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Will gay people be ‘invisible’ in London’s 2012 Olympics?

GSN investigates what London’s Olympic organizers have done to involve LGBT people, give them a presence at the games and leave a legacy for gay sport
London's Olympic and Paralympic stadium is a landmark already but will gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people be 'invisible'?

‘Hard to spot and easy to miss,’ that’s veteran activist Peter Tatchell’s take on the LGBT presence at the London Olympics.

If he’s right, it’ll be a sad irony. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people seem to have been integral to winning the games for London (diversity was a key part of the bid to the International Olympic Committee) and gay individuals and businesses will also play a big role in delivering the games.

But despite the efforts of many in one of the world’s most diverse cities and many more gay sports activists around the globe, there are only a handful of openly gay Olympic and Paralympic competitors due to take part.

And the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG), who are in charge of this year’s games, have failed to give Gay Star News any reassurance that LGBT people will have a visible presence at the games.

Keen amateur rugby player Andy Wasley of Stonewall, Britain’s leading lesbian, gay and bisexual campaign organization, told us he had hoped the games would leave a sporting legacy for LGBT people.

He said: ‘I am incredibly excited about the games. It is a really important opportunity to show the world what kind of country we are and how the country has changed.

‘The Olympics promised a legacy of greater inclusion for all communities. It is a shame then that gay people have seemed to be overlooked.’

Human rights and gay campaigner Peter Tatchell started discussions with the London 2012 Olympic organizers when the bid was won. And he supported LOCOG when it launched pin badges which combine the gay rainbow flag with London’s Olympic and Paralympic logos.

He told GSN: ‘I approached the organizers to ask how they intended to fulfill their promises, not just on LGBT issues but on all diversity strands. I had a series of meetings where we mapped out a whole range of ideas covering LGBT visibility in the opening and closing ceremonies and during the parallel Cultural Olympiad.

‘However since then the only things that have happened have been the pin badges and the recruitment of LGBT volunteers for the games. I am not aware of anything else the Olympic organizers have done or plan to do. It is a huge disappointment. The potential was enormous but the delivery was very weak.

‘It is really important that the key note opening and closing ceremonies have a visible multicultural presence including LGBT representation. We won the bid on the basis that London would stage a multicultural Olympics. Diversity has to be a high-profile element of what worldwide TV viewers see.’

Gay Star News asked LOCOG if gay, bi and trans people would have a visible presence at the Olympic or Paralympic Games, particularly at the opening and closing ceremonies. Their press officer, Julie Burley, asked ‘what kind of presence we would like’. We said that was a matter for community engagement rather than for GSN and asked if that had happened but Burley did not answer that question.

Tatchell said: ‘The Olympic authorities have made a lot of noise about equality and diversity but haven’t got much to show for it. To the average person the LGBT content of the Olympics will be hard to spot and easy to miss.

‘They have absolutely failed to live up to their promises to the LGBT community and London’s other diverse communities.’

Burley did deny that LOCOG’s diversity strategy prioritized certain diversity strands over others.

Gay Star News particularly questioned the strategy’s pledge that ‘We plan to get more women, disabled people and BAME [black and minority ethnic] people actively involved in sport’.

Research shows that most gay people in Britain currently don’t exercise enough and over half of gay young people in school don’t like taking part in sport. Therefore we asked why that pledge had not included lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender participation.

Burley insisted that ‘equal importance’ was given ‘to all diversity strands’ but would not give us examples of how they had tried to encourage gay and trans sportspeople. She also declined to answer when we asked why the strategy was not inclusive in the first place.

However the responsibility for gay people taking part in they Olympics and Paralympics themselves also falls on the International Olympic Committee and the national selectors.

Wasley particularly criticized the British team’s bosses for not doing more. The only two openly gay competitors in team GB this year are both in the Paralympics, equestrian Lee Pearson and sitting volleyball player Claire Harvey.

Wasley said: ‘It is just unacceptable that Team GB has only two openly gay athletes.

‘Gay people are taking part in delivering the games but delivering the games and participation are two different things.’

But even with two, Team GB may be outperforming other national sides. While GSN and many others know of other gay competitors who will be taking part this summer, they are not out. The only exceptions most experts can name are Australian diving hero Matthew Mitcham and gymnast Josh Dixon who may be chosen for the US Olympic team.

Marc Naimark, vice president of external affairs for the Federation of Gay Games, feels LOCOG itself can’t be blamed for this problem.

He told us: ‘LOCOG’s is a committee to deliver the Olympics. It is pretty unfair to expect a host committee to change the general outlook and principles of the organization that owns the event which is the International Olympic Committee.

‘They [the IOC] are promoting religious interference in sport. They have yet to take action against Saudi Arabia for excluding women. They have done nothing to promote LGBT participation in sport.’

One thing LOCOG is doing which might help is including LGBT visitor information in the ‘Athletes Guide’ which visiting competitors will receive. It’s the first time that gay and trans information has been officially available – although the details are not yet public.

LOCOG also say they were founder signatories to Government Charter for Action against Homophobia, have hosted Pride Sport events and expressed support for the LGBT the EuroGames.

Naimark said: ‘We take the commitment of LOCOG to diversity very seriously. I know there are people who are dissatisfied. Maybe their expectations were unrealistic.

‘They promised an awful lot and perhaps people were a bit naïve in believing all those things were possible.

‘It is very easy to criticize but it is more important to learn what was achieved and how it can be reproduced elsewhere.’

Another disappointment outside of LOCOG’s direct remit is the failure of London to host a Pride House. The idea of having a gay, bi and trans hub for the games originates from the last winter Olympics in Vancouver. However, despite much hype, organizers for 2012’s Pride House dropped plans for a festival on south London’s Clapham Common, saying they weren’t able to get the necessary commercial funding.

The 2012 Pride House team is still reported to be trying to set something up, but there has been no confirmation yet.

‘Much of our contact [with LOCOG] has been about a Pride House,’ says Naimark. ‘We were really keen that a Pride House would take place and that it would be aimed at the athletes. We still hope that something will happen.’

With plans for a Pride House at Russia’s Winter Olympics in 2014 being blocked by homophobic judges – although activists still want to go ahead with it – it’s too early to tell if the Vancouver’s initiative will be the last, as well as the first, of it’s kind.

But with British LGBT taxpayers having contributed an estimated £500million ($318million €250million) to the cost of staging the 2012 games, what has been achieved?

One apparent success has been in recruiting LGBT staff for the Olympic authorities and volunteers to help at the games. One report stated that 6% of LOCOG’s staff were drawn from the gay and trans community.

Burley said: ‘We feel that we have created an environment where LGBT people feel able to be included and visible at all levels of our organisation.’

Gay Star News requested similar statistics from the Olympic Delivery Authority, responsible for creating the buildings, parks and infrastructure for the games and was not provided with them.

But the ODA did join Stonewall’s industry leading Diversity Champion scheme which promotes workplace equality. And an ODA spokesman told us they did run sexuality awareness workshops and provided a 24-hour confidential telephone hotline for complaints of bullying and harassment.

And both LOCOG and ODA say they have worked hard to give opportunities to LGBT-owned and run businesses.

While Stephen Coote, chair of Britain’s Gay Business Association (GBA), is critical of LOCOG in terms of gay and trans visibility at the games, he does agree they made an effort with his organization.

He said: ‘Twice they came an presented to our meetings and quite a lot of our members applied for contracts. They were certainly giving LGBT businesses good advance warning of contracts coming up. And the number of LGBT owned businesses who had got contracts was above average.’

An aside is that LOCOG is now critical of the GBA, as Coote admits, as the association didn’t turn up to ‘supplier outreach meetings’. This seems to have been down to a breakdown in communication between the two bodies – perhaps suggesting that one of LOCOG’s biggest problems is in communicating their messages.

For the wider business world, LOCOG and the ODA also say they have promoted diversity, including for LGBT people, to ‘suppliers’ and sponsors.

However, for both organizations the original commitments in their diversity strategies were weaker than for other minorities or non-existent. This improved in 2009, ahead of the government forcing all public bodies to include LGBT diversity as a ‘public duty’ in the 2010 Equality Act. But neither the ODA or LOCOG would supply us with information to show the results of their monitoring into gay and trans diversity.

For some gay people, the Olympics will be a triumph whatever the level of LGBT involvement.

Clare Balding, an openly lesbian sports commentator who will be BBC TV’s female anchor for the games, has already given her endorsement, telling the annual Stonewall dinner: ‘I firmly believe these London Olympics and Paralympics will be the most gay friendly ever.’

Others, like Stonewall and Tatchell, are critical, feeling that Britain’s investment in the Olympics has failed to deliver a games which celebrate the diversity of a country which has become a beacon for LGBT rights around the world.

Others still, are cautious in their praise but look to a better future.

Chris Morgan, a world champion powerlifter and Gay Games ambassador, said LOCOG had impressed him with its pin badges linking the London Olympics with the rainbow flag.

He said: ‘It is only a simple gesture but the significance of the Olympic Games allowing that to happen was huge.’

He hopes that London will win its bid to host the Gay Games in 2018 delivering, by the back door, an LGBT Olympic legacy after all.

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