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Op-ed: One Year After Sochi, the Silence Is Deafening

Op-ed: One Year After Sochi, the Silence Is Deafening


Was the global outrage at Russia's anti-LGBT propaganda law just a flash in the pan?

LGBT people in Russia have the same challenges they had before the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

This is troublesome, to say the least, and I'm not OK with this.

One year ago this month, I landed in Russia -- a place that leading into the games was drawing international criticism and attention for its treatment of LGBT people living there. That attention, as I feared it would, has now diminished. It's an example of a media cycle that has sadly become a recipe for apathy.

I trust you are not OK with this either.

Last year's Olympic Games brought together athletes, coaches, fans, and government officials from all over the world to celebrate sporting excellence. As Russia opened its doors to people of different languages and cultures, only LGBTQ people were made expressly unwelcome.

In fact, the official government line was this: "No one is forbidding an athlete with nontraditional sexual orientation from coming to Sochi, but if he goes onto the street and starts propagandizing it, then of course he will be held accountable."

Those are the facts.

As a proud and out gay man, going to Sochi for work was one of the most difficult and morally uncomfortable decisions I have ever had to make. I was called on to go into a country where our LGBTQ brothers and sisters were suffering and remain silent. That just ain't me.

Silence is like a slow and painful death for me, but alas, there I went. I did my job and then I came back. And for the most part, I behaved as prescribed.

Reflecting on that month in Sochi, and also on the incredible things that have occurred in the world of sport over the past year, it's clear to me now that we have an amplification problem. In no way are our small victories here at home being shared or experienced universally. So, to mark the one-year anniversary of those unnerving days in Sochi, I decided to do the gayest thing I could think of.

I went to San Francisco. And I looked through windows.

The Twin Peaks Tavern (now a city landmark) sits at 401 Castro St. It opened in 1935, and it is known to be the first gay bar to feature full-length open plate-glass windows. It is also a living and lasting symbol of the liberties and rights gained by LGBTQ people in the 20th century.

I had a chance to meet one of the co-owners of the bar, who shared with me some of his memories from the more than 25 years of him working there. I sat there quietly listening and observing, sharing a drink with men who had more to teach me than any history book ever could.

As I looked out through the bar windows I could see the rush of people walking along Castro Street. They could see me too. On any given day, this experience wouldn't be a big deal to me, except, back then it was, and in countries like Russia, it's an impossible concept for many.

I let all that sink in, completely overwhelmed with emotion: Proud, sad, but mostly just incredibly happy to be there at that moment. As one of the co-owners explained: "The legacy of Twin Peaks is the windows. That's pretty much what we're known for. Because of them, being open in a period of time when you could be fired for being seen in a gay bar ... that's pretty significant. The windows caused the gay movement to move forward -- no hiding from society."

No hiding.

In the months leading to and after the Sochi games, we have seen more athletes come out and more professional and amateur sporting organizations declaring support for fairness and equality within their locker rooms and boardrooms than ever before. What a difference a year makes.

Across the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe, athletes at all level, are finding the courage to stand up and say, "I am an athlete and I am gay."

Equally important, our straight allies are standing proudly alongside us and saying no to discrimination in sport, and they're doing this in a powerful and unrelenting manner. Organizations -- professional leagues and those of Olympic proportions -- are saying they've had enough.

To win, the world of sport is steadily learning that athletes -- no matter who they love -- need to be at their best. And being at your best means loving and accepting yourself fully.

It is clear that the toxic, traditional athletic environments, drenched still with homophobia and sexism, are slowly being confronted and changed. We are witnessing a shift in the culture of sport -- a movement that has now gained enough momentum to be legitimately excited about the possibility of necessary changes ahead.

In a way, we have Sochi, President Putin and the attention cast upon Russia to thank. It allowed "us" to differentiate ourselves from "them."

But that is just a baby step.

As we continue to cheer our wins here at home and pat ourselves on the back for all the advances in sport, there exists an enduring and painful reality. Our progress, our momentum, is obscuring the way we view the realities elsewhere around the world. Our progress -- as important and needed as it may be -- is enabling complacency.

Last month Russia showed its true colors to the world again -- this time going after transgender people and attempting to deprive those people, so often in the margins of the LGBTQ spectrum, of the human right to drive a vehicle.

In the past year, we've been consistently reminded of the scores of gay men and women being gang-raped, beaten, and murdered in places like Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, and all over eastern Africa.

In December one of Latin America's most prominent LGBTQ advocates was murdered. And according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, that murder was only one of nearly 600 in the Americas (between January 2013 and March 2014), in which the victims were mostly transgender women.

Sadly, those are only the stories we're aware of.

So I have to ask: Where is the collective outrage in our community? Where are the street marches to embassy footsteps and the online and media campaigns that were so prevalent prior to and during the Sochi games? Why have we, exactly one year after the Olympic flame was ignited in Sochi, suddenly all gone quiet?

PAULO SENRA is a member of the Toronto United Soccer Club, a competitive gay international team. He competed in the Montreal 2006 Outgames and in the London 2008 and Washington 2009 International Gay and Lesbian Football Association World Championships. More recently he has competed in LGBTQ-focused soccer and rugby tournaments in Lisbon, Las Vegas, Madison, and New York City. Paulo currently works in communications with the Canadian Olympic Team and is a You Can Play athlete ambassador.

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