This Olympian Will Take the Gay-Rights Fight to Sochi

Caitlin Cahow’s unexpected journey into advocacy parallels America’s larger embrace of the issue.

LAKE PLACID, NY - AUGUST 26: Defensemen Caitlin Cahow #8 poses during a photo session with members of the Women's USA Hockey team during the USA Hockey National Women's Festival on August 26, 2005 at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, New York.  
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Marin Cogan
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Marin Cogan
Jan. 23, 2014, 4 p.m.

Be­fore the White House called last month, Caitlin Cahow had thought she was done with the Olympics. Just two years earli­er, a pair of dev­ast­at­ing con­cus­sions had left the 26-year-old pro­fes­sion­al ice-hockey play­er and two-time Olympic medal­ist un­able to think in co­her­ent sen­tences. Or read. Or re­mem­ber much. She couldn’t stand for more than a few minutes be­fore suc­cumb­ing to head­aches and fa­tigue. She had left law school at Bo­ston Col­lege and moved home to re­cov­er with her par­ents.

But between Janu­ary 2012 and Decem­ber 2013, both Cahow and the United States un­der­went ma­jor trans­form­a­tions­ — changes that have un­ex­pec­tedly turned the once gravely in­jured former ath­lete and the na­tion in­to gay-rights act­iv­ists, headed to the Winter Games at So­chi to make a state­ment on the world stage.

Cahow was lucky: She went to At­lanta, got world-class med­ic­al care from the same brain-in­jury spe­cial­ist who helped Pitt­s­burgh Pen­guins star Sid­ney Crosby re­turn to the ice after his con­cus­sion, and by Oc­to­ber 2012 was back as cap­tain of the Bo­ston Blades — the only pro­fes­sion­al wo­men’s hockey team in the United States. It was one of those comeback stor­ies that sports fans love. But it didn’t feel right. Every time Cahow got back on the ice, she felt like she was gambling with the health she’d fought so hard to re­cov­er.

In 2013, in­stead of try­ing out for the Olympic team, Cahow re­tired and began speak­ing pub­licly about her ex­per­i­ence: For as little as the pub­lic knew about con­cus­sions in sports, she figured, they knew even less about con­cus­sions in wo­men’s sports. She hoped com­ing for­ward might help oth­er ath­letes who, like her, suffered from de­pres­sion as a res­ult of head in­jur­ies. She found con­nect­ing with oth­er people about the ex­per­i­ence em­power­ing.

But all around her something else was swirl­ing that struck at the core of who she was.

“I star­ted get­ting really in­volved in speak­ing out about con­cus­sions around the time people star­ted talk­ing about So­chi,” she says.

The United States was already in the midst of what would be a mo­nu­ment­al year in the his­tory of gay rights: Nine states leg­al­ized same-sex mar­riage, doub­ling the num­ber that re­cog­nized such uni­ons; the Su­preme Court struck down the De­fense of Mar­riage Act; and pub­lic sup­port for gay mar­riage reached an all-time high. NBA play­er Jason Collins and Ma­jor League Soc­cer play­er Rob­bie Ro­gers both made block­buster com­ing-out an­nounce­ments. Pres­id­ent Obama, who only the year be­fore had com­pleted his “evol­u­tion” on gay rights, cited “our fore­bears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stone­wall” in his In­aug­ur­al Ad­dress, pla­cing the is­sue squarely in the broad­er con­text of civil rights in Amer­ica. “Our jour­ney is not com­plete un­til our gay broth­ers and sis­ters are treated like any­one else un­der the law — for if we are truly cre­ated equal, then surely the love we com­mit to one an­oth­er must be equal as well,” he said.

And then, the fol­low­ing sum­mer, amid vi­ol­ent protests, Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin signed in­to law a bill ban­ning “pro­pa­ganda of non­tra­di­tion­al sexu­al re­la­tions.” As Rus­sia’s re­la­tion­ship with the United States grew in­creas­ingly frac­tious — with Putin grant­ing asylum to Ed­ward Snowden, in­ter­fer­ing when Obama tried to make a case for mil­it­ary in­ter­ven­tion in Syr­ia, and scrap­ping with the U.S. pres­id­ent over Amer­ic­an “ex­cep­tion­al­ism” — it quickly be­come clear that the de­bate over Rus­sia’s re­cord on hu­man rights for gay people would be the de­fin­ing polit­ic­al is­sue of the Winter Games.

Cahow was watch­ing and think­ing about how she wanted to be in­volved. “I took a good look at my­self, and what my ca­reer in hockey had meant to me, and my ex­per­i­ence, and de­cided it was a good op­por­tun­ity to be open and hon­est about who I was,” she says.

Still, she was con­flic­ted. As a 2008 gradu­ate of Har­vard Uni­versity and later a law stu­dent at Bo­ston Col­lege, she’d been in­volved in some LGBT-re­lated is­sues on cam­pus; she had hos­ted a pan­el dis­cus­sion on the leg­al im­plic­a­tions of the Su­preme Court’s DOMA de­cision as chair­wo­man of her school’s Lambda Leg­al so­ci­ety, an or­gan­iz­a­tion fo­cused on pro­mot­ing and de­fend­ing LGBT rights. She wasn’t hid­ing; she’d just nev­er come out any­where and pub­licly de­clared, “I’m gay.”

And she wasn’t about to: The whole “com­ing out” pro­cess ex­pec­ted of pub­lic fig­ures — the big an­nounce­ment, the rounds of me­dia in­ter­views, the ex­pect­a­tion that one will be a spokes­wo­man for a broad swath of the Amer­ic­an pub­lic — bothered her. Cahow nev­er wanted to use a me­dia ap­pear­ance to make an an­nounce­ment about her per­son­al life, and she ig­nored the lead­ing ques­tions she was asked. “I nev­er liked the idea that I was be­ing baited, be­cause I think every­one’s private life should be re­spec­ted,” Cahow says. Be­ing an Olympic ath­lete was her job, she figured. Why should any­one have to make a ma­jor de­clar­a­tion in their pro­fes­sion­al world about their private life? She feels strongly, she says, that sexu­al­ity ex­ists on a spec­trum, and she was re­luct­ant to la­bel her­self.

But Cahow is a huge ten­nis fan. She thinks Bil­lie Jean King, the le­gendary former ten­nis cham­pi­on, is the most im­port­ant fe­male ath­lete in the na­tion’s his­tory, if not the world’s. And when King, who has long used sports as an av­en­ue for so­cial change, an­nounced on the 40th an­niversary of the pas­sage of Title IX le­gis­la­tion that it was time for the next gen­er­a­tion of wo­men ath­letes to take over in the fight for equal­ity, the mes­sage wasn’t lost on Cahow. “There are a lot of wo­men a gen­er­a­tion or two gen­er­a­tions ahead of me who were very vo­cal, who fought for equal­ity — not just in the LGBT com­munity, but for wo­men — who took a stand and were fear­less,” she says. “We take ad­vant­age of the safety in our com­munit­ies among people we know we can trust, but we don’t ne­ces­sar­ily pay it for­ward to those who don’t have com­munity they can trust. It was weigh­ing on me.” 

So when an­oth­er hockey play­er — a friend with whom she’d been dis­cuss­ing the is­sues that wo­men and gay people face in sports — asked her to do an in­ter­view about So­chi and the Olympics for a site ded­ic­ated to LGB­TQ ath­letes, Cahow agreed. She re­fused to de­clare she was gay, as the site had hoped she would, but agreed to a com­prom­ise: Her in­ter­view­er asked, “So, you were not tech­nic­ally out for your first two Olympics?” and Cahow said, simply, “Nobody ever asked.” The in­ter­view went on­line and was picked up by The Huff­ing­ton Post. That was Novem­ber. A month later, the White House called to in­form Cahow that she was un­der con­sid­er­a­tion to rep­res­ent the United States on its Olympic del­eg­a­tion in So­chi.

And then, just be­fore Christ­mas, the White House an­nounced that both Cahow and King were go­ing to Rus­sia.

In ac­cept­ing the pres­id­ent’s in­vit­a­tion, Cahow be­came part of a tra­di­tion of Amer­ic­an act­iv­ism sur­round­ing the Olympics that in­cludes not only ac­tions taken by in­di­vidu­al ath­letes — most fam­ously those of track medal­ists Tom­mie Smith and John Car­los, who raised their fists in a black-power sa­lute on the po­di­um at the 1968 Sum­mer Games in Mex­ico City — but also those taken by the U.S. as a na­tion, such as the boy­cott of the 1980 Mo­scow Olympics in protest of the So­viet in­va­sion of Afgh­anistan.

In the case of So­chi, even as the White House tried to down­play the pro­voca­tion in­her­ent in its del­eg­a­tion picks, the sym­bol­ism was ob­vi­ous: By send­ing gay Amer­ic­an ath­letes who had proven them­selves as some of the best in the world, the pres­id­ent was send­ing a mes­sage about what he thinks of Rus­sia’s treat­ment of its gay and les­bi­an cit­izens. (“That’s not a mes­sage we would wait to send through this man­ner,” White House press sec­ret­ary Jay Car­ney told re­port­ers in a brief­ing made after the an­nounce­ment, adding, “The pres­id­ent has been very clear that he finds it of­fens­ive, the anti-LGBT le­gis­la­tion in Rus­sia.”) Click for a lar­ger im­age.

But to Cahow, be­ing ap­poin­ted to rep­res­ent the United States in Rus­sia is about much more than be­ing a pro­voca­tion in the on­go­ing Wash­ing­ton-Mo­scow spat. It’s about rep­res­ent­ing a coun­try that she loves, cel­eb­rat­ing its di­versity, and join­ing the tra­di­tion of wo­men ath­letes who, like King, have long been the pi­on­eers of LGBT rights in sports.

So Cahow is go­ing back to the Olympics, this time to rep­res­ent the United States in a way she nev­er ex­pec­ted. “What I can do,” she says, “is, I can go to Rus­sia and rep­res­ent a coun­try I really be­lieve in, a coun­try that sup­ports me, that’s made huge changes. A lot of lead­ers have made big per­son­al ideo­lo­gic­al shifts over the last few years. It’s kind of amaz­ing.”

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