When short-track speedskater Blake Skjellerup was training for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games, he says he didn't feel comfortable enough to be out as a gay athlete to anyone except some family and friends until his races were over. As a boy growing up in Christchurch, New Zealand, he had been bullied and "driven further into the closet" by homosexual slurs that, to this day, "I really don't like to repeat."
He says he realized he was gay by the time he was 16. In subsequent years, he grew tired of the strain of hiding his sexuality. But it wasn't until he arrived in Vancouver, a more gay-friendly city, and found himself walking the streets with his boyfriend, doing simple things like holding hands without fear of repercussions for the first time, that he felt he had grown more fully into who he is. What he shed, he said, "was the fear of having to hide."
Now the 28-year-old Skjellerup is back in training for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in February, and he is stepping out even further. He is the only known out Winter Games athlete who has joined an effort by LGBT rights advocates who are calling for Russia to repeal anti-LGBT legislation ahead of the Games but who are staunchly opposed to the escalating demands for a boycott if Russia doesn't comply.
Skjellerup's reasons for wanting the world to show up as planned in Sochi are based on his personal experience.
But the longer you listen to him, the more it's clear his logic also mirrors the greatest overarching lesson of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights movement dating all the way back to the Stonewall riots or, later, an observation that Martina Navratilova made in her moving speech at the 1993 gay rights march on Washington 12 years into her often lonely existence as one of the few out gay public figures (not just athletes).
"In my humble opinion," Navratilova said then, "the most powerful thing that gays and lesbians have ever done is come out. … We have to make ourselves palpable, touchable, real."
Skjellerup says his life has reflected the same reality. Which is why he is arguing that a boycott of Sochi -- or, in essence, willfully allowing himself to be made invisible again because of homophobia -- is exactly the wrong thing to do.
"I am against a boycott because there is no way I am going to change, or not be who I am, or go back into closet because of my sexuality," Skjellerup said in a phone interview over the weekend from Calgary, Alberta, where he now trains.
"I think it would definitely be more powerful for athletes to attend Sochi than stay away, because I do think having individuals coming out is one of the most important pieces to bring about change, and to bring about understanding about LGBT rights, and to make people see us and realize, 'This person is just a normal person doing what they love and what they've done their entire life. They have a complete right to be in Sochi and to be welcome competing.'"
The question of whether LGBT athletes, visitors and supporters will be both welcome and safe in Russia has become enough of a hot-button issue that the International Olympic Committee felt compelled to make a statement about it on July 18. And the USOC should get around to making one too.
Russia's decision last year to end the adoption of children by gay and lesbian parents drew a lot of attention. But just last month, the country passed a broader law that bans "propaganda" having to do with "nontraditional sexual relations." Any citizen or foreigner visiting Russia can be fined, detained and deported for violating the law. Already, there have been documented arrests, clashes between LGBT advocates and police, and cases of anti-gay violence that would be referred to as hate crimes in the U.S.
Russia has also come under international criticism, including from the European Court of Human Rights, for its treatment of gay people. There is talk of economic boycotts too, of things such as Russian-made vodka.
The IOC said it sought and got assurances from the Russian government about the safety of visitors to the Games, regardless of their stance on LGBT rights. But if even such a vow could be 100 percent guaranteed, the same promise isn't in play for Russia's own citizens. Or LGBT citizens in other nations that also punish homosexuality.
Which is just another reason Skjellerup says athletes should go to Sochi.
LGBT rights groups like Athlete Ally and All Out (two organizations that Skjellerup is working with) as well as the You Can Play Project, a group founded by Patrick Burke and his father Brian, the longtime NHL executive, have taken the same position.
As Patrick Burke argued in this piece last week for Buzzfeed.com, "History remembers the athletes who showed up." As proof, he cited the examples of Jesse Owens competing in Hitler's Nazi Germany and Tommie Smith's and John Carlos' black-fisted salutes at the '68 Mexico City Olympics.
Could the Sochi Games provide some similarly important and transformational messages?
"Our thinking is a boycott not only alienates people, but we are an organization that's committed to ending homophobia in sports," says Brian Ellner, a member of Athlete Ally's board of directors and LGBT activist who was involved in the passage of New York's marriage equality law. "What would it accomplish if we didn't show up to stand with the LGBT community in Russia as a whole?
"We think what the current situation in Russia has actually done is create a tremendous opportunity to create an army of LGBT and straight allies against homophobia in sports and against these kind of laws in general. … Because don't forget, such laws are not just isolated in Russia. People are fighting the same battles in Africa. There's a 'kill' bill in Uganda that literally allows for the execution of gays. LGBT people are fighting to be out and safe in the Middle East. Showing up and making these points in Sochi could lead to tremendous visibility for the message worldwide.
"These Olympics are an opportunity to move global opinion like nothing else."
Boycotts are guaranteed to hurt athletes.
But they're not guaranteed to create other results.
Changing hearts and minds is a hard thing to do. But then, LGBT rights advocates see changes happening at a pace today that seemed nearly impossible even 20 years ago. Sometimes change has happened because of sports.
"Sports has a very powerful way of bringing people together," Skjellerup says.
On Monday, three-time Olympic diving champion Greg Louganis spoke out against a Sochi boycott in the New York Times. In addition to Skjellerup, organizers for the Athlete Ally/All Out campaign say Navratilova, Abby Wambach, Andy Roddick, Megan Rapinoe and Rennae Stubbs are among more than 80 athletes who have joined the call for change in Russia. Former Olympic figure skater Johnny Weir, who may try a comeback, has independently advocated the same thing.
None of them is saying "don't go" to Sochi either.
Skjellerup says he plans on wearing a rainbow pin if he does compete in Sochi. He trusts that the IOC will ensure that neither he nor any other athlete at the Games is at risk. What's important to him is to show up and pay forward the same message that made such a difference in his life: You are not alone.
And what would underscoring that message do?
"It gave me the motivation to rise up," Skjellerup says. "It made me want to take my sport and show I can do great things."
Hard to argue with that. Already, he's gone from a gay kid who was once bullied into a man confident enough to roll up his sleeves and help lead an international public policy fight.