The presidential delegation to the Winter Olympics in Sochi will include tennis champion and gay rights activist Billie Jean King, and hockey player Caitlin Cahow, the White House announced Tuesday, in a move that appears to be a symbolic rebuke against Russia's anti-gay laws.
King, a lesbian, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 in recognition for her work on behalf of the LGBT community.
Their inclusion comes after civil rights organizations pressured the White House to include gay leaders in the delegation to signal opposition to new Russian laws that threaten fines and imprisonment for those who stage gay pride rallies or events.
Last week, Human Rights First sent a letter to Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett arguing, “the selection of the members of the official U.S. delegations for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics is an important opportunity to signal to Russia and the world the priority the Obama administration places on equality and human dignity.
“We urge you to ensure that the U.S. delegation includes prominent LGBT people — athletes, government officials and others — as well as allies of the LGBT community who will carry a message of tolerance and respect for individual rights and human dignity," the letter, obtained by McClatchy, continued.
Former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano will lead the U.S. delegation to the opening ceremony. U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors and gold-medal figure skater Brian Boitano will also appear alongside King.
The Closing Ceremonies delegation will be led by Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, and include McFaul, speed skating gold medalists Bonnie Blair and Eric Heiden, and Cahow.
Neither the president nor first lady Michelle Obama will appear in either delegation. The first lady led the U.S. delegation to the London games in 2012.
Earlier this summer, Obama said he did not "think it's appropriate to boycott the Olympics" — but said he hoped gay American athletes would win medals and change minds.
"One of the things I'm really looking forward to is maybe some gay and lesbian athletes bringing home the gold or silver or bronze, which I think would go a long way in rejecting the kind of attitudes that we're seeing there," he said.
The president also visited with gay rights activists during his trip to St. Petersburg for an economic summit.
White House press secretary Jay Carney reiterated opposition to Russia's laws during a press conference last week.
“I think we’ve been very clear in our views about both the laws in place and the issues surrounding LGBT rights and our expectations of Russia when it comes to conducting the Olympics,” Carney said.
Some world leaders have cited the anti-gay laws in declining invitations to the opening ceremony, including European Union justice commissioner Viviane Reding.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that gay athletes will be welcome at the games.
"We are doing everything, both the organizers and our athletes and fans, so that participants and guests feel comfortable in Sochi, regardless of nationality, race or sexual orientation," Putin said, according to RIA Novosti.