Liberté, égalité, fraternité – The NHL and LGBT rights


Rick Rypien passed away two years ago this month. The former Canuck and Winnipeg Jet died of an apparent suicide after a long battle with depression.

On June 11, 2013 the federal Russian legislature passed a law banning “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations”.

If you think these two events are not linked, you are mistaken.

Suicide is a leading cause of death for LGBTQ teens. Studies have found that LGBTQ youth are at least four times as likely as their heterosexual peers to attempt suicide. Suicide is a huge problem facing LGBTQ youth, as is homelessness. Up to 40% of the U.S. homeless population is LGBTQ and most cite family conflict as the reason they are homeless.

I’ve never been one for the Olympics. The event does however represent an opportunity for nations to come together and celebrate our common humanity by appreciating the best in human athletic achievement.

The Olympics have always been a political event. From the Moscow and LA boycotts to Tommie Smith and John Carol’s show of solidarity with the fight for African-American equality, to Jesse Owens four medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the event has been host to some iconic political statements.

The 2014 Olympics are scheduled to take place in Sochi, Russia. LGBT athletes and spectators will be at risk of persecution, particularly if they live an open life and refuse to hide their sexual orientation.

The Russian government has defended its law by claiming it does not violate the Olympics anti-discrimination requirement because, get ready for it: the law applies to everyone. The IOC has appallingly said that it is “satisfied” with this nonsense.

In response to the law, LGBT rights activists like Dan Savage and actor George Takei have backed a petition asking for the 2014 Olympics to move from Sochi to Vancouver. Vancouver holds a particularly dear place in Mr. Savage’s heart. He was first married to his husband Terry here, when same sex marriage was still illegal in his home state of Washington.

So how do the Canucks and Rick Rypien tie into all of this?

Canucks' Manny Malhotra's support of LGBT communities at the 2012 Vancouver Pride parade. Photo: Charlie Smith

Canucks’ Manny Malhotra’s support of LGBT communities at the 2012 Vancouver Pride parade. Photo: Charlie Smith

Most directly, the Canucks have embraced their LGBT fans and many players have marched in Vancouver’s pride parade, which is one of the largest such events in North America. More generally, the Canucks have also supported campaigns to end violence against women. They have a history of progressive social activism.

The Canucks have also been at the forefront of advocating for ending the stigma surrounding mental illness, as well as promoting treatment and check-ups.

They have promoted the website where you can learn about mental illness and get information if you think you are possibly suffering symptoms. The Canucks organization received an award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness in recognition of their contributions.

The Canucks need to continue their mental health advocacy by taking a stand against Russia’s anti-gay law. Unfortunately it is unlikely that the Olympics will be moved, as it would be a logistical nightmare.

The Canucks should, as an organization, come out in support of the sentiment expressed in this petition, and make an official statement that the organization and the city stand with LGBT people worldwide and not with the bigots.

The Russian law will have a very real effect, and that effect will be measured in the bodies of LGBT youth who will be committing suicide. If we are serious about promoting well-being and reducing suicide, supporting LGBT equality – especially in the face of a violent and fascistic opposition – is the place to start.

Thankfully several NHL players have spoken out against this disgusting law.

We are still waiting, however, on a Russian superstar like Alexander Ovechkin or Evgeny Malkin to speak out against it. Pavel Datsyuk has defended the law in a cowardly way by hiding behind the Russian Orthodox church, which has enthusiastically supported the insane propaganda used to support this law. Red Wings fans should keep this in mind when choosing what jersey to buy. 

I’m a realist. I highly doubt the games will be moved to Vancouver. I also doubt that this law will be taken off the books any time soon. I do, however, think that the Russian government never expected this level of opposition, and any efforts ranging from the Olympic petition, the #DumpRussianVodka campaign, and other acts of non-violent resistance are having real, tangible effects. I think the Vancouver Canucks should make use of this terrible situation to further show solidarity with LGBTQ people and to further their advocacy for mental well-being.

Men’s ice hockey is the biggest event at the Olympics. Participants have a social responsibility for sharing in that spotlight and the privilege that it provides.

I hope, for the sake of LGBTQ people the world over, and for all of us as human beings, that Olympic athletes make a loud, clear, and unmistakable statement that we are all free and equal human beings deserving of the same rights and dignity.


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About Travis Erbacher

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  • Travis Erbacher

    Just an additional note, which had to be cut out in the interest of brevity, Datsyuk’s teammate Henrik Zetterberg has called the law “just awful” and stated that he thinks it is almost unbelievable that such a law could exist in a large modern country like Russia. I know what Red Wing I respect.

  • J.D. Burke

    Wow, hit this one out of the park Travis. Great piece. Have nothing else to add really.

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