On Tuesday, December 12, the United Nations held its first ever public discussion about LGBTI rights in sports, in recognition of Human Rights Day.
The panel, which included famed out lesbian tennis star Martina Navratilova, as well as the first out NBA player, Jason Collins, was moderated by out MSNBC news anchor Thomas Roberts, and attended by prominent activists and members of the LGBTI community, including Melissa Etheridge.
Organized in part by United for Equality in Sports and Entertainment (UESE), an organization dedicated to the promotion of equal rights in sports and media, the panel addressed the importance for LGBTI advocacy in the sports arena, recognizing that athletes are heroes for many and have the power to sway public opinion.
“Sports cut across borders and continents. Games unite people across cultural divides. Professional athletes are heroes to their fans. And when they speak out against prejudice, they are heroes to the United Nations,” said the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, in a video message to participants at the event.
Collins, who made headlines when he came out last spring, spoke about the importance of coming out in an era when many LGBTI people across the world still face discrimination and shame because of their identity.
“In an ideal world…my sexual orientation would have been of no interest to anyone but me,” he said at the panel.
“But I know that there are many people out there—including many young people—who feel so intimidated and so isolated that they are frightened to be open about who they are. We need to let them know that being gay is OK; that being different shouldn’t be a source of shame but a source of pride.”
Navratilova, citing the violence faced by many LGBTI worldwide, said that the fight for equal rights was both personal and political.
“The brutal reality is this: all over the world, LGBT people are physically attacked and discriminated against simply because we are seen as different and because we are seen as less than. It’s happening every day, in all countries. And it’s an outrage.
“Whether I love a woman or a man only matters to me and that person. Love is love. It really is that simple,” Navratilova said.
David McFarland, director of UESE, spoke about the importance of having this conversation in the months before the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic games, and confirmed that the International Olympic Committee was definitely an organization he hoped was taking the remarks made at the event into consideration.
“We need to stand up, we need to have our voices heard,” McFarland said in an interview with the Huffington Post.
A major task for LGBTI sports advocates is to push the IOC to enforce its own charter, which protects the rights of all athletes and participants from discrimination. “The biggest issue that we have around the IOC and the conversation that’s happening right now is that sexual orientation and gender identity is part of the IOC charter,” said McFarland.
Speaking on the importance of the moment, and of advocating for LGBT equality across multiple platforms, McFarland said, “we need to be having these conversations.”
“The LGBT community needs to know that this conversation is happening, and bringing it to the world stage, in and around sport, and utilizing the Olympics as a form to have this conversation will hopefully accelerate this issue much quicker.”