The Current

Gay at the Games: How Canada is hosting Pride House, a safe space for LGBT athletes at the Olympics

After local fundraisers failed to raise enough to create a Pride House at the Winter Games, Canada has stepped in to save the day — but LGBT athletes still face difficulties in the sporting world.
Team Canada at the opening ceremony in Pyeongchang. This year, Canada House will double as Pride House, offering a space for LGBT athletes from all competing countries. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

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There are 13 out and proud LGBT athletes at the Winter Olympics, out of more than 3,000 competitors.

While that number may seem low, it's almost double the number who were out at Sochi — seven.

"I promise, for every athlete that's out, there's at least one or two that aren't," said Mark Tewksbury, a Canadian swimmer who won Olympic gold in 1992, and later came out as gay.

Homosexuality is under the radar in South Korea, with limited public discourse on LGBT rights, or support for the activists fighting for them.

That lack of support showed recently when organizers failed to raise funds needed for an LGBT centre at the Olympic Village in Pyeongchang. But then Canada stepped in.

Canada House will now double as Pride House.

The first Pride House was in Vancouver in 2010, said Tewksbury, designed to represent the spirit of inclusion at the Olympics.

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      "The number is almost irrelevant," he said, "If there's one athlete, if there's 12 athletes, if there's a thousand athletes."

      "It's the idea that hey, we're here, everyone's safe and we want everyone to be their authentic person, to be their best."

      "For me, that was just unthinkable back in the day when I competed," he said, "I mean there wasn't even a language to talk about what gay or lesbian meant."

      Tewksbury was in the closet during his sporting career, but was out to one of his coaches who became a confidant.

      Having that support allowed him to "get past that barrier of having this secret, so that I could use that energy to actually compete full-on, 100 per cent."

      He retired in 1992 after winning gold at the Barcelona Olympics, but did not come out until 1998.
      Mark Tewksbury won gold in Barcelona in 1992. A gay athlete, it was only years later that he felt comfortable enough to come out. (The Canadian Press)

      Earlier that year he had lost a six-figure deal as a motivational speaker because he was "too openly gay," despite the fact he was still in the closet.

      "For me it was just time," he told The Current's guest host David Cochrane.

      "I just got tired of the dance, of pretending to be a straight guy and getting these endorsements, but having the secret and that double-life slowly killed me."

      "I just really at one point couldn't take it anymore."

      Athletes still face that same kind of pressure today, Tewksbury pointed out, ranging from homophobia within the sporting world, to anti-gay legislation in their home countries.

      There are still several countries where being LGBT carries the death penalty, he said.

      Pride House, he added, will offer a space for athletes facing those obstacles to find support with their peers.

      It's encouraging, he said, that Canada has stepped up and offered that space, following up on commitments made after the Sochi Games.

      "It was definitely post-Sochi that the International Olympic Committee and the Canadian Olympic Committee both changed their charters," he said, "To make sure that the LGBTQ community was not able to be discriminated against because of sexual orientation."

      Having watched this evolution for decades, Tewksbury is hopeful things will only get better.

      "It makes you realize every little step leads to bigger progress, and eventually there's a tipping point."

      "It represents that the Olympics are supposed to be about inclusion, and we're really putting our money where our mouth is and creating a safe space for all."

      "That's a huge, huge step forward."

      Now, he wants Canada's leadership to inspire others.

      "This, one day, should be an international Olympic committee Pride House." 

      "It should be a statement from leaders of the Olympic movement that no one should feel excluded."

      What's it like to be gay in South Korea?

      There are no laws against homosexuality in civil society in South Korea, but many LGBT people face family pressure to stay in the closet and even enter into heterosexual marriages, said John Cho, an assistant professor of global studies at Sarah Lawrence College in New York.

      Cho did field research on gay men in South Korea, and found that most Koreans do not consider discussion of homosexuality within the public sphere to be an appropriate topic.

      Homosexuality has been politicized recently by members of the Christian right, he told The Current's guest host David Cochrane, who are using it "as a political tool to bolster its own power."

      The internet has had a galvanizing effect on the gay and lesbian movement in the country however.

      "A movement that had all but died in 2007," he said, "last year became this very vibrant movement that had 70,000 people show up for its pride parade."

      Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page.

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      This segment was produced by The Current's Julie Crysler, John Chipman and Kristin Nelson.


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