Sochi Olympics

Gay Snowboarder Goes for Gold Under Sochi's Anti-LGBT Shadow

Australian snowboarder Belle Brockhoff poses with her snowboard on Collaroy Beach, in the northern beaches area of Sydney Nov. 8, 2013. International gay rights campaigners are using branded clothing inspired by the Olympic movement's own values to show their opposition to Russian laws on homosexuality ahead of the Sochi Games. American Apparel, known for its provocative marketing campaigns, is selling a line of bright red T-shirts, hoodies and hats based on Principle 6 from the Olympic charter, which spells out the movement's opposition to any form of discrimination. Brockhoff is one of the Sochi-bound athletes to model the clothing. DAVID GRAY / Reuters file

She would rather be recognized as the “fearless” snowboarder, but ahead of her gold medal bid at the Winter Games she is better known as the “gay snowboarder.” And, for now, that’s OK with Australia’s Belle Brockhoff, an Olympian who has become one of the faces of the LGBT contingency competing under the shadow of host Russia’s anti-gay laws and sentiment.

Brockhoff, a good-natured 21-year-old who came out as gay on national television in response to the laws and is a key part of a campaign against them, is making her final preparations ahead of her first Olympic appearance on Feb. 16. Her focus is her event, the snowboard cross, though she’ll also be looking to make a statement against Russia’s law banning “homosexual propaganda” that was passed last year. (A second law bans gay foreign couples from adopting Russian children.) She is disappointed in the country’s president, Vladimir Putin, who has defended the legislation by equating gays with pedophiles.

“He hasn’t done much to protect the gays that are suffering because of these laws,” Brockhoff said in late January from Austria, where she trains. “We want to show the world that this is not OK and they need to change.”

Gay rights groups have rallied around Principle 6, the Olympic Charter’s statement of non-discrimination. International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach has said athletes can make political statements at press conferences - not during the competition - and has said the organization opposes any form of discrimination. For the most part, gay-rights groups will apply pressure from outside Russia mostly through social media.

Brockhoff said she won’t be “parading around with a rainbow flag waving it in front of Putin’s face,” but she may hold up six fingers after she races on Feb. 16 to signify Principle 6. She is one of a handful of out gay athletes competing in Sochi and one of two who came out in response to the Russian laws and are now working with Athlete Ally, a nonprofit group pushing for LGBT equality in locker rooms worldwide.

“The Olympics is a perfect time to express your opinions of what needs to change around the world,” she said, adding with a laugh, “It’s a perfect platform for that, but I know if you don’t win a gold medal, no one really cares. Hopefully, if I win a gold medal I can use that as a greater platform to voice my opinion on what needs to change.”

Brockhoff said the pressure to get that gold ramped up after she revealed she was gay on national television in Australia in August. Her friends and family knew about her sexual orientation, but she had not made such a public declaration before.

“I was hoping by coming out in response to these laws it would inspire a lot of other people who are in the closet to come out regardless of what society thinks and what laws are in place,” she said.

Brockhoff hadn’t told her parents about the interview, which was broadcast live.

“It’s part of her growing up, her wanting to make decisions for herself,” said her mother Kristine, who acknowledged that she at first struggled with her daughter’s sexual orientation. “I’m very proud of her. There are not many 21-year-olds who would do what she did.”

Brockhoff comes from a skiing family and has dreamed of competing in sporting’s premier event ever since she picked up a snowboard a decade ago. But she never thought reaching that goal would dovetail with her debut as a global LGBT advocate.

“I wasn’t planning to become an activist,” she said. “I wouldn’t even consider myself an ambassador or an activist. I’m just stating my opinion and telling people to support the LGBT community.”

But supporters do see her and the other LGBT athlete who came out in response to the Russian laws –- Canadian speed skater Anastasia Bucsis –- as important voices. Athlete Ally’s outreach director, Sam Marchiano, said they were the “living embodiment” of the Games’ charter, which says the Olympic movement must act in the face of discrimination, and a former Olympian applauded Brockhoff’s decision to speak out.

“I think it’s really admirable that Belle chose this moment. It certainly gives a lot of visibility to LGBT athletes,” said Caitlin Cahow, a two-time Olympic medalist in women’s hockey who is gay and is in Sochi as part of the U.S. Olympic delegation that includes other LGBT athletes.

But not everyone in the LGBT community has agreed with gays and lesbians participating in the Games. Two-time Olympic figure skater Johnny Weir was denounced by some critics for his decision to go to Sochi, where he will be an analyst for NBC Sports. They felt he and other gays should boycott. Weir rejected that as did Brockhoff, who said the intent was to show support for Russia’s LGBT community by being there.

“By going -- especially gay athletes -- it will definitely show the gay community in Russia that we aren’t afraid of these laws,” she said.

Anti-gay crackdowns in Russia aren’t new, but the latest one served as a reminder that homophobia still runs deep in the country. Putin contends that Russia does not discriminate against gay people and has offered assurances to LGBT athletes and fans attending the Olympics.

But questions remain in the lead-up to the Games over how gays and lesbians will be treated: Three weeks ago, authorities detained a gay Russian protester who held a rainbow flag as the Olympic torch relay passed through a town about 560 miles north of Sochi, The Associated Press reported. And in late January, Sochi’s mayor told the BBC that there were no gays in his city and said being gay was not accepted in the region.

Brockhoff said she doesn’t worry about her safety since she will be staying within the confines of the Olympic Village. She has only received one hate message since she came out, from a person who tweeted to her: “I hope you get arrested in Russia, you dowdy, horrible, aggressive dyke.”

She was unfazed. “I reckon I am going to get a bit of hate after the Games as well. I don’t mind it. It doesn’t affect me at all.”

But her mom Kristine is worried about her daughter’s well-being in Russia, especially after Belle recently told Australian media of Putin: "After I compete, I'm willing to rip on his ass."

“I am concerned because my daughter has been very open about” being gay, she said. “There’s a part of me that worries about her and I just hope that she stays safe."

Though Brockhoff is passionate about her LGBT advocacy –- she can be seen modeling Athlete Ally’s Principle 6 apparel in their campaign with gay rights group All Out -– she said she will be at the Games primarily as an athlete. She has already been studying photos of the course she will compete on in her adrenaline-pumping event.

Brockhoff wants to end homophobia but she wants that gold medal, too.

“I think I’m pretty fearless when I hit a course,” she said.