Openly gay snowboarder Gus Kenworthy and transgender former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner both appeared in a now-deleted photo on Kenworthy’s Instagram account (above) showing the two with Kenworthy’s boyfriend at the London-based birthday party of Prince Haji ‘Abdul ‘Azim of Brunei (pictured above on the right). Brunei is a small nation on the island of Borneo in the South China Sea — it punishes homosexuality with 10 years in prison and, in recent years, instated laws making homosexuality subject to death by stoning.
Blogger Kenneth Walsh uncovered the photo and blasted the athletes on Twitter saying “shame on them.” His reaction makes sense: why are two queer athletes partying with the son of an anti-gay monarch? There’s three reasons we can think of:
1) Prince Azim’s parties are pretty bangin’
Prince Azim is known for being a paparazzi favorite who throws lavish parties with celebrities like Mariah Carey, Faye Dunaway, Scarlett Johansson and Diana Ross. Considering that Azim’s father is worth an estimated $20 billion, the parties are probably pretty bangin’ and involve alcohol, even though the consumption of alcohol by Muslims (like Azim) is illegal in his home country.
2) Prince Azim might be gay
Rumors abound that Prince Azim might actually be gay. If that’s true, it makes sense for him to have gay and trans friends, but it also flies in the face of his country’s laws (i.e. as part of the ruling family, he doesn’t have to follow them), even as other LGBT Bruneians get thrown in prison or worse; it’s unclear whether the country has ever used its anti-gay death penalty, but it certainly exists.
In fact, in 2014, celebrities like lesbian talk show host Ellen DeGeneres and straight musician John Legend joined a boycott of hotels owned by Azim’s father because of his country’s anti-gay and anti-adultery laws.
I won’t be visiting the Hotel Bel-Air or the Beverly Hills Hotel until this is resolved. http://t.co/RqQrLBK4EJ
— Ellen DeGeneres (@TheEllenShow) April 22, 2014
If Prince Azim is gay, it could suggest that the country has a lax attitude towards enforcing its anti-gay death penalty. Nevertheless, reports of gay life in Brunei say that homosexuals there “lay low”, remaining deeply in the closet, barely patronizing the country’s hidden gay bars and refusing to speak openly about gay life there.
3) Maybe they’re actually trying to reform the country’s laws
Walsh’s anger at Kenworthy and Jenner is understandable, but it might be short-sighted. After all, how can Brunei’s laws and culture ever change unless some (privileged, well-protected) LGBT people try and gain the ruling family’s ear? It’s a strategy that businesses in anti-LGBT countries use. By partying with the Prince Azim, they’re likely softening his opinions towards LGBT people and might have an effect on the country’s future handling of queer citizens.
However, the fact that Kenworthy deleted the photo from his Instagram suggests that he’s ashamed of his association with Prince Azim and afraid of the social blowback it could incur. That’s hardly the stance of an out and proud advocate working for social change. He should have kept the photo up to say, “Yes, I’m gay. And I’m hanging out with the son of an anti-gay ruler, and we’re friends. And it’s important for the world to see that, because the world is nuanced and we need to talk to our opponents.”
The monarchy of a largely Muslim country can be influenced, even if its laws are currently anti-gay and deadly.