Charles Tang
News Reporter

PrideHouseTO opened its doors to everyone for the first time during the current Winter Olympics games.

First introduced in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, the Pride House is an inclusive space for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) community to come together and watch the Games in a safe and friendly environment.

Barb Besharat, a staff member of PrideHouseTO, said it is also used as a hub to engage the public with the news and issues about the inclusion of LGBTQ people in sports.

“Many people from the community may not feel comfortable to go to a sports bar to watch the Olympics or a hockey game,” Besharat said.

“I think it is a good idea what they are doing,” said Alex Chung-Fong, 31, a first-year Humber culinary student, after learning about PrideHouseTO.

He said it could help reduce the opposition that LGBTQ athletes may face when they come out in public, as seen in the case of Michael Sam.

Sam, a U.S. college football star that came out publicly recently, may become the first openly gay player in the NFL. He has received mostly positive responses since.

Since their introduction, Pride Houses have been set up in cities where major sporting events were held, such as the 2012 London Olympics and the Euro 2012 soccer tournament in Ukraine and Poland.

These centres were credited with helping athletes and the sports communities to become increasingly open over the years.

Blake Skjellerup, a gay Olympic speed skater from New Zealand who competed in Vancouver, decided to come out after visiting Vancouver’s Pride House.

As Toronto is hosting the Pan Am Games next year, 15 local organizations (including The 519 Church Street Community Centre, Ontario Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, PFALG and Pride Toronto) have been collaborating to start this project.

“The Pan Am Games will be the biggest multi-sport event to be held in Canada,” Besharat said. “We want to make it the most LGBTQ inclusive games ever, and at the same time, to promote LGBTQ rights in Latin America when these countries come to compete.”

However, not all cities are as open as Toronto.

“Unfortunately, due to Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law, local activists could not set up a Pride House in Sochi,” according to Besharat.

Just before the Sochi Olympics began, many activists took the opportunity to protest.

Two Humber students staged a protest against McDonald’s, a major sponsor of the Olympic Games, for its silence on the issue.

“With the law Russia just passed last year, they have broken Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter, which asks for equity of everyone in the Olympics,” said Kayla Pittman, 20, a second-year culinary student. “We are trying to stop them from enforcing the (anti-gay ‘propaganda’) law anymore,” she said.

“I am here mostly to support my friend Kayla. I really appreciated what she is doing,” said Caitlyn Smith, 21, a first-year early childhood education student, as the two stood outside the McDonald’s on Carrier Drive, near Highway 27 and Finch Ave. W. The women protested amid the bone-chilling temperatures while holding picket signs.

“The responses were positive, “ said Pittman. “Some customers asked, and after learning what we were doing, said they support the protest. Many people waved and honked to support us as well.”

According to Pittman, the manager of the McDonald’s they protested at came out and said he supported what they were doing as he does not agree with Russia on the matter.

At another protest demonstration at the McDonald’s in Fairview Mall, activists shared similar messages.

“We are here today to protest against any kind of homophobia in sports, and especially the International Olympics Committee, for turning a blind eye on Russia’s human right record,” said Ruben Avila, 28, a grad student from the University of Toronto.

Some even called for a boycott on the Olympics and its sponsor.

“I support our athletes fully, but I will not watch the games this year,” said John Shannon, who works in a media company.

“Major sponsors like McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, are earning millions from sponsoring the Olympics, and they have the power to say something,” protester Ihor Tomkiw said.

They also want the IOC to explicitly add sexual orientation to its anti-discrimination policy, and to avoid granting the hosting right to countries with institutionalized homophobia in the future.

Besharat said although PrideHosueTO is not participating in the boycott, the boycott is important to the movement.

“The main objective of PrideHouseTO is to make the Pan Am games the most inclusive as possible, so it is important to engage the public during a major sport event. But we need all kinds of actions and different voices in order to push for charges,” Besharat said.

“There’s still a lack of understanding on the issue, so when the opportunities arise, we grab it to educate the public,” said Besharat, referring to the controversy over the decision to raise the rainbow flag at City Hall.

At the winter Olympics lounge, PrideHouseTO wants to fundraise for the LGBTQ community in Russia as they prepare to organize an Open Games, showing their resistance against anti-gay legislation.

PrideHouseTO also plans to set up a lounge during the Winter Paralympics and the World Cup this summer in order to prepare for the Pan Am Games.