Former professional basketball player Jason Collins and tennis great Martina Navratilova this week urged world sports bodies such as the International Olympic Committee and FIFA to take gay rights into consideration when awarding major sporting events.
The two openly gay athletes spoke at a special United Nations event celebrating International Human Rights Day.
They focused in part on the upcoming Winter Olympics in Russia, which passed a law this summer banning gay “propaganda.” The law has drawn international condemnation and sparked calls for a boycott, though no nations have threatened to pull their athletes.
Navratilova, who lost lucrative endorsements when she came out in 1981, said she doesn’t support boycotts of any kind. But she said the IOC is “putting its head in the sand” and criticized FIFA, the world soccer body, for awarding the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.
“Nobody’s talking about Qatar and the World Cup. You can get a jail term there,” she said of consensual gay sex in the Persian Gulf nation. In six other countries, including Saudi Arabia, simply being gay is punishable by death, she said.
“Gays and lesbians seem to be the last group it’s seen as OK to pick on,” she said.
The two athletes also joked about how times have changed for gay rights in the U.S.
“When Collins came out this year, he got a phone call from President Obama congratulating him,” Navratilova said. “Well, in 1981, Reagan was president. I didn’t get that phone call.”
“It’s funny, right before President Obama, it was Oprah Winfrey,” Collins added. “Like a surreal experience.”
Collins almost shyly thanked Navratilova for being so outspoken.
“I’m sitting next to one of my idols,” he said.
North America’s major pro sports leagues are still awaiting an openly gay athlete on the court or field. Collins, 35, was prepared to become the first when he came out after the NBA regular season had ended. The aging reserve player and free agent has not been signed by another team, though he says he stays in shape and hopes to return to the NBA.
Collins said the league is doing a “great job changing the culture of sport” in regard to gay players.
In a recorded message, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also praised straight athletes who speak out against homophobia. “They understand an abuse against any of us is an affront to all,” he said.
In a related event this week, U.S. ambassador Samantha Power called the Russian law “as outrageous as it is dangerous.”
Power, who was meeting with dozens of gay activists from around the world, said 78 countries still have laws that criminalize consensual sex between adults.
“To deny gays and lesbians the right to live freely … is in fact barbarian,” Power said.
This year was the first time the U.N. held a ministerial meeting on LGBT issues, with Secretary of State John Kerry attending. “That’s progress,” Power said.
Russian journalist and gay right activist Masha Gessen then read part of the Russian law on gay “propaganda” and said, “It actually enshrines second-class citizenship and makes it a crime to talk about equality.”
Zambian activist Juliet Mphande listened to Gessen’s comments and said, “I imagine Russia to be an African country right now.” She said at least six people from her country’s gay community had been arrested this year.