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Louganis: Stay engaged in the Olympics

  • Greg Louganis and his longtime partner and husband, Johnny Chaillot. (Associated Press)

I opposed boycotting the Sochi Winter Olympic Games to protest the crackdown on LGBT rights in Russia. In part, that was because I didn't want to victimize athletes who had worked so hard to make the American team. But it was also because I'm confident that the best response to the mounting repression in Russia is engagement.

American supporters of equality should engage with Russians, and we should do so proudly and boldly. That said, however, we also need to have some humility and a sense of history. It wasn't so long ago, after all, that LGBT Americans, including athletes, faced ugly, rampant bigotry in the United States.

As with other American athletes, I was unable to compete in the 1980 Olympics due to a U.S. boycott, but I did compete as a diver in 1976, 1984 and 1988. The public and the media may not have known I was gay back then, but my teammates and opponents certainly did. The message I got from them echoed what I'd heard in church: that there was something wrong with me. Most of my teammates refused to room with me, so I usually ended up having to room with a coach.

Part of my overwhelming drive to succeed grew out of a hope that winning might make me worthy of love. But all the Olympic gold in the world wouldn't have been enough to change the minds of the bigots.

The pressure and feelings of inferiority, not surprisingly, led to depression, which in turn led to more than one suicide attempt.

When I came out to my mother, she told me she'd had a feeling I was gay. Then she started to cry because, she said, I would always be a second-class citizen and would never be able to marry. But that turned out not to be true. Americans have made breathtaking progress in recent years. Minds have opened, laws have changed. In October, my soul mate Johnny Chaillot became my husband, something neither my mother nor I would have believed possible not so long ago.

Here's another sign of progress: Of the nine people in the U.S. delegation to Sochi, two are openly gay or lesbian. President Barack Obama took a stand for human rights by naming such a diverse group, and it was exactly the kind of response that's needed to the horrifying anti-LGBT “propaganda” bill that Russian President Vladimir Putin signed last June. We have to model for Russians a different approach.

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