Column: U.S., Russia have long way to go in diversity race

When it comes to equality, America must practice what it preaches.

On Friday, 230 U.S. delegates will participate in the opening ceremonies in Sochi, Russia, when the 2014 Winter Olympics officially begin. Among them are the rookies, including 15-year-old freestyle skier Maggie Voisin, and the veterans, including 37-year-old Nordic combined skier Todd Lodwick, who is making his sixth appearance at the games. Of the 230, 106 are returning, 49 have won medals and 13 have won golds. American mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers representing every aspect of our country will march together at the opening ceremonies to kick off this year’s Olympics.

But for the first time since 2000, neither the sitting U.S. president nor the first lady nor vice president will be in Sochi. A former president won’t even be in attendance. Instead, Obama decided to send a message to Russia by sending former Olympians Billie Jean King, Brian Boitano and Caitlin Cahow to help lead the delegations. King, Boitano and Cahow are all openly gay.

In a statement released by the White House, Obama said he knows the U.S. delegates “will showcase to the world the best of America — diversity, determination and teamwork.”

That move is bold.

Russia’s anti-gay stance has been at the forefront of the pre-opening ceremonies coverage of the Sochi games, specifically the law passed last year that banned distribution of “homosexual propaganda” to minors. The law is seen as a testament to the impertinent struggle lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Russians face every day, and many have feared retaliation because of openly LGBT foreigners attending this year’s games. Obama’s choice in delegates sends a message to Russia that diversity should be encouraged, not squashed, and all Americans are considered equally important to our country’s framework.

The problem is that after experiencing life under a pro-gay president for the first time, it is hard to criticize, let alone imagine, limitations.

Last year, LGBT advocates raved at the mention of the Stonewall Riots in the president’s State of the Union address, but this year, many were disappointed in the absence of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Obama hailed last summer’s Supreme Court ruling of the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional, “a victory for couples who have long fought for equal treatment under the law”, but his actions have remained idle on writing an executive order federally banning LGBT discrimination in the workplace. And now as Obama advocates for international LGBT equality by sending openly gay athletes to Sochi, The Washington Post has published an opinion piece titled “US Hypocrisy over Russia’s anti-gay laws,” pointing out how in America, some of our states have laws worded so similarly to Russia’s that it is quite hard to tell the difference.

When the United States preaches equality, its actions should speak for themselves. In 29 states, you can be fired for being gay, in 33 states you can be fired for being transgender, and some states, as the Washington Post pointed out, still find things related to the LGBT community punishable by law. Those statistics alone should discredit any notion that the United States is a champion of LGBT equality; we must do more if we want to carry that title.

It is true that nobody is perfect, but when it comes to non-discriminatory legislation, we all should be. When the world’s countries join in Russia to compete in the Sochi games, their tolerance as well as their athletic ability will be on display. We must remember that no one wins a gold until they’ve crossed the finish line, and the United States and Russia both have a long way to go.

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