Former Olympic skater Johnny Weir was picketed by Queer Nation outside his talk at Barnard College December 2 for his position that “the Olympics are not the place to make a political statement” about Russia’s anti-gay laws and “you have to respect the culture of a country you are visiting.”
During his talk he spoke of “idiots like the ones outside tonight, dumping vodka in the street,” action he dismissed as useless.
“They say all these stupid things,” he told the audience of about 40 Barnard women students. “I never supported the [Russian] government. I supported the people.”
Polling shows the Russian people support the anti-gay laws overwhelmingly.
The banner outside, made and held by Gilbert Baker, creator of the Rainbow Flag, among others, stated in blood red, “Weir: Russian Olympic Clown; N.B.C.: Naïve Bloody Collaborators.”
Weir, whose bio says that he “works with the Russian Children's Welfare Society and Russian Consulate in New York City,” will join NBC Sports as a commentator at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia in February.
“We’re angry at him for not telling the truth about what’s going on in Russia to LGBT Russians and everybody else who dissents, who are being brutalized,” said Ann Northrop of Queer Nation at the protest. “He is selling out millions of people to satisfy his desire not to forgo his income or status. Is this what he would have done in Germany in 1936?”
Weir spoke mostly of what he called his “storybook life” as a champion figure skater, but complained bitterly of the “ugly inner world politics of figure skating” that he believes made it impossible for him to win an Olympic medal. The skater did not officially come out as gay until after his last Olympics in 2010, when he wrote a memoir saying he did so in response to the rash of highly publicized gay teens suicides.
He repeatedly expressed his lifelong love for all things Russian, especially “a style that was so inspiring.” His husband, Victor Weir-Vornov, is of Russian descent and also spoke at the forum.
“I still don’t study Russian politics,” Weir said. “I don’t pretend to get Russian politics.” But he did assert, “In my own country, I don’t have equal rights,” though he added that living in New Jersey, “it’s nice to be able to get married.”
Referring to the new anti-gay law in Russia, which forbids virtually all public mention of homosexuality as a threat to children, the athlete flippantly characterized it as “no anal sex in front of libraries.”
“I’ve never had a bad experience in Russia,” he said, “not gotten called a fag or beat up,” something occurring systematically to many others since the law was passed, none known to have been an Olympic athlete. “I only see the rosy, golden side. I choose to see Russia in an arrogant, selfish way. I didn’t know what to think about the new law.”
Weir acknowledged the challenges the Russian LGBT community faces, saying, “I know their lives are not like mine. It’s difficult to come out as gay in Russia. I didn’t think the law was changing so much.”
He went on to emphasize that the anti-gay laws carry “fines,” not prison. He voiced no concern for the violence against LGBT people that escalated sharply following passage of the law earlier this year or about pending legislation that would take children away from gay or lesbian parents.
He instead expressed deep concern about the call for a boycott of the Sochi Olympic, saying it would “ruin 600 lives” –– those of the athletes who have trained for it.
Weir said he often performs as a figure skater in Russia.
“If I am asked if I’m gay, I’ll say yes,” he said, but, “I’m not a flag waver, but I fully support people who wave flags.” He emphasized, however, that an athlete doing so at the Olympics could be expelled.
“I could never forgive myself if I was pro-boycott,” he said. “Just to piss off Putin is not a reason not to field a team. I’m hard-headed.”
Then, alluding to the pop superstar who has refused to speak out against the anti-gay law during his imminent Russian tour, Weir added, “I prefer to fight where I live than in another country. I’m as gay as they come. I am Elton John’s fanny pack.”
Queer Nation plans to picket John’s Madison Square Garden concert December 3 at 6:30 p.m.
Weir-Vornov was more critical of his parents’ homeland than was his husband.
“It is not a free country,” he said. “I am more activist than Johnny.” Still, he emphasized, he supports his husband “completely.”
Weir was applauded by the crowd at one of the nation’s most elite women’s colleges.
During the Q & A, this reporter challenged the skater to apologize to the activists he called “idiots,” noting the four of them have a combined history of more than 100 years of gay and AIDS activism that contributed to his right to marry Weir-Vernov.
Asked if he saw any distinctions between the situation facing LGBT people in the US and those in Russia, Weir said, “I understand the beatings, the deaths, and understand not being able to live your life.” He said he lashed out at the activists because they have said things about boycotting the Olympics and about him he considers “unfair.”
“A lot of these people have chosen to be activists,” Weir argued, saying his own “activism” is living his life openly with his husband.
Facing critical questioning from others in the audience, Weir said, “I applaud the protestors,” but warned that if athletes do the same in Sochi, “you can have your gold medal stripped from you.”
“I apologize if I offended anyone,” he said.
In a column in the Falls Church (Virginia) News-Press the morning after the Barnard appearance, Weir again apologized for his choice of words, writing, “I allowed my own fear and emotion to get the better of me and for a moment I became a hypocrite.” He also wrote, "My stance of being pro-athlete before being pro-gay has ruffled so many feathers and it becomes difficult to speak publicly because of this fight.”
At Barnard, while insisting, “I don’t consider myself a celebrity,” Weir, at the same time, said, “As a public figure I owe my livelihood to people who support me. I didn’t ask to be a public figure.” He shows solidarity with Russian gays, he said, “by being with them.”
According to Queer Nation, Barnard rejected the group’s request that it provide alternative viewpoints during the Weir event. The group was critical of NBC for putting two gay employees forward –– Weir and MSNBC anchor Thomas Roberts, who recently traveled to Moscow to host Donald Trump’s Miss Universe pageant –– “to put on a happy gay face on the Russian government’s bigotry.”
Barnard political science professor Kimberly Marten, who moderated, said a video of the event would be posted on the website of Columbia’s Harriman Institute for Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies.