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Q&A with Charley Walters, Expert on the LGBTQ History of the Olympic Games

Charley Walters

The intersection of LGBTQ interests and identities with the Olympic Games is a rich and multi-faceted one. After the Winter Games in Sochi in 2014, when gay rights and issues were brought into the limelight after Russian leaders tried to snub them out, we embark on the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a longtime gay cultural destination and landmark.

In spite of reports that violence and homophobia are on the rise in Rio, gay Olympics expert Charley Walters is excited to be attending the Games, and sat down with Out to discuss the history of gay culture at the Olympics, how both visitors and athletes can remain safe, and highlights we shouldn't miss.

OUT: How did you get into the Olympics as a field of study and expertise?

Charley Walters: In some respects I’m always in Olympic mode. I would say I switched into Olympic mode at age 6, when I first watched the Games on TV in ‘84. I became pretty obsessed at a young age. My dad was a former Major League Baseball player—he used to play for the Minnesota Twins. So I was encouraged at a very young age to be into sports and to play sports. And I did, I played year-round sports. I played baseball, track, I was a skier, I played tennis...it was always a big part of my life. Fortunately I wanted it to be, it wasn’t like I was pushed into sports, I really enjoyed them. So watching the Olympics, that was my dream at a young age to somehow be an Olympian, and I started training on my own, kind of training for as many little things as I could, and I learned very quickly how hard it was to be an Olympian... But tennis and track & field were my two main sports I was pursuing, even throughout college. And then when I found out I couldn’t necessarily compete, I decided I was going to be a gold medal spectator, and I went to my first Games in Sydney in 2000. And I’ve been to every Olympics since, Rio will be my eighth Games.

And how did you bring the LGBTQ angle into it?

CW: At some point in life I had an intersection where I realized I was LGBT, and also that I loved the Games. That would be somewhere around Sydney—when I first was there I was 20, 21 years old. I recognized that there is a whole side of the games that LGBT people really enjoy, I think a lot of them are into sports, a lot of them are into the ceremonies, the pageantry, and the drama of gymnastics and swimming and that sort of thing. When it came to actually covering the Games, I decided I wanted to show a little bit more of that side, kind of the color, commentary and cultural side. And that’s what I’ve really focused on in the past several games.

What have been the main highlights?

CW: LGBT-wise, I think the biggest moment was in Vancouver in 2010, where they started the first-ever Pride House, and I was able to be there. It was a really exciting time for me, because, being gay myself and having followed the Olympics my whole life, this was a great convergence of my favorite things and things about my life. And I’m excited that coming up in Rio will be our first Pride House since Vancouver, which is another big landmark.

What are your specific hopes for LGBT visibility at the Olympics, and sports in general?

CW: I certainly recognized at a young age that there was a lack of LGBT presence and diversity within the sports world, and I think that’s still the case today. We’re on the right track, even though it’s a slow moving train. In London we had 14-16 out athletes, and now we’re looking at close to 30 going into Rio [UPDATE: The number now stands at 46]. I think that double statistic is really exciting. It’s still very disproportionate. We have 12,000 athletes, and only that percentage of them are out. Of those, at least two thirds are women, so there’s something a little bit off here. I think we still have a long way to go in terms of people being comfortable. I know for a fact that there are a good handful of other gay athletes who have made the choice to not come out. I think that’s their personal decision, [but] I obviously wish many of them and more of them would tell their stories.

Why do you think they don't?

CW: I think it has a lot to do with homophobia in sports. If you talk to some of the people I know from even what you might consider the “gay” sports like figure skating and gymnastics, I think they still exist in a world where they fear that they might be judged differently—I don’t just mean socially, I mean by their actual scores that they get on the playing field. That is quite sad that that’s a reason why some people might still be in the closet. I do think it's an issue. If you look at people like [figure skater] Brian Boitano, somebody who knew he was gay while he was competing but chose to wait after his retirement to actually publicly come out. He talks about how he thought that that was one of the reasons he might have been scored differently. And that’s too bad. That was back in the 80s and 90s, but I think even today there is this layer of homophobia that exists in sports, to some degree. I think it’s getting better, but until we send a clear message and tell these stories and hopefully see some of these athletes doing really really well despite and aside from their sexuality, I think we’re still going to see that for a while. We’re headed in the right direction, I personally don’t think it’s fast enough though.

What is your opinion on how LGBT athletes and issues were handled during the Sochi Games in Russia?

CW: When I look back to Sochi, going to those games as a journalist...it was a little scary. When I told people I was going there, based on what the media had set up as the expectation, people were legitimately worried about my safety there, just as they were for the athletes. I have to say, I got there and it was a little bit of a different story for me personally. I met some gay people on the ground, some local Sochi Russians, who were very welcoming, and they actually invited me out to a gay bar that I didn’t even know existed there based on what I had heard, and there was this huge drag show and it wasn’t necessarily as underground as I thought it was going to be. The media really does play into our expectations.

Within Sochi I never felt threatened one bit. I know it was a different story in outer Russia. Greg Louganis went to the Moscow Out Games that they tried to do there, and he ended up experiencing everything from things being thrown at him to verbal slurs to really not feeling safe. So it’s important to recognize it was a bigger thing. Gus Kenworthy, I think he really seriously thought about coming out during those Games, and decided not to. I think not even because of a scoring issue in his case, but because he was scared based on what the media had set up. And I think he had every right to be. So he made a conscious choice to wait until several months after the Games to come out.

The good thing that came out of Sochi, if we’re looking for silver linings, is it forced this conversation about homophobia in sports, especially with the Olympics. If you look at what’s happened between Sochi and now, we’ve seen at least one major professional player come out in almost every one of the major sporting disciplines. That’s really huge. It’s opened the way for Olympians to feel a little more comfortable, I hope. Apparently homophobia is on the rise in Rio, I absolutely hate hearing that, I think it could be the case all over the world. But it’s too bad that that’s happening, because I was looking forward to this as one of the most gay friendly Games, and I hope it still will be. But now I’m going with a little bit more caution, just given those stories. I really hope it’s something that doesn’t keep LGBT people from coming to the Games, and supporting them, and certainly LGBT athletes from coming out. I personally am encouraging all of my LGBT friends and coworkers and people involved with the Olympics to go and support these Games more than ever, because I think we need to make a statement.

What about safety at these Games?

CW: My suggestion is to pay close attention to the various protocols that have been set up to take care of all attending visitors. There are areas that are designated as safer to stay in than other areas. One of those areas is near Ipanema Beach, which happens to be the gay area. It’s also the center of a lot of the cultural activity for the Games, both LGBT and otherwise. That’s where the Pride House is going to have one of its two locations. In one respect I guess you could think of that as being a potential target, but I think of it as a place where we need to be more visible than ever. But I would say maybe avoid going to some of those other areas. A lot of the big gay clubs...happen to be in a not-great area. I probably will not be going there as much as I might over something like New Years. I think people should be on guard. Come for the Olympics, stay for the Olympics, support the LGBT-sanctioned Olympic areas, but maybe don’t venture out as much as you might otherwise.

What are you excited about in terms of Rio specifically?

CW: Being at all these Games, the Brazilians have come out in such force and pride [more] than any other nation for every Games—that’s what made me really excited seven years ago [when Rio was selected for the 2016 Games]. If they can show support at all these Games—winter and summer, even if they don’t have such a big presence athlete-wise at the Winter Games—the Brazilians still come, and cheer more loudly and party harder than any other country. There are going to be spectacular moments from these Games!

LGBTQ athletes to look out for?

CW: There’s a ton of them! I’m really excited to see Victor Gutierrez from Spain. Simone, who is the one out USA athlete on the basketball team, I’m really looking forward to meeting and spending some time with her. Obviously there are some names we’re already familiar with: Tom Daley, who has become a huge celebrity since coming out in the UK. Megan Rapinoe, if she ends up competing...those are the people I really want to meet and highlight and tell their stories.

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