As kisses go, it wasn’t much of one. It was more like a quick peck on the lips.
When openly gay Olympic skier Gus Kenworthy kissed his boyfriend Matt Wilkas on live TV at the 2018 Olympics right before kissing his mom, it lasted a second. Its impact will reverberate for a lot longer, and it will be an indelible image of these Games for LGBTQ sports fans and athletes.
“It was the tiniest kiss in the world. I could’ve made out with him had I known,” Wilkas joked after the kiss became a sensation.
Outsports’ Twitter post of the kiss quickly went viral and the smooch was the first question journalists at the Olympic Snow Park asked Kenworthy after injuries led to a disappointing 12th-place finish in the slopestyle finals. There were few questions about his skiing; all anyone cared about was the kiss.
“To be able to do that, to give him a kiss, to have that affection broadcast to the world, is incredible,” Kenworthy said after. “The only way to really change perceptions, to break down barriers, break down homophobia, is through representation. That’s definitely not something I had as a kid. I never saw a gay athlete kissing their boyfriend at the Olympics. I think if I had, it would’ve made it easier for me.”
The significance was not just apparent to LGBT media — the mainstream media also got it:
Karen Crouse of the New York Times: Gus Kenworthy Wins Without Making the Podium
Denver Post columnist Mike Kisla: Why kiss with his boyfriend means more to Gus Kenworthy than medal at Winter Olympics
Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports: Why Gus Kenworthy kissing his boyfriend on NBC matters
This is not the first time we’ve seen a same-sex athlete kiss their partner on TV. ESPN showed pro bowler Scott Norton kissing his husband in late 2012. In 2014, NFL draft choice Michael Sam kissed his boyfriend on ESPN after being selected by the St. Louis Rams.
The Sam kiss was a huge deal at the time, but Kenworthy’s occurred on a much larger stage before a much larger audience than the seventh round of the NFL Draft and it will have a longer impact.
Two comments on social media summed up why the kiss meant so much:
“It blows my mind that we live in a world where in 2018 this is such a huge monumental moment But I’m so happy that this is a moment we are finally having. I hope it will pave the way for many more. One day we will live in a world where this can & will be commonplace.”
“What an amazing moment. Definitely would have loved to have seen something like this when I was a child watching every event!”
These sentiments were repeated countless times, vastly outnumbering the negative comments. Seeing an openly gay athlete kissing his boyfriend on TV seemed so normal, even it was so exceptional. Ten years ago, NBC ignored the story of the openly gay diver Matthew Mitcham, who won a surprising gold at the Beijing Games with his boyfriend in the stands.
On Saturday night, not only did NBC show the kiss, but announcers Trace Worthington and Luke Van Valin identified Wilkas as Kenworthy’s boyfriend. It’s a scene we’ve seen thousands of times in sports of straight athletes kissing their significant other, but seeing two men do it was powerful. I thought of how many young people wrestling with their sexual identity felt a jolt of empowerment seeing the kiss treated in such a matter-of-fact manner.
Had Kenworthy not been publicly out, none of this would have happened. The kiss showed the power of coming out and why visibility is so imporant. In 2014, Kenworthy kept his then-boyfriend a secret, something he is still ashamed of. In 2018, a free and liberated Kenworthy had no shame about kissing another man.
The fact Kenworthy and Wilkas didn’t “make out,” as the latter joked, made the moment more powerful. A full make-out session would have looked staged and narcissistic. The peck on the lips was more genuine, the kind you give your partner in a brief moment to convey affection and love. It’s very ordinariness gave it its power.
“Didn’t realize this moment was being filmed yesterday but I’m so happy that it was,” Kenworthy wrote on Instagram a day after his event. That’s true for all of us.