SMNTY Weekly Must-Reads: The Olympics' Gayest Sport

Cristen Conger

HarshLight/Flickr Creative Commons

Conversations around sexual orientation and sport have swirled around the upcoming Winter Olympics, which kick off on Feb. 7 in Sochi, Russia, ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a "homosexual propaganda" ban into law in July. More recently, the mayor of Sochi told reporters that "[homosexuality is] not accepted here in the Caucasus where we live. We do not have [gay people] in our city." Perhaps due to fears of legal retribution in a country that doesn't exactly hold the best track record for respecting human rights and an maintaining equitable criminal justice system, Outsports has tallied only six openly gay Olympians competing at Sochi, all of whom are women from outside the United States.

President Obama won't be attending the Sochi Games and notably appointed three gay athletes to the U.S. Olympic delegation, in what many interpret as a symbolic protest against Putin's LGBTQ discrimination. One of those athlete delegates, former figure skating world champion Brian Boitano, is a compelling choice because his name has popped up often in a stateside conversation regarding latent homophobia on American ice rinks. A pair of feature-length stories out this week in Newsweek and Buzzfeed investigates U.S. male figure skating's uncomfortable relationship with its often-closeted gay athletes. In 2006, Lorrie Kim at Outsports reported: "What percentage of male figure skaters is gay? Unofficial insider estimates range from 25% to nearly 50%." But according to stories from such insiders, being openly, outwardly gay attracts penalties from judges and the U.S. Figure Skating Association.

Both articles, for instance, quote from "Welcome to My World," written by figure skating sensation Johnny Weir who came out publicly in 2011:

"...although everyone on the outside thinks of figure skating as the gayest sport in the universe, those who wield power within it rail against that image. Female or male, skaters are supposed to represent a sanitized ideal... U.S. Figure Skating (USFS) wanted it to stay that way, and even skating in a 'feminine' way was tantamount in their rule book to declaring yourself gay. One had to act like a man. On skates and in sparkles." "Homosexual skaters are terrified of announcing or showing any sign of their sexual orientation since the judges, many of whom are gay themselves, will hold it against them."

The history of men's interest in ice skating is a fascinating one, with the sport initially gaining popularity in the 17th and 18th centuries among male aristocrats. By the 1950s, however, it was assumed to be a girlier sport, and that feminine stereotype has only intensified due in part to the sparkly uniforms and ballet-like movements, not to mention feature films devoted to poking fun at men on ice. But this closeting of male figure skaters alleged in this week's recommended reads is no joking matter, as it touches on the often problematic intersection of sport, hegmonic masculinity and sexual orientation.

"The Frozen Closet" by Abigail Jones. Jan. 30, 2014. Newsweek.

The common assumption that male figure skaters are gay - and the latent and often blatant hostility behind it - is the sport's deep and dirty secret. It colors the attitudes and actions of skaters, coaches, judges, officials and even the fans. That sniggering stereotype has been prevalent for decades, even though few elite skaters have come out publicly, and only one, Rudy Galindo, came out during his Olympic-eligible career. This closet door is locked tight because skaters - gay and straight - know that so many of the people judging them, from judges to sponsors to TV viewers, want the female skaters to be "pretty ladies," and the men to be, well, men.

"Why is the world's gayest sport stuck in the closet?" by Blair Braverman. Jan. 31, 2014. Buzzfeed.

To insiders, though, it's no surprise that skaters are reluctant to speak out on LGBT rights, let alone come out themselves. Most male skaters and officials are committed to keeping their sport in the closet, whether that means choosing "masculine" music, hinting about a girlfriend, or outright denying any connection to homosexuality. A figure skater can never quite outskate the judges' opinion of him, and judges and institutions, it turns out, are notoriously conservative - as some would say, "family-friendly." At the National Championships, which took place this January in Boston, a phrase I heard often was "don't ask, don't tell." It's not that skating hasn't had out gay athletes. There's Rudy Galindo, a ready-made hard-knock story who grew up in a trailer, abused alcohol and drugs, and lost two coaches and a brother to AIDS. Galindo came out publicly a few weeks before the 1996 U.S. nationals; he skated last in his group (a position that made it harder for the judges to artificially deflate his scores), and to everyone's surprise, he won, becoming the first out national champion. When he was finally inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame last year after having been rejected three times, his sexuality was not mentioned during the ceremony.