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Gay Olympians are finding a safe haven at PRIDE House

VANCOUVER, British Columbia – For the first time in history, gay Olympians have secure places to unwind during the games.

But don’t believe for a moment that the International Olympics Committee itself is coming out of the closet to better the lives of LGBT athletes.

PRIDE House was independently set up in the West End, the heart of Vancouver’s gay community, as a safe haven for gay Olympians to relax with friends, family and fans. Dubbed "PRIDE House Vancouver," it is located at QMUNITY, British Columbia's Queer Resource Center.

Another PRIDE House was opened at the Pan Pacific (hotel) Whistler Village Center, in the heart of the ski competition at the Winter Olympics. This location was coordinated by GayWhistler.com, organizers of the annual Winter Pride gay ski week, to be held in March.

Aside from QMUNITY and GayWhistler.com, a dozen or so other sponsors have also chipped in to help make these short-term havens feel more like home.

"The mission of PRIDE House is to provide an open and welcoming venue for the LGBT community and their allies, to celebrate together diversity and inclusiveness through sport," GayWhistler’s statement said. "To educate and make aware that LGBT people are still discriminated against and in some cases persecuted for being or assumed to be a homosexual. It is still illegal to be gay in over 70 countries around the world and in seven countries the punishment for being gay is death."

Sports – not unlike the military – is resistant to change, and the Olympic Games draw athletes from parts of the globe where being LGBT is taboo. Countries like Uganda and Iran, which impose harsh criminal penalties for those who are LGBT, compete in the Olympics against nations like Spain and the Netherlands, where gay-rights are protected.

Nonetheless, the PRIDE Houses are drawing attention – and the pride of openly gay athletes.

Former Olympian Mark Tewksbury, a Canadian swimmer who announced he was gay in 1998, toured the Pride House in Vancouver last week and noted that such a facility would not have been possible when he competed in sports. Tewksbury won gold and bronze medals in the 1992 Barcelona Games and a silver medal in the 1988 Seoul Games.

"Being at the Olympics was like being in an occupied country, where you're never sure who you can talk to," Tewksbury told CBC Sports on Sunday. "If I made a mistake, it could have been the end of my livelihood and that climate is definitely [still] present."

Tewksbury wrote the 2006 book, Inside Out: Straight Talk from a Gay Jock.

Marian Lay, a two-time Olympic swimmer who won a bronze medal in the 1968 Mexico City Games, attended the opening of PRIDE House in Vancouver, where she was born.

To Lay, such a venue allows gay Olympians “to celebrate who we are.”

Lay also noted the difficulty of Olympians coming out of the closet to coaches, teammates, sponsors, friends and family. Fear plays a huge factor, she explained. Will I lose my sponsors? Will my coach abandon me? Will my teammates shun me? Will my friends and family desert me?

“We in sport are in the closet … we need your support,” she said.

Although societal opinion of gays is changing in many Western countries, homophobia rages in many emerging nations. That is why the oh-so-political Olympic hierarchy is timid and cautious about offending member nations who are not so supportive of gay issues – and reluctant to openly support gay rights.

“There are seeds of change,” former professional snowboarder Ryan Miller told xtra.ca last week. “But there is still that dichotomy where people will come and say they don’t have a problem with [gay athletes] as long as they are not in [their] locker room.”

“I don’t know if it [professional sports] is the last closet,” said Miller, a Pennsylvania native, “but it is one of the last.”

Miller should know. Just a decade ago, at age 24, during one of his first professional snowboard competitions, he abruptly came out after being taunted by straight teammates to go to a strip club.

The decision upended his life, and he had to seek a new team and coach.

“I had had enough of it,” he said. “I was so over the double life. I was trying to put on a second life for sponsors, teams and personal appearances. It was way too much energy and way too much stress.”

After coming out, Miller said only a couple of teammates would share living space with him.

“Even though I wasn’t living a double life anymore, it was almost as though I had to work harder in my profession,” he said.

For gay athletes, maybe the bold step of opening the two PRIDE Houses at the Vancouver Games is the start of a new Olympic tradition and another sign of growing tolerance.

Later this month, PRIDE House Vancouver will get another famous visitor. Stephen Colbert plans to tape his popular Comedy Central show from there. Can you imagine the attention that will get?