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Brian Boitano on coming out: 'I had to go past my comfort zone'

Jan. 2, 2014 at 9:20 AM ET

Retired Olympic figure skater Brian Boitano is a private person, but joining the U.S. delegation in Sochi led to a very public decision.

The 1988 gold medalist released a statement on Dec. 19 announcing that he is gay, only days after President Barack Obama named him to the Olympic delegation, where he joined two openly gay athletes, tennis legend Billie Jean King and ice hockey player Caitlin Cahow. They will represent the U.S. amid controversy over Russia passing a law in June making “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors” illegal.

“When the president named the delegation, and I read in the news what his message was of tolerance and diversity, I thought, I have to take this opportunity,’’ Boitano told Matt Lauer on TODAY Thursday. “I think the message is so strong. I’ve always wanted to represent my country as best I could, and I knew that I had to go past my comfort zone and reveal a private side of my life that I’ve never done before because I felt that the message is so strong.”

Boitano believes just being part of the delegation speaks volumes when it comes to Russia’s anti-gay law. Last month, Russian president Vladimir Putin said the ban does not discriminate and defended his country against “genderless and infertile” Western tolerance.

Video: Six months after Russia outlawed what it calls homosexual propaganda, critics of the law are becoming more vocal as the Olympic Games in Sochi, approach. NBC’s Stephanie Gosk reports.

“I think that we have to be careful once we go over there,’’ Boitano said. “I think the statement is already being made by us being on the delegation and Billie Jean and Caitlin, and us standing together united as gay people showing that there is freedom of speech, and we are successful human beings and athletes. I think that speaks measures.”

Many athletes and activists are expected to protest the law once the Olympics get underway next month.

“I think it’s horrible the treatment the LGBT community gets in Russia,’’ U.S. figure skater Ashley Wagner told TODAY.

“I encourage everybody to do what they feel is best for themselves,'' Boitano said. "I never thought that I would be coming out in this way, and in a matter of 10 hours, I decided to do it. That was what was right for me at this time, so I tell everybody that I think that they should do what’s right for them at their correct time.”

Boitano's friends and family already knew about his sexuality, but he decided this was the right time for him to come out publicly.

“The reaction has been fantastic and really supportive, but I really never felt that I had to (come out),’’ he said. “I’ve always been a private person. I’ve kept the private side of my life special for family and friends who really knew me. I’ve never been ashamed of who I was. I’ve always been open with them, so I really didn’t feel that there was a need. I’m just a private guy, and I realize that there’s a public side of my life and a private side. I’ve always chosen to keep my sexuality private.”

The International Olympic Committee has come under fire for not speaking out against the law. The IOC has responded by saying it’s not their right to comment and that the Russian Ministry of Justice has given them assurances that openly gay athletes and foreign visitors will not be discriminated against during the Olympics.

“There is still time for the IOC to take a strong and unequivocal stance against the law and make it clear that the Russian government is not living up to its commitments as an Olympic host,’’ Jane Buchanan of Human Rights Watch told TODAY.


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