To understand American history, Jon Lauck says you have to understand the Midwest's role in some critical events.
Recent legislation in Russia that criminalizes homosexuality and gay rights activism is raising concerns ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Russia has also seen an outbreak of violence against gay rights advocates, raising questions about safety for gay athletes and visitors to the Olympic games.
The law, which bans speaking about homosexuality or being openly gay in public — such as holding hands or flying a rainbow flag — applies to foreigners.
Russian officials have made contradictory statements about whether the law would apply to those who come for the Winter Olympics.
Prominent Americans and some Russian LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) activists have called for a boycott of the games.
But others say the games should go on.
But others say the Games should go on, including openly-gay Olympic figure skater and self-proclaimed Russophile, Johnny Weir.
Weir says boycotting the Olympic Games only hurts the athletes, not the Russian government.
“We’ve all given up our lives for the Olympics,” Weir told Here & Now. “I would never want my life’s work to come down to a boycott. I think being at the Olympic games, for me, and possibly winning a medal, and being one of the only out gay Olympians, would do so much more for the Russian LGBT community than us sitting back and not being present.”
Weir says most athletes he knows — gay or straight — don’t support a boycott.
“The most positive thing we can do for the community is to show that we are united and we are strong,” he said.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
There are mixed signals coming out of Russia about the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi and whether new laws banning public displays of homosexuality and gay activism will apply to Olympic athletes. Russia's sports minister told a state news agency that an athlete of, quote, "nontraditional sexual orientation" isn't banned from coming to Sochi. But if he goes into the street and starts to, quote, "propagandize," he will be held accountable. Another Russian official, though, said those new laws will not affect Olympians.
Gay athletes are speaking out. Blake Skjellerup, a speed skater from New Zealand, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that if he makes the Olympic team, he will not hide his sexuality.
(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)
BLAKE SKJELLERUP: Yeah. It makes me a little bit nervous. I was in the closet for quite some time, and it wasn't a very fun place to be. And I guess going to a place like Russia, to me, it's like going back into the closet. And it's somewhere I don't want to go. So I'm going to go there, and I'm just going to be myself.
HOBSON: Meanwhile, there have been protests across this country, with bar owners dumping out bottles of Russian vodka. And some Russian gay activists want the games boycotted, but not figure skater Johnny Weir.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV BROADCAST)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Get ready Vancouver, Johnny's heading your way.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: But with all this outrageousness, he still got - he backs it up with substance. He's a beautiful skater with great qualities. And that's why he's on the Olympic team.
HOBSON: That sound from the run-up to the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. Weir is known for his style and his substance on ice. He is also openly gay, and hopes to skate in Sochi. He joins me now on a cell phone. Welcome to the show.
JOHNNY WEIR: Hi. How are you?
HOBSON: Doing well. So tell us why you don't think that athletes should boycott the Sochi games.
WEIR: Well, there are many reasons that I don't think that the U.S. should boycott the Russian Olympics next February, and the first one is kind of a selfish reason, but I believe I'm entitled. I watched my family sacrifice for years so that I could be an Olympian. I watched my little brother sacrifice a lot of his childhood so that he could, you know, be a part of what I was trying to accomplish. And when you are a young athlete, you never really know if you will make it or you won't make it, especially in a sport like figure skating. So my parents really took a risk in raising an Olympic athlete. And watching those years of sacrifice for me never to have made it to the Olympics would have been a terrible thing.
And this year, whether I do or don't qualify for the Olympics remains to be seen. But I would never want my life's work to come down to a boycott. I think being at the Olympic games, for me, and possibly winning a medal, and being one of the only out gay Olympians, would do so much more for the Russian LGBT community than us sitting back and not being present. Being in Sochi, competing, winning medals, voicing our opinions about this law and saying how against it we are, I think, us being in front of the world media, standing on Putin's doorstep will be far more influential than us sitting back and simply boycotting Russian vodka.
HOBSON: I'm sure it's a very personal decision for you, but did you have any second thoughts about this?
WEIR: I had no second thoughts. Russia is a country that I have adored since I was little. I am, you know, a self-proclaimed Russophile. I speak the language. I married a Russian. I have a Russian extended family now. I can read, speak and write. I have special satellite channels in Russian, and to finish my career in a country that I respect the people of the country so much - the government is a different story entirely.
But, for me, I never had a second thought. If I get arrested, I get arrested being Johnny Weir, being the out, gay figure skater. And I'm willing to sort of sacrifice myself so that the world can see what's going on in Russia and so that I can do my part to help the LGBT community who I've work closely with in Russia, to help them show that I support them and that there are many people around the world who do support them and are working for change for them.
HOBSON: So if these were China or Dubai, would you make the same decision?
WEIR: If this was China, Dubai, North Korea, I absolutely would be there. I believe in human rights, even more so than people would imagine. Being in America, and we have so many freedom and so many things that we can do, but until just recently, obviously, I was treated - for being gay - as a second-class citizen. I did not have full human rights, as compared to my straight counterpart in this country.
So I do have a good understanding of violations of human rights - not necessarily to be beaten up and abused in the way that many of my community members have. Or especially now in Russia, what's going on with the neo-Nazi groups and skinheads attacking gay people on the street, because now it's a law, and it says that, you know, that's a positive thing to do. I believe in everyone having equal rights and being treated as equals around the world.
You know, as an athlete, if the Olympics were taking place on Mars, I would sit on the spaceship and get my butt to Mars so that I can compete. This is my life's work. This isn't something that I do just for fun. This sport and the Olympics have been my childhood, my adolescence, my prom, my college, my university studies. The Olympics are everything to these athletes. And to boycott it would be folly.
HOBSON: Johnny, have you spoken to other gay athletes about this, and do any of them disagree with you?
WEIR: There isn't anybody that I have talked to that is an athlete, gay or straight, that believes in a boycott. We've all given up our lives to go to the Olympics, and we should be there. And, you know, the most positive thing we could do for the community is to show that we're united and we're strong and that we're in Russia, on your turf, supporting you while we're doing something we've trained and loved for our whole lives.
So these calls for a boycott are coming, I believe, from a lot of very over-sensitized Americans that have been taught since Soviet times to hate Russia as an entire nation, not just hate the communist government of yesteryear. But they have been taught - and now with all of the fights about gay rights in America, there are people that are very overly sensitized to gay rights. And I think it's a wonderful thing, and I do think it's time that America stood up for not only our gay population, but also for the world's gay population. But the boycott is being called for by, in my opinion, people that aren't so educated on either the gay lifestyle or sports or Russia, for that matter.
HOBSON: Johnny, one more question.
HOBSON: There's been a lot of progress made for gay rights in this country and around the world over the last decade or so. Has it gotten any easier - and you're one of the few out gay athletes. Has it gotten any easier to be a gay athlete?
WEIR: I think, for me, I'm a competitor in an individual sport. It's much easier, obviously, not to have teammates that I have to impress or judge the temperature of their feelings towards the whole gay issue. There have been huge strides made, but sports are basically a slideshow of the country's culture. We have large teams, and we have inner city underprivileged kids that go on to be multi-millionaires who play on football teams. We have gay people like myself that have Olympic glory. We have rich, poor, black, white. We have everything represented in sports. So there is friction in some places. And so sports is kind of a touchy issue, especially for team sports.
But it's never easy to be gay. There's never anything simple about it. This is something we're born with, and it's not a choice. If I've had a choice while I was in my mother's stomach and could have been straight, my life would have been a lot easier. But my cross to bear is that I was born slightly different. And while I don't have a problem with it, other people that don't understand what it feels like don't necessarily feel the same way.
HOBSON: Figure skater Johnny Weir, who is calling on his fellow athletes not to boycott the Olympics in Russia in 2014, despite a new law that cracks down on gay rights activism. Johnny Weir, thanks so much for joining us.
WEIR: Thank you very much for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "BORN THIS WAY")
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
With a little orchestral version of Lady Gaga, we have a question for you. What do you think out there? Boycott or not? And I'm also wondering, Jeremy, if Edward Snowden's asylum will factor in to the answer to that question. Let us know: hereandnow.org.
HOBSON: HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston.
YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.