After the Olympics in Sochi -- and yes, I was rather disappointed that I was not a part of the official U.S. delegation -- there was the LGBT-affirming Russian Open Games in the five days between the end of the Olympics and the beginning of the Paralympics, which finished up this past weekend.
In the fall of last year, Konstantin Yablotskiy and Elvina Yuvakaeva, the founders of the Russian LGBT Sports Federation, invited me to be an ambassador to the Russian Open Games. In the same spirit that spurred Dr. Tom Waddell to start the Gay Games, they started the Russian Open Games to build self-esteem in the LGBT community and its allies through sports, much like the Olympics Games are supposed to use sports to transcend politics, religion, gender, and race.
I responded with a "yes!" I wanted to support the LGBT community by supporting their event. With escalating violence in Russia against LGBT people, that is what we were told they wanted us to do.
The graphic videos were all over the Internet, and they were very disturbing: young boys lured out, thinking they were meeting another youth of like mind, only to be beaten, humiliated and tortured until they were forced to say they were pedophiles. Mind you, one of these boys was only 17. This disturbed a great many people in the LGBT community all over the world.
Staying true to my word, I did not watch the Olympic Games on NBC. I only caught a glimpse of it when I stayed at some friend's house with my husband when we happened to be in Palm Springs for a friend's wedding over Valentine's Day weekend. Nowhere did I see any sign of protest over the violence against LGBT people in Russia. Just recently, I heard from a friend who'd been there that they even had a gay bar and LGBT entertainment and seemed very accepting!
In my opinion, that was wonderful "propaganda" for Putin, designed to deflect attention from the new Russian laws that effectively prohibit displaying rainbow flags in front of minors and make it illegal for LGBT people to express their identity, hold hands or kiss in public. Even a visitor to Russia could be detained in accordance with these new laws.
It was a Tuesday when I received the email from Konstantin asking if I would come to Russia. After I said yes, I started to wonder, "Will I be safe?" The U.S. delegation had protection in Sochi, and Russia showed them its best face. But this was Moscow, for the Russian Open Games. I decided that it was time to walk the walk, say what I mean, and mean what I say, which I work at doing every day.
Obtaining that visa required a lot of running around, and it was not cheap, but the travel service promised that I would have it by that Friday, in time for a Monday-afternoon flight from LAX direct to Moscow, where I'd be arriving the following morning. (Unfortunately, there was no chance for an upgrade on the airline.) I think they used my name to help rush the visa through. It's handy when they know who you are. And when I shared why I was going -- for good cause, with good intentions -- they got so excited but expressed concern for my safety. I was scared too, so I knew it was the right thing to do.