Welcoming space for gay Winter Olympians

These 2 were at gay ski week at Whistler.

These 2 were at Winter Pride at Whistler.

Gay athletes at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver will be able to relax and let their hair down at PRIDE house, a special area being set aside at the Pan Pacific Whistler Village Centre Hotel. Whistler, 76 miles from downtown Vancouver, will host some of the prime events, including downhill skiing, the sled sports and cross-country skiing. Gay Whistler, which sponsors the annual gay ski week there, said this about PRIDE House:

PRIDE House will be a haven where Olympic and Paralympic athletes, coaches, family, fans and allies to come out and be their authentic selves regardless of sexual identity or preference. PRIDE House will be a hip lounge where guests can chill and watch the games, trade pins or just hang out and meet other "kewl" open minded individuals.

It's being billed as a first open outreach to gay athletes at an Olympics; the Winter Games run from Feb. 12-28, 2010. Beijing in 2008 was very closeted, but I heard numerous stories about gay Olympians being seen in the gay clubs of Sydney during the 2000 Olympics. And Vancouver is extremely gay-friendly, so the need for a special "gay safe space" is not vital, but still welcome. As the Vancouver Sun noted, many countries establish such houses as a meeting spot for their athletes and supporters.

Kevin Whamsley, an Olympic historian, applauded the effort:

"For a traditionally conservative festival like the Olympic Games, I think this is significant," said Wamsley, a professor at the University of Western Ontario.

"The (International Olympic Committee) has been skirting around the issue of sexuality since it began."

Wamsley said the Olympics, built around the traditional societal model of strong men and feminine women, has not been a friendly place for homosexuals in the past.

"It has been an uncomfortable issue for the IOC since the 1920s. That's because sport is one of those forms of culture that has produced a gender binary for western and eastern civilizations," he said. "When you start to blur the lines of sexuality people in the past have got the hair on their neck up."

Outsports has been documenting the number of publicly out jocks at every Olympics since 2000; the numbers for each barely reach double digits. Skate Canada's recent campaign to try and present a more "macho" image for men's figure skating shows how ingrained certain prejudices are, even in a progressive country like Canada.

It will be curious to see how many gay athletes come to the PRIDE House, or avoid it fearing they will be seen entering or leaving. These kinds of venues are often avoided by the people they are most designed for. Still, with the large number of gay and lesbian fans and volunteers during the Games, I sense it will be a happening place.

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