quoted Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn telling CNN at her 4th Olympic Games: “I take the Olympics very seriously and what they mean and what they represent, what walking under our flag means … I want to represent our country well. I don’t think that there are a lot of people currently in our government that do that.” 

    We are beginning to see more brave Olympians like Vonn who are standing together with Rippon and Kenworthy. A number of Philadelphia Eagles champions declined to attend the annual Super Bowl celebration at Trump’s White House. These courageous athletes are making a difference, together with fans everywhere, by speaking out and standing up in the face of the daily assaults on so many communities by the dangerous waves of xenophobia emanating worldwide from Washington.

    There are a record 13 publicly out gay Winter Olympians in Pyeongchang, including, for the first time, elite male as well as female athletes. Here is a list of these awesome athlete-activists (thanks to LGBT Olympic historian Tony Scupham-Bilton):

    1. Emilia Anderson Rambolt, ice hockey player and 2-time Swedish Olympian, married her wife Anna Ramboldt in 2015.
    2. Belle Brockhoff, snowboarder from Australia, came out prior to the Sochi Games in protest of Putin and his oppressive laws in Russia.
    3. Brittany Bowe, U.S. speedskater, is dating fellow competitor Manon Kamminga from the Netherlands.
    4. Jorik Hendrickx, Belgium figure skater, came out just last month.
    5. Daniela Iraschko-Stolz, ski jumper from Austria, is married and won a silver medal in Sochi.
    6. Barbara Jezeršek, cross country skier who competed for Slovenia in 2014 and Australia this year, told Outsports: “It’s hard to come out no matter that we live now in a more open world. On the end of a day it’s all about sport and we do it with biggest passion. But if we can share it with our partners it’s even better.”
    7. Gus Kenworthy, slopestyle free skier from the U.S. and a 2014 silver medalist, is one of NBC’s “faces of the Games.”
    8. Cheryl Maas, Dutch snowboarder and 3-time Olympian, is married to former Norwegian snowboarder Sine Brun Kjeldaas, and is co-mom to their two daughters Lara and Mila.
    9. Simona Meiler, 3-time Olympic snowboarder from Switzerland, likes being out to reduce stress: “[Athletes] have to be ready to give everything and perform wholeheartedly, and in my eyes that’s only possible if they can accept and express their sexuality … and if an athlete’s closer environment is supportive and encouraging.”
    10. Sarka Pancochova, snowboarder from the Czech Republic, similarly talks about how helpful it is not to hide anymore. This is her third Olympics and she says she’s ‘stoked’ to be out for the first time!
    11. Eric Radford, 2-time Olympic pairs figure skater from Canada, is engaged to be married. He came out after winning silver in Sochi and says he’s not afraid, even though judging in his sport is so subjective. He also shared the benefits of being a gay skating partner, joking that he’s “the ultimate pair-boy” since so many skaters get romantically involved off-the-ice and relationship tensions can risk their on-ice performances.
    12. Ireen Wüst, speed skating “royalty” from the Netherlands with gold medals in the 2006, 2010 and 2014 Olympics, plus 3 silvers in Sochi. Openly bisexual, she married Letitia de Jong in 2017. 
    13. Adam Rippon, who came out in 2015 and is the first openly gay American figure skater, almost didn’t make the team. He broke his foot last year, nearly quit skating 4 years ago, fell on the opening jump of his free skate, and is the first Olympic skater his age (28) in 82 years.

    Out of 2500 Winter Olympians in 2014, only 6 were openly gay, which works out to 0.0024%. Thankfully that number has doubled this year and is primed now to rise higher. But we have a very long way to go, given that LGBTQ people make up 10% of the general population yet are nowhere near 10% of professional sports teams or Olympic delegations. Transgender athletes continue to be barred in many competitions, and none have been chosen or hired to compete at the highest or even lower levels of sports.

    As during the 2014 Olympic protests against Putin, my hope in today’s outcries against the backwards homophobia of evangelicals like Pence, Trump and their “base,” is that more Americans will take notice and shift the way they think about gay athletes and all LGBTQ people. Again, from my 2014 San Francisco Bay Times article (since I couldn’t say it again better myself!):

    “The sports world remains one of if not the hardest places to be queer, or to come out. More brave LGBT athletes are daring to share their sexuality publicly, but it’s still only a trickle. The number of out-athletes remains fractionally tiny, because it’s still a very perilous road for them, their performance, their careers and endorsements.

    As we sit in the comfort of our homes watching TV, let’s root for human rights and equality to take the torch and triumph in these Olympic Games. Let’s give our loudest cheers to known LGBT athletes and straight allies from any nation, who are willing to take a stand against discrimination and oppression, and for the true ideals of all humanity … And let’s look for ways we ourselves can stand up in support of full human rights for every athlete and person on the planet.”

    Olympic competitors have been told not to bring their political views and feelings onto medal podiums. At the same time, the International Olympic Committee has said that they are free to express themselves away from official venues, and in their own press conferences and social media posts. Let’s support them as they come out, compete, and speak out, and take our own stands right alongside these great athletes of our critical times. Thank you, Adam Rippon and Gus Kenworthy, for speaking out and leading the charge with the force of your Olympian talents, courage, authenticity and sweet love!

    Jamie Leno Zimron is a Corporate Speaker, Executive Trainer, LPGA Golf Pro, and 6th Degree Aikido Black Belt. Watch for Part 2 of this article next month, “Standing Centered and Strong,” and please check out her website: