Institutionalized homophobia in men's figure skating

U.S. Olympic figure skater Jeremy Abbott - Harry How

There's a reason skaters tiptoe around issue of gay rights and their own orientation.


Sometimes, the things figure skaters say to the press require actual translation.

The pressures on male Olympic skaters are different from the pressures in most people’s lives. If you take their comments at face value, the skaters may sound closeted.  They may sound self-hating.  They may sound naïve or deluded.  This is not what’s going on.

Last August, Jeremy Abbott refused to speak against Russia’s anti-gay laws.  But once U.S. Figure Skating named him to the Olympic team on Jan. 12, he changed his tune, telling Buzzfeed that the laws "go strongly against my personal beliefs."  The timing is the message here:  Abbott is indicating that it would not have been safe for him to say anything before he secured an Olympic berth.

He added, "I don’t care what people assume about me, whether or not I am gay or straight.  I’m an ally and I believe everyone should be supportive of human rights."  This requires more reading between the lines.  Abbott is signaling that he is not homophobic and personally has no conflict with being considered gay; that he has been told not to state his orientation if he wants the support of his federation with the myriad essentials an Olympic hopeful requires; and that gay skaters in Sochi will need allies, not people pressuring them to come out and perhaps criticizing them if they do not. 

If you read between the lines, you can detect that there are people who have control over these athletes’ access to the Olympics, and these people dictate what the athletes can and cannot say.  They can, if they wish, manipulate what kind of funding, competitive assignments, and (in rare cases) scores the skaters receive.  It does not matter what Abbott’s personal orientation is; this applies to all the skaters.

Two-time Olympian Johnny Weir did not come out until after he competed in the 2010 Olympics.  His national federation’s acts of pettiness and sabotage toward him for his femme manner are well chronicled in his autobiography and his television series, "Be Good Johnny Weir."  Again, look at the timing.  Would viewers who watched Weir in 2010 have been shocked to learn he was gay?  But he could not say anything until it was all over.  Read between the lines:  he was being pressured behind the scenes.

At the beginning of this Olympic season, Weir announced his intention to try for an Olympic spot and to compete in Sochi if he qualified, despite the dangerous anti-gay laws.  This announcement brought ridicule from some quarters.  At age 29, long past his athletic peak, Weir’s jump repertoire and speed and ice coverage were nowhere near the levels necessary for legitimate contenders.  What was he thinking?  Was he deluded?

He was not.  He was taking advantage of his position to speak out on behalf of Olympic contenders who were being pressured to remain silent.  Weir is legally married to a Russian Jewish American man; he does not have the option of going back in the closet.  As someone with a public profile, as long as he positioned himself as a potential Olympic competitor, he had a platform from which to declare that gay athletes have the same right to compete as any others.  The moment he finalized his contract with NBC as an Olympic commentator, last October, he announced his retirement from competition.  He is now as safe as an out gay man can be at the Sochi Olympics, an on-camera employee of a major Olympic funding source.  But until he announced this career move, he used his eligible status to speak for other skaters who had more to lose.

Brian Boitano is a skater who had far less to lose by coming out.  When he came out in December, after Barack Obama appointed him to the U.S. Olympic delegation to Sochi, many Americans seemed confounded:  can it even be considered "coming out" if nobody realized this pop culture icon was still in the closet? 

But Boitano was absolutely in the closet.  Until December, he had knowingly refused to acknowledge his sexual orientation on the public record, although it is probably accurate to say that he was privately open about being gay with 100% of his friends, family, and acquaintances in figure skating.  In 1988, when he became famous for his Olympic win, the American social climate was homophobic enough that it would have been a risk for him to come out, resulting in discrimination and probably significant loss of income in endorsement and appearance fees.  Yet by 1997, his homosexuality was so widely assumed in popular culture that it was even an element of the television cartoon "South Park."  Whatever Boitano’s reasons for staying closeted, intention to pass as heterosexual was not among them. Boitano never challenged South Park’s characterization of him as a gay icon but embraced it with good humor, even using their material for his own television work.

But this relaxed attitude is pertinent within North America only.  Within the current context of anti-gay persecution in Russia, Boitano’s coming out reminds people just how much courage such a gesture can take.  Olympic athletes, like anyone else who travels internationally for a living, have safety concerns that may seem outdated to those of us who spend most of our time in more consistently gay-supportive spaces.  Boitano coming out:  why now?  Because it is meaningful now in a way that other skaters will understand.  This coming out is not about his individual process or even about being a role model to the general gay public.  It is about serving the ally role that Abbott mentioned, standing up for gay athletes the way Weir did earlier this season, one Olympian to another.  Boitano has been there.  By coming out and traveling to Sochi, he is signaling to gay skaters that he will speak on their behalf until the day they are no longer pressured into silence.

Lorrie Kim wrote about queer issues in figure skating from 1998 to 2006 for the website Rainbow Ice.  She wrote the technical appendix to Icebreaker:  The Autobiography of Rudy Galindo and edited "Cracked Ice:  Figure Skating’s Inner World", the memoirs of Olympic referee Sonia Bianchetti.

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