Openly gay figure skater Johnny Weir spoke candidly about the role of athletes in the controversy surrounding Russia’s anti-LGBT laws and the Sochi Olympics on Monday night at an event hosted by Columbia’s Harriman Institute.
Weir, who retired from competition earlier this year, will be heading to Sochi as a commentator for NBC along with Thomas Roberts, an openly gay news anchor. His participation in the Sochi Games has drawn criticism from LGBT activists who feel it represents an implicit cooperation with the Russian government.
Four members of Queer Nation, a New York-based LGBT rights group, protested Weir’s speech from outside Barnard’s gates.
“What gets us is that he’s one of the beneficiaries of gay rights and all the things we—the gay rights movement—have fought for here,” Shep Wahnon, an LGBT activist, said.
During his speech in Sulzberger Parlor, Weir called the protestors “idiots”—a comment that he later said he regretted having made—and said they were doing “stupid, uneducated things which, if I was as stupid as I feel sometimes, I would be out there doing with them.”
Weir spoke at length about his lifelong fascination with Russian sport and culture and about his personal struggles growing up gay, but he maintained that he is first and foremost an athlete, not an activist.
“I’m not a rainbow flag-waver,” Weir said. “I won’t go and protest anything, because it’s not me.”
Weir also said that his presence in Sochi as an openly gay person constitutes a form of “passive activism.” He noted that he risks arrest “just by being there” but said “it’s a risk I’m willing to take to forward equality.”
Despite calls for the United States to boycott the Sochi Games, Weir spoke of the Olympics as “too important to get messed up by politics. The minute I heard the word ‘boycott,’ I felt sick,” he said.
“It didn’t make sense to me to ruin 600 lives just because a country is anti-someone,” Weir said.
Weir was ultimately unapologetic about both his identity and his personal politics—or lack thereof.
“I didn’t train to be a public figure,” Weir said. “I hope to set an example of what a gay person can be, but as far as being on the ground fighting, that’s not something I think I’m capable of. That’s my truth.”
Tanya Domi, an adjunct professor at Harriman and an LGBT rights activist, called Weir’s “passive activism” a “lack of consciousness” and said she found it “disturbing.” Domi said that she thinks Weir’s responsibility as a public figure in this situation is to act.
“I know that the Russian LGBT community are desperate for people to stand up for them, and I feel that this moment calls on all of us to stand in solidarity,” Domi said.
Helen Guo, BC ’17, said she felt “an alliance” with Weir.
“I think in today’s media culture, there’s a lot of emphasis on public figures having public opinions,” Guo said. “I think his was an honest take on what ‘celebrity’ should mean.”