“I’m not coming, have some lesbians instead.”
That may not be the exact wording of Obama’s RSVP to next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. But in picking tennis star and lesbian icon, Billie Jean King, along with gay hockey player Caitlin Cahow as his delegates, the US President certainly seems to be giving homophobe extraordinaire, Vladimir Putin, a star spangled middle finger.
Earlier this year, the Kremlin implemented a noisome little bundle of new anti-gay legislation. Russia’s recent “gay propaganda” law, strikingly similar to the Thatcher government’s Section 28, criminalises conveying homosexuality to children as anything other than undesirable and unnatural. Since this and other homophobic laws were enacted, LGBT rights organisations worldwide have been piling pressure on the International Olympic Committee to pull the winter games out of Sochi. While the IOC has failed to take any protest action, the US government has stepped in by stepping out.
Perhaps Obama is still sore over Russia granting asylum to Edward Snowden, or perhaps he finds skiing duller than a three day filibuster on federal trade laws. Whatever the reasoning is behind the President’s Sochi snub, it’s a bold move – especially for a leader who’s so often accused of being ineffectual. It’s also unlikely that he’s including two lesbians in the US delegation by pure accident. For the first time in fourteen years, the US won’t be sending its President, or anyone vaguely presidential (the Veep, for instance) to an Olympic games. Either US-Russia relations are meandering back towards Cold War levels of intimacy, or Obama is a giant rainbow flag-waver.
Billie Jean King has said that she hopes the Russia-hosted games will be a “watershed moment for the universal acceptance of all people”. Putin has pledged that, throughout the games, no athletes or visitors will be prosecuted for small acts of protest, like wearing rainbow badges. Yet the fact remains that Russia has effectively criminalised homosexuality. In making one of the world’s most famous lesbians a US representative in legally homophobic country, Obama is breaking the relative silence of world leaders when it comes to condemning Russia’s new legislation. The “we’re here, we’re queer”-ness of the US Olympic delegation may not be groundbreaking, but it certainly draws attention to where it’s needed. Post-Cold War, some of America’s intercontinental ballistic missiles are lesbian-shaped.