Guarnieri delivers 'silent but not silent' protest of Hungary's transphobic laws

On the left, Jacopo Guarnieri (Groupama-FDJ) wears a a wristband of the light blue, pink and white colours of the transgender flag at the pre-race presentation of the Giro d'Italia
On the left, Jacopo Guarnieri (Groupama-FDJ) wears a a wristband of the light blue, pink and white colours of the transgender flag at the pre-race presentation of the Giro d'Italia (Image credit: Getty Images Sport (cropped image))

Jacopo Guarnieri made his statement clearly with the wristband he wore at the pre-race presentation on Heroes’ Square last Wednesday evening, but he could only put his message of solidarity with trans rights into words after the Giro d’Italia had left Hungary and arrived in Sicily on Monday.

“It was a kind of a silent but not silent message,” Guarnieri told reporters during the rest day.

In 2020, Victor Orbán’s far-right government passed a law making it impossible for transgender or intersex people to legally change their gender. Last year, by a majority of 157 to 1, the Hungarian parliament voted to prohibit sharing with minors any content that portrays being gay or transgender. Yet despite the passing of those homophobic and transphobic laws, RCS Sport proceeded to honour its agreement to sell the start of the 2022 Giro to Orbán’s Hungary.

Guarnieri, like many, had severe misgivings about the Giro’s Hungarian expedition, but he quickly realised that he could at least take advantage of his platform both to raise international awareness of the country’s transphobic laws and to offer a message of solidarity to the transgender community.

The Italian’s social media bio has already long featured a rainbow flag as a symbol of LGBT+ allyship, and he initially planned to wear a rainbow wristband in Budapest. Following consultation with a friend, he instead opted to wear the light blue, pink and white colours of the transgender flag, inspired by the American riders who did so during the Cyclo-cross World Championships in protest at Arkansas’s anti-transgender legislation.

“Basically, this was a topic in my mind for a long time because, as you all know, the law was approved in Hungary in the middle of 2021. I spoke about it already in December with [Hungarian teammate] Attila Valter, and I asked him how the feeling was in the country and so on. It was my idea already a long time ago,” Guarnieri told reporters in a call on Monday’s rest day.

“I didn’t know what kind of support to use, but when I saw there was a bracelet, I decided to wear one during the presentation on the stage, so it was a kind of a silent but not silent message.”

Guarnieri’s gesture echoed that of footballers including Harry Kane and Georginio Wijnaldum, who wore rainbow armbands when playing international matches in Hungary last year. It was not entirely without risk. His Groupama-FDJ team, for instance, decided not to allow reporters on the Giro to speak to Guarnieri about his protest until after the race had left Hungarian soil.

“We’re not superheroes, but you think they cannot say so much in public against a foreigner. I took the chance, and I took advantage of the fact that I was in a position where I was a little more safe,” said Guarnieri.

“I thought maybe it could piss off somebody off, but I was thinking of the public more than the politicians. I thought maybe in the time trial somebody might try to punch me. But I thought about that and then I thought, ‘Well, a punch I can sustain.’ So I said, 'OK, why not.' After all, it’s Europe, so let’s try. I was confident I could pass the message without taking a risk.”

Love (and respect)

Photographs of Guarnieri’s raised wristband at the pre-race presentation earned the rider from Castelvetro, between Cremona and Piacenza, widespread praise on social media, and he responded by tweeting: “Apparently if you share love (and respect) you get love.” On the race and in the peloton, however, his gesture was greeted with silence.

“I was actually a bit afraid but then when I did it, I saw so much support [on social media], I was really happy and got over all the doubts of doing it. And I could say it was well received,” Guarnieri said.

“As regarding the riders or the organisation, I didn’t hear anything, not in a good way or a bad way. I didn’t feel any major changes in the behaviour towards me, in either a good way or a bad way. It’s the same as before.”

While athletes in other sports have been increasingly active in using their platforms to promote social causes, cycling appears to remain more wedded to the belief that sport and politics should not mix. Witness, for instance, the late and underwhelming support for the Black Lives Matter movement during the 2020 Tour de France, at a time when athletes across the world were taking a knee in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd.

Guarnieri is among the few prominent exceptions to the rule. The cyclist and the citizen are not mutually exclusive entities. He can lead out a sprint for Arnaud Démare and then analyse it lucidly, but he can also express his strong opposition to the far-right politics of Matteo Salvini, Giorgia Meloni or Marine Le Pen. (“For sure this sentiment of nationalism, this kind of bullshit, is growing,” he noted.) He warned against the idea that the professional peloton’s general reticence to discuss social issues was necessarily an indication of conservatism.

“In cycling, there are many reasons, I don’t think there is just one explanation. For sure, some just don’t want to say something, some don’t have any idea and some maybe are against. We cannot make just one explanation,” Guarnieri said.

“I’m made this way, I’m a person after all. We are not experts of international policy or whatever, so I try to be positive. I don’t have a solution, for example, about what Hungary can do for transexual people. I can just share my support and share a positive vibe. That’s myself, it’s as simple as that.”

Simple, yet far more than most, including the organisation of this very race. RCS Sport managing director Paolo Bellino, a former international hurdler, seemed to think he could simply relive his youth and skip over a question about Hungary’s transphobic laws last week. “I’m not entering in any political or other situation,” Bellino told a call with international media.

If that mealy-mouthed response was the equivalent of Bellino clipping the hurdle with his trailing leg, then the PR spokesperson who cut off a follow-up question ensured that he stumbled flat on his face. Not for the first time in professional cycling, there seemed to be a dreary reluctance to do or say anything that might displease the strongman holding the purse strings.

Asked whether the Giro d’Italia should have started in Hungary at all, Guarnieri took a balanced view, noting that the Grande Partenza had initially been planned for 2020 but then postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“On some things, I think it was right to honour the contract and on the other hand, I would say maybe not,” said Guarnieri, who knows that, beyond the Giro’s Hungarian excursion, the issue of sportswashing presents a persistent problem for cycling. The sport repeatedly brings its races to countries with troubling human rights records in return for hard cash. “It’s a hard balance between fighting for what you think is right and trying to survive in your own job.”

There are many in cycling who could learn from the balance that Guarnieri has struck.

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Barry Ryan
Head of Features

Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.