Op-ed: How Gay Can I Be In Sochi?

By Ryan Howe

Originally published on Advocate.com February 07 2014 8:30 AM ET

At 7:30 a.m., I walked into my little brother’s room with tears already running down my face. My mom was unwrapping him from the baby-blue blanket in his crib when I told her. It wasn’t graceful. Through my sobs, I muttered out, “I’m gay.”

It didn’t faze her. She took a step toward me, holding my brother in one hand, and wrapped the other around my neck as she replied, “It’s OK. I know you are. I see your Internet history.”

I was a sophomore in high school. With eyes still puffy, I held my head high that day. The weight of harboring a secret identity from everyone I knew and loved dissipated with my newfound sense of pride. I busted out of the closet, breaking the door off the hinges in the process. I changed my sexual orientation on MySpace that day.  

I haven’t looked back since — until six months ago when I joined the ranks of BSU at the Games.

The immersive-learning program at Ball State University would be sending a team of student journalists to Sochi, Russia, to cover the 2014 Winter Olympics. As an aspiring journalist, this was a professional opportunity I could not miss. For 10 days, I would gain unparalleled experience as a reporter while attending the most culturally diverse event on the planet.

But I was torn.

The hardships LGBT people in Russia are facing — being arrested for unfurling a rainbow flag or beaten for something as simple as answering an online dating request — are enough to scare any member of the gay community from going to this year’s Games. I dove into researching the laws and what it meant for visitors. And as I researched, I became petrified.

My Plan A: Don’t think about it.  

Working two jobs, taking 18 credit hours, and pumping out stories about Olympic athletes kept my mind from focusing on the doubts creeping through it. But the topic re-emerged every time a peer learned I was going.

“Are you going to get different clothes?”

“Do you think your voice will throw them off?”

“Aren’t you scared about going to Russian prison?”

Plan A was failing.

I couldn’t escape the fact that I was going to Russia as a gay man. I was reminded every time I walked into a gay bar, tried re-enacting Beyoncé’s dance moves, or watched reruns of RuPaul’s Drag Race. I knew I couldn’t run away from a major part of my life and character.

Two weeks before Halloween, I went home to see my family and get some advice. As I walked into the house, I saw my older brother sitting on the dryer wearing his high-top Nikes and Cincinnati Reds hat. I asked him how to blend into the straight community.  

“Be yourself, man,” he said. “If you’re that worried about it, take my wedding ring and wear it around. But I’m not sure a wedding ring will cover up how gay you are.”

The backhanded advice was a joke, but I still stole a glance at his left hand. The thick silver band sat snugly on his finger. We have the same body build, so the ring would surely fit me. I could rent a tuxedo for a day and have one of my friends take marriage pictures with me. My mind began racing with poses, locations and the flower arrangement I could throw together.

My Plan B: Stage a beautiful church wedding and convince everyone I was happily married to a woman.

I recruited a good friend, who was going on the trip with me, to be my wife. I already knew a photographer who could take pictures. I had years of practice kissing women while drunk. It was perfect.

I began mapping out my stereotypical hetero life. I was using it as an excuse to make light of a very serious situation, as if laughing about it made it any less degrading.

However, as I sat with the other reporters going to Russia one day, the topic of safety arose. Soon enough, the conversation switched over to how the gay photographer and I would survive in such a hostile environment.

“Just try to wear something to blend in.”

“Don’t stare at men for too long.”

“Ryan will be OK; He doesn’t look too gay.”

I sat quietly through the meeting. I stopped taking notes and stared at my phone the entire time. Luckily the meeting didn’t last long, and I headed home directly after. The entire 20-minute walk was filled with songs from the Scissor Sisters album Magic Hour. And with every song change I could feel the fear slowly subsiding as pride grew.

Wearing a wedding ring wouldn’t change the fact that I fantasize about Tom Hardy making out with Chris Pratt. My strut down the Muncie, Ind., sidestreets resembled the one I proudly wore walking into school after coming out to my mom, or the first time I went to a pride parade, or after my first date with a man.

My Plan C — still in effect: Stop worrying about Russian persecution or prison so much that I chauffeur myself back into the one prison I fear the most: the closet.

 

RYAN HOWE is a student at Ball State University, and is participating in BSU at the Games, which is a freelance news agency operated by 22 student journalists reporting from the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games through an immersive-learning program.