Gay sitting volleyball paralympian Claire Harvey tells So So Gay her views on the Sochi protests, our own hypocrisy and what the IOC should be doing about human rights.


As one of only two openly gay paralympians, and the only lesbian, when I see what’s happening in Russia and how little the IOC are doing about Sotchi, it makes me both angry and sad. The reassurances that the IOC are giving about the safety of athletes is meaningless; having been in a Paralympic village and experienced life as an athlete during the games, you live inside a protected bubble.

I am confident that any athlete could walk around the village wearing ‘I’m a big gay’ on their t-shirt and they would come to no harm. Not only because the village is so separate from the real world, but because other athletes are either tolerant or frankly don’t care because it won’t affect their performance. For me, the bigger issue is twofold; firstly, the safety of the many LGBT supporters, partners of athletes or family that will have to fend for themselves in the surrounding area, and most importantly, those poor LGBT people who are living in that environment of hatred and fear every day and whether the games will use the world stage to improve the position for them.

Should athletes boycott?

Do I think athletes should boycott? No. Firstly, for many athletes this will be their one shot, the thing they have worked towards for four years or more. Secondly, no one really remembers those who didn’t go. More memorable and powerful is those iconic moments when people use that stage to make a statement; the black gloves for example.

I would encourage every athlete to go, but every athlete to make a statement in whatever way they feel comfortable. The same-sex holding hands initiative is a great example.

I don’t believe we are in a position to wax lyrical to other countries about their policies; to advise, support and encourage yes, but to judge from the outside no. Let’s not hold ourselves up as perfect. We are miles ahead of Russia, sure, but I think we have to acknowledge how much room for improvement there is in the level of homophobic bullying in schools, some of our society’s views around Muslims and immigration, and the general fear and ridicule that transgender issues still provoke in the media, let alone on the streets.

Why did Russia get the games in the first place?

But I do believe there should be consequences for having those policies, and so the biggest question for me is how did Russia get the games? Sure that decision was in 2007ish, but actually why don’t the IOC take account of everybody’s ability to participate and enjoy the games safely? They could, easily; they just don’t.

The IPC (Paralympic) has sexual orientation in its charter, but the IOC doesn’t, which is ridiculous. The world needs to challenge them to change it. But it’s not just the IOC – so many events seem to be in Russia at the moment. We have seen in the past (even in Russia, where they changed the visa regulations in order to get the FIFA event) that events such as the games can be used as a carrot to motivate countries to address issues; the IOC needs to take that responsibility seriously, as do the sponsors.

Taking a stand

It is pleasing to see countries like USA, Canada, France and Germany showing they are prepared to take a stand and use the opportunity to shine a light on the situation. I love the inspired idea of Obama, rather than going himself, to send a mainly gay delegate group of officials, who will bring with them a natural discussion and unease for the Russian government. I read today that Helen Grant or Maria Miller, both with ministerial responsibilities for sport, may be going from here; I would certainly like to volunteer to be in that delegation as the Homophobia & Transphobia in Sport Ambassador too. I hope other governments follow suit!

The Games, as an athlete, is the pinnacle of your career. But it’s broader than that; London 2012 Paralympics arguably did more for exposure of disabled people, creating positive perceptions of disability, and removing some of the stigma and fear than had ever been achieved. But that was a deliberate act of positioning, media and effort; it doesn’t happen by osmosis.

The IOC should ensure that every games does the same about equality and the right for everyone to be able to achieve their personal best, and how much normal people like me can achieve when they are nurtured, supported and able to bring their whole self to the table. By carefully planned, sensitive but global initiatives, we can use this Games to raise the world’s awareness of LGBT issues.

What I’m doing

For me, what am I doing? I am chairing a steering group looking at how we can improve LGBT inclusiveness in sport and in 2014 we will be launching some great steps forward, using the platform of Sochi to highlight the barriers many LGBT people face in grassroots sport here.

I’m also proud to be taking part in the same-sex holding hands initiative with some of my athlete colleagues past and present who want to do their bit, so you should see me holding hands with a wide variety of women! I’ll also be supporting the Pride House initiative and helping raise that profile, as well as working with amazing people in the LGBT world to bring to reality the dream of LGBT youth and adult sports events in the UK to give people a safe place to find their sport. Politically, I have also written to the IOC and to the Athletes’ Commission.

I am pleased to say the British Paralympic Association is behind me 100% and is also doing all it can in a difficult position. And did I mention I would love to be invited as part of the delegation so I get to talk to the Russian officials? I think the biggest weapon we have is normality; connecting the Russian public (including officials) with real, normal and positive images of LGBT people so that they can begin to rationalise, and perhaps challenge, the rhetoric or fears that policies of discrimination always rely on. But the most important word in that sentence there is we: we all have a role to play, and none of us can make a change on our own. One pebble rolling down a hill, no one notices; but if those people combine their effort, we have a landslide!