Five-ring Circus

Ice Queens

Seeing bold queer excellence on the Olympic ice is a major shift for both sports culture and the broader fight against homophobia.

Rudy Galindo, Johnny Weir, Brian Boitano, and Adam Rippon.
Rudy Galindo, Johnny Weir, Brian Boitano, and Adam Rippon. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Glenn Cratty /Allsport, Robert Laberge/Getty Images, Shaun Botterill /Getty Images, and Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images.

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

I didn’t come out as gay until five months after I retired from competitive figure skating, in June of 2008. I left the sport at the age of 21, 16 years after I had taken up figure skating lessons in Nancy Kerrigan’s old rink. For most of my career, I competed as a pair with my younger sister, Molly, and we achieved moderate success on the junior level, racking up fourth-place pewter medals as far as the eye could see. At a certain point, it became clear that we were getting no closer to our Olympic dream in this incredibly expensive sport, and it made sense to hang up our skates. So there I was, on the brink of adulthood, perfectly comfortable lifting another human being over my head with one hand but with absolutely no clue how to go about kissing another boy. Why did I wait so long to figure this out? I was a figure skater, for heaven’s sake. All the clues were right in front of me! It’s like I took more than a decade to solve the world’s easiest escape room.

To this day, I’m not entirely sure why I couldn’t say the words I’m gay while I was still a skater. Somehow it felt cliché? I used to joke that I only had a certain limit for gayness in my life, and that if I had been both gay and a figure skater at the same time, the music of Donna Summer would have started blasting out of my nostrils. But if I’m being honest, there definitely was a pressure for boys within the world of skating to conform to a masculine ideal. And perhaps more importantly, I simply didn’t have many openly gay skaters on the elite level to look up to. Believe it or not, Johnny Weir didn’t officially come out until 2011 and Brian Boitano didn’t until 2013. So in this exciting moment of Adam Rippon’s swishy, unapologetic arrival on the Olympic scene, let’s remember not to take his openness for granted. For years, homosexuality was the spinning pink elephant in the middle of the ice no one wanted to talk about, so we just drove the ice resurfacer around it and pretended it wasn’t there.

While proud gay men were mostly absent from the top ranks of the sport, there were, of course, exceptions: Namely, the San Jose sensation Rudy Galindo, who won the 1996 U.S. National Championships. Galindo was the first openly gay man to win that title, a feat he achieved with a free skate to Swan Lake that still is regarded as iconic. From the excited screams of Dick Button commentating during that performance, you’d think he’d been electrocuted.

Rudy Galindo was exciting because he wasn’t just incidentally gay. He was capital-G Gay with three smoking exclamation points. One of Galindo’s most out-there exhibition programs was to a Village People medley in which he tore off a sailor outfit to reveal a skintight stars-and-stripes tank top. As the lyrics to “Macho Man” blasted through the arena, Galindo would literally mince around the ice with exaggeratedly limp wrists. Looking back on it now, I can appreciate Galindo’s winky sendup of how men are told to skate “macho,” but at the time, it seemed positively dangerous for a man to be acting that queer in public. Didn’t he know we all could see him? It was thrilling.

It wasn’t until 20 years after Galindo’s shining moment that another openly gay man won U.S. Nationals: Adam Rippon, in 2016. It was a triumph of dogged persistence after many years of disappointing finishes. In an exuberant interview after the event, Rippon declared, “I’m like a witch, and you can’t kill me! I keep coming back every year, and every year I get better.” Since bursting into the top echelon of the sport, Rippon has become a media darling. There’s a devil-may-care candor to him that is sorely needed in a sport that is lacking in big personalities. For instance, when asked what it’s like to be a gay athlete, Rippon responded that it’s “exactly like being a straight athlete. Lots of hard work but usually done with better eyebrows.” His quips are so effortlessly tossed off, it makes you wonder if Bruce Vilanch is writing material for him. You must understand how refreshing this is in a sport where an interview usually consists of a dead-eyed 16-year-old saying, “I just went out there and did my best and I hope I made the whole state of Wisconsin proud.”

In January, Rippon became the first openly gay man ever named to the U.S. Winter Olympic team. If there were any doubts as to whether he deserved to be in Pyeongchang, they were quickly dispelled when Rippon executed a gorgeous long program to Coldplay’s “O (Fly On)” in the team event. I loved his performance from the very starting position, his right hand clutched against his body in a way that was both feminine and avian, as if to say, “What are you gonna do? Call me gay?” Over the course of 4½  minutes, Rippon pulled off a free skate that took my breath away with its quiet simplicity. His performance helped Team USA win a bronze medal and helped Rippon win the gay version of a gold medal, a Twitter friendship with Reese Witherspoon.

As much as I loved Rippon’s Coldplay performance, I am impossibly excited for the world to see his short program in the men’s event on Thursday evening. Skating to the electro house jam “Let Me Think About It” by Ida Corr, Rippon achieves something sublimely queer with his choreography. First of all, the music has a pulsing club beat that makes you feel like you need to put some dollar bills in a go-go boy’s briefs. Second, Rippon is totally at home within the song, interpreting it with a sense of devilish whimsy. At one point, he even beckons to the judges to come closer to him before holding up a teasing hold-on-a-second finger and abruptly heading into another element. It is pure gay id, a thrusting pelvis of a performance that makes me want to be a better, louder gay man. Rippon even incorporates a layback spin at the end of his program, an element traditionally reserved for the ladies event. The beauty with which he executes the layback makes you wonder why we ever gendered a spin to begin with. Is masculinity really so fragile that arching your back in a spin is enough to shatter it? I feel thrilled by in it in a way I haven’t since Rudy Galindo tore off his shirt and my little gay monocle popped out in shock.

I never imagined that a short program like Rippon’s could be performed on an Olympic level. Even Rudy Galindo saved his campy stuff for the more fancy-free space of exhibitions. Part of what shocks the general population about anti-gay bias in skating is the assumption that almost every man in the sport must be gay. The old guard of skating has stubbornly pushed back against this perception and for years tried to encourage men to skate as manly as possible. I vividly remember having a limp hand position slapped by a coach because it looked too gay. I became an expert on looking butch while wearing lavender.

The reasoning behind suppressing femininity in men’s skating was that if the sport looked like it was for sissies, no boys would sign up to do it. In retrospect, what a ludicrous proposition that was! Even the most masculine of skaters weren’t going to get fist bumps from the football team for doing “tough” skating to the Rocky soundtrack. Did they ever consider that a sport that leaned in to embracing femininity might actually attract the boys who don’t identify with traditionally masculine sports? Corner the market on those gentle boys! I’m certain that after seeing Rippon gyrate to club beats at the Olympics, a certain subset of boys are going to demand skates for Christmas, and they won’t know exactly why until years later. What a nice change of pace for queer kids to see a specific and joyful gay sensibility being celebrated rather than degraded!

And what of those who don’t identify with Rippon’s particular brand of in-your-face femme pride? Luckily for them, the 2018 Olympics has multiple gay skaters to project your hopes and dreams onto. If you’re more into the sensitive, artistic type, the kind of guy who’d stare deep into your eyes from his piano bench, you should check out Canadian dreamboat Eric Radford.

Eric Radford doesn’t rattle off the ready-for-late-night bon mots of Rippon, but in many ways, his historic queer narrative is even more interesting. Radford came out publicly in 2015, the same year he won his first of two world championships in pairs, making him the first openly gay man to win that title. Earlier this week, Radford won a gold medal in the team event, making him the first openly gay man to win a Winter Olympic gold. Last night, he earned an additional bronze medal in the pairs event with partner Meagan Duhamel. Everything’s coming up, Radford! But for some reason, probably because Radford is not in a high-profile standoff with his nation’s executive branch, he hasn’t caused the same media frenzy as Rippon at this Olympics.

Radford’s skating is incredibly different from Rippon’s. Whereas the latter’s style shouts, “Let me be your star!” Radford serves up a much more subdued elegance that whispers, “How can I help you?” And indeed, Radford’s pair work with Meagan Duhamel bespeaks a team of two equals, and perhaps that’s because Radford doesn’t fit into a hetero archetype. Without being forced to fit themselves into familiar romantic storylines in their program, Duhamel and Radford are free to explore other ways that men and women relate.

When I describe the importance of Adam Rippon and Eric Radford’s presence at the Olympics, I frequently point to how much it will mean to the next generation of queer children. Some little gay kid is going to see himself represented on the ice. And unlike past Olympics, where he would have wondered what mysterious quality it was that made these guys so compelling, he’ll have a word for it. Merely knowing that queer people exist and that queer people can be excellent will make that child’s journey through life a little less scary.

But furthermore, I find I’m shocked by how much Rippon and Radford’s skating still matters to me, a skating retiree. Watching Radford, I think to myself, “Wake up! It’s time to start living my art!” And when I watch Rippon, I think, “Should I stage a comeback so I can skate to Whitney Houston’s ‘Million Dollar Bill’?” I could be regretful, or melancholy, or envious in seeing these two gay men succeed where I have failed, but instead I feel such profound joy. I didn’t have many explicitly gay role models growing up, but at least they’re here now. Watching Radford and Rippon has taught me that it’s a waste of time justifying your existence to bigots, whether they’re schoolyard bullies, Twitter trolls, or vice presidents. Going out there, doing your job, and serving up queer excellence is the fiercest rebuttal to homophobia there is.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Pyeongchang Olympics.

Adam Rippon’s Costume Designer on the Skater’s Love of Crystals and Skintight Mesh

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