Martina Navratilova

“Gays and lesbians seem to be the last group of people that is still okay to pick on,” she said, noting that her role as an athlete and a lesbian activist was to “push the ball forward a little bit further for human rights”.

Referring to the words of Nelson Mandela, the South African human rights defender, who died on 5 December in Johannesburg at the age of 95, she said “sport has the power to change the world and has been at the forefront of social change in many countries over the last century”. The world had come far in terms of gay rights over the past decade, but still had a long way to go, she said, adding that the United Nations could help achieve equal rights for all.

Accompanying Ms. Navratilova was Jason Collins, a professional basketball player, who had “come out” publicly as gay earlier this year. Acknowledging the tennis star’s achievements “on and off” the court, including her groundbreaking effort to spotlight the gay rights issue, he said it was important to support everyone to live an authentic and honest life.

Replying to questions about the upcoming Winter Olympic Games to be held in the Russian Federation and anti-gay attitudes there, Ms. Navratilova said athletes must be safe, first and foremost. The real question was what happened after the Games left and the gay community remained. It was not an issue of just one country, she said, noting for example that in Qatar, which had won a bid to host the World Cup soccer in 2022, being gay was punishable by jail time.

Citing the Swedish high jumper who had painted her fingernails in rainbow colours to support gay rights, Ms. Navratilova said she was disappointed at the International Olympic Committee’s reaction to keep sport and politics separate. She argued that those were inextricably linked and should go hand-in-hand.

Asked if gay athletes should boycott the Winter Games, she said she had never supported boycotts because athletes were the ones who would lose. Instead, “they should get more visible”, she said.

To questions about the International Olympic Committee, Mr. Collins said he was not sure how much that organization could do to push the Russian Government to end its gay propaganda law. Members of gay communities should be the centre of attention because the Games were short-lived. The international community could put pressure on the Russian and other Governments, he added.

Ms. Navratilova said that the United States should look at its own problem first before pointing fingers at others. In 29 states, it was legal to fire someone for being gay.

Asked about reactions to their announcements that they were homosexual, Mr. Collins said he had received support from former teammates, coaches and fans. It was extremely important for him to tell his “own truth” so that he could start living his life, without looking over his shoulder.

Ms. Navratilova said that when she “came out” in 1981, it had not been welcomed with open arms. But just by that act, she had “pushed the ball forward”, making a lot of young people feel that it was okay for them to be who they were. She had worked with many organizations to promote gay rights and raise funds, but her biggest contribution had been the visibility.

Mr. Collins said homophobia was not tolerated in the National Basketball Association, as Commissioner David Stern had made certain language and action punishable by a minimum fine of $50,000.

Asked if a position on gay rights should be among the criteria for selecting cities to host big sporting events, he said that FIFA and the International Olympic Committee should choose carefully whom they associated with.

Photo by Angela George [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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