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Canceling the Olympics Has Always Been a Queer Issue

The Olympics are specifically and actively dangerous for the LGBTQ+ community.

Credit: Naomi Williams

It’s June, which means it’s Pride Month — and although COVID-19 has stopped the usual parades, Pride is still on, pandemic or not. Los Angeles recently hosted its first-ever virtual Pride celebration on KABC7. New York City will host a virtual Pride rally on June 26th and a virtual “Trans March” is scheduled for the same day. And of course, it would not be a modern-day Pride month without lots of corporations pretending to care about LGBTQ+ issues in order to sell their products.

Corporations have essentially taken over Pride month. In 2016, Pride in London’s corporate sponsorship revenue equaled $400,000. Almost half of the $2.4 million budget for NYC Pride in that same year came from corporate sponsorship.

What started in 1969 as an anti-police riot for liberation, “Pride” has been replaced by corporate pride. There have already been countless brilliant critiques of the mainstreaming and nonprofitization of queer and trans politics. The demand for a radical, abolitionist queer, and trans politics has always countered the mainstream calls for “inclusion” and “legal equality.”

However, one call to action is almost never included in the radical queer and trans political agendas: canceling the Olympics. And we need to start talking about it more.

The Olympics have a long history of discriminating against athletes who are not gender conforming. One important example is the case of runner Mokgadi Caster Semenya.

Mokgadi Caster Semenya at the Meeting de Paris in 2018 (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Semenya, who won gold medals in 2012 and 2016 for South Africa, is believed to naturally produce more testosterone in her body. Semenya identifies as female and has never publicly identified as intersex. Despite the lack of evidence that testosterone gives women an advantage in athletics, the International Association of Athletics Federations issued a statement last year that female runners whose bodies produce high levels of testosterone must take medication to lower those levels if they want to compete. The IOC failed to take any meaningful action against the decision.

This decision specifically targets Semenya, which is a product of how people, especially Black people, are targeted for falling outside of gender norms. As Pidgeon Pagonis of the Intersex Justice Project stated, “Had Caster been a gender-conforming, straight-identified white girl who just was faster than the other people, they would have never invaded her body.” Trans athletes are also targeted by the decision.

That covers what happens inside the Olympic rings themselves, but there is a great deal of community damage that harms people outside the stadium walls.

First, the Olympics bring violence and displacement for unhoused people. This is done under the guise of “cleaning up the streets” for the Olympics. In the lead up to the 1984 Olympics, Los Angeles enacted laws making it illegal to be unhoused in order to “beautify” the image of Los Angeles for the world. In February 1984, a law from the city council made it illegal to sleep on bus benches.

Before the 1996 Olympics, Atlanta passed several ordinances against the unhoused, including making it illegal to enter a vacant building and prohibiting soliciting and begging. In addition, the city targeted unhoused people, particularly Black people, for laying on park benches and jaywalking, leading to the arrests of 9,000 unhoused people in 1995 alone.

This is not just limited to cities in the United States, as the displacement and harassment of unhoused people are commonplace in the years leading up to the Olympics. For example, before the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, private security guards conducted violent sweeps of unhoused people, sometimes transporting them to shelters 50 miles away from the city. Unhoused people are already daily experiencing this violence on the streets of Los Angeles.

Since LGBTQ+ youth are disproportionately impacted by houselessness, the violence and displacement against unhoused people that results from the Olympics will directly and adversely impact the LGBTQ+ community in Los Angeles.

LGBTQ+ people, particularly LGBTQ+ people of color, are disproportionately unhoused. Among young adults ages 18–25, LGBTQ+ people are 2.2 times more likely than non-LGBTQ+ people to be unhoused. Studies have found that between 20–45% of the homeless youth population identifies as LGBTQ+, which is 2 to 4 times more than the estimated percentage of all youth who identify as LGBTQ+.

Source: True Colors United

Additionally, Black LGBTQ+ youth have the highest rate of houselessness among all unhoused LGBTQ+ youth. BIPOC, poor, and working class LGBTQ+ people are particularly impacted by houselessness and, as a result, are already more vulnerable to the anti-houseless policies and policing that result from the Olympics.

Second, the Olympics bring gentrification and racial banishment wherever they go. Since the late 1980s, over two million people have been displaced as a direct result of the Olympics. Because of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, for example, many of the city’s poor and working class, particularly Black communities, lost their housing to redevelopers. All told, Atlanta lost over 10,000 units of housing to privatized developments. To this day, there is no public housing, only a small amount of subsidized housing that is not nearly enough.

The nation’s first housing project, Techwood, was demolished so that some of the land could be used for the Olympic Village and the displaced residents were given housing vouchers. But by 2000, only 7% of those residents were rehoused in the massive development that replaced Techwood. Displacement is a pattern that follows the Olympics, regardless of where they end up. We can expect that it will happen if the Games come back to Los Angeles in 2028.

Techwood Homes, Atlanta, GA — 1930s (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

LGBTQ+ people, particularly people of color, are disproportionately poor and working class, and will be hard hit by the displacement the Olympics will bring. LGBTQ+ people face high levels of harassment and discrimination from housing providers, contributing to systemic poverty and homelessness. For example, studies have shown that housing providers are less likely to respond to rental inquiries for LGBTQ+ couples and are more likely to quote male same-sex couples higher than comparable different-sex couples.

In addition, homeownership rates are very low amongst LGBTQ+ people. According to representative data from 35 states, 49.8% of LGBTQ+ adults own their homes in comparison to 70.1% of non-LGBTQ+ adults. Only 25% of transgender adults are homeowners in the US compared to 58% of cisgender people. LGBTQ+ women of color have the lowest rates of homeownership. This leaves LGBTQ+ BIPOC, poor, and working class people particularly exposed to the forces of gentrification, and as a result, one of the impacts of the Olympics will be the displacement of poor and working class LGBTQ+ people.

And, thirdly, the Olympics bring police militarization. The Olympics are a National Special Security Event (NSSE), which is a federal designation for major events, like the Super Bowl and Presidential Inaugurations, that are believed to be at high risk for acts of terror. As a result, all of the agencies under the Department of Homeland Security (ICE, CBP, Secret Service, and so on) will work with local law enforcement, in many cases, for years before the event. The security budget for the 2028 Olympics has been projected to reach $2 billion. Before the 1984 Olympics, we witnessed the militarization of South Central and East LA in preparation, which led to increased police violence against Black and Latinx people.

A Rapier FSC Ground Based Air Defence (GBAD) system at Blackheath, London on 2 May 2012. Part of “Exercise Olympic Guardian.” (Credit: Richard Watt — Defence Imagery, OGL v1.0)

The LAPD is already over-budgeted and hyper-militarized, and the Olympics would make it that much worse. The deepening militarization of the police for the 2028 Olympics leaves Black LGBTQ+ people particularly vulnerable to racial profiling and violence. The Olympics would also increase the presence of ICE, further exposing undocumented LGBTQ+ people to violence.

In the past, the Olympics have brought violence towards sex workers with raids and profiling, which will result in increased danger for LGBTQ+ sex workers in Los Angeles. In sum, the people who are the most vulnerable to state violence within the LGBTQ+ community will be at even higher risk if the Olympics return.

It is also important for us to recognize how the Olympics are used to promote “pinkwashing.” Pinkwashing is when the rights enjoyed by the most privileged within the LGBTQ+ community are used to obscure the injustices that a country commits against people at home and abroad. One of the results of pinkwashing is “homonationalism,” in which the achievements of individual athletes are lauded as a “reward” for people’s “tolerance” of LGBTQ+ folks while the same power structures that lead to the deaths of LGBTQ+ people remain intact.

Take the case of the Olympic diver Tom Daley. Daley is a gay diver who has received considerable support from the British media. While Britain’s positive embrace of Daley may project progressiveness to the world, Daley represents the “least offensive” aspect of the LGBTQ+ community: a white, good looking male who wins medals for Britain.

Tom Daley at the London 2012 Olympic & Paralympic Games Victory Parade (Credit: Jim Thurston | Wikimedia Commons)

Pinkwashing allows a country to project that it accepts LGBTQ+ people when the actual lived reality is that the LGBTQ+ community is subject to violence and harassment. This explains why the British media expresses support for Tom Daley while, at the same time, England and Wales have seen hate crimes against trans people triple in five years.

The portrayal of Britain as “open-minded” towards LGBTQ+ people serves the purpose of making its oppression of other groups less blatant. In fact, the refugee crisis in the UK has encouraged the right to develop a pro-LGBTQ+ platform to distract from its Islamophobia. David Coburn of the European Parliament for Britain’s UK Independence Party (UKIP) stated, “I don’t know about you, but I am a homosexual and I do not want to be stoned to death,” when referring to Muslim refugees.

Coburn used LGBTQ+ people to justify his racist, xenophobic attitudes. Simultaneously, this statement erases the experiences and lives of LGBTQ+ Muslim refugees. We must be vigilant about how politicians, executives, and major events, like the Olympics, work to co-opt LGBTQ+ cultures and movements.

If we are serious about protecting the lives of LGBTQ+ people, not just in the United States but around the world, we must cancel the Olympics. The displacement and violence that are inherent to the structure of the Olympics adversely impact the most vulnerable in the LGBTQ+ community.

We cannot fall for pinkwashing. We must protect each other. We must take collective action to dismantle systems of oppression. Canceling the Olympics is a part of that fight and must become a part of our politics for queer and trans liberation.

To join and support the fight, please check out NOlympicsLA.

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