ice skating had its gay pop moment this year – but things weren’t always this way
Thanks to the unabashed queerness of athletes such as Adam Rippon, figure skating is finally having its gay glo up. But the history of the sport is wrought with bigotry, secrecy and homophobia.
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During a press conference following his bronze medal-winning performance at this year’s Winter Olympics in South Korea, figure skater Adam Rippon joked about how he had become “America’s Sweetheart”. “It’s really fun to be yourself,” he said, frankly. “It’s really fun to be me!”
Since the Olympics ended, Rippon has been on an incredible press run that has seen him cackling like old friends with Reese Witherspoon while on a chat show, eating spicy chicken wings during an interview for some video content, and most epically attending the Oscars in unapologetically gay regalia -- an S&M-inspired harness by Moschino.
Rippon caught the attention of the media not just because he’s an incredible figure skater (which, if you haven’t seen him perform, he is) but also because of his politics. He spoke out against American Vice-President Mike Pence, saying to USA Today that he’d rather skip the meet-and-greet between Olympians and the official US delegation due to Pence’s history of supporting anti-LGBTQ policies. But he also won people’s affections by being unashamedly and brilliantly camp.
This celebration of Rippon’s candidness, however, signals something of a sea change in a sport, whose relationship with queerness has been wrought with bigotry, secrecy and entrenched with homophobia.
Contrast the treatment of Rippo with that of British figure skating legend John Curry, the subject of the documentary The Ice King, who is now considered a pioneering gay athlete. In 1976, Curry won gold at the Olympics. During that same competition, he gave an interview with the Associated Press in which he spoke about his homosexuality. Curry would later say that he discussed his sexuality off the record and that he had been outed, but that news overshadowed his sporting achievements. As The Guardian notes, they also glossed over Curry’s ambitions to open up figure skating’s conservative masculine ideals, as well as the homophobic abuse he suffered. “When I started to skate,” Curry recalled during his Associated Press interview, “I had a coach who used to grab my arm and push it back to my side when I finished a movement with it in the air. This man wanted me to skate in a certain way and when I didn’t, he beat me. Literally beat me. And there were more humiliating things. He sent me to a doctor as if there were something to treat.”
Curry was later diagnosed HIV positive in 1987 and died of an AIDs-related heart attack at 44 years old in 1994. And despite his frankness around his sexuality after he was outed, things in figure skating refused to change. In fact, during the HIV crisis, there were a number of AIDs related deaths in figure skating, which lead to hysteria in the community and enforced gay silence.
It’s a confusing picture to paint of figure skating, a sport that is so associated with femininity and camp. However, writing in her book Artistic Impressions: Figure Skating, Masculinity, and the Limits of Sport, Mary Louise Adams argues that the sport has a long and complicated history with its effeminacy. In its infancy, she suggests, competitors were almost exclusively upper-class men, and women didn’t begin to start skating until at least 1840. Cultural shifts in the 19th and 20th centuries about the intersection of sexuality and personality, as well as increased festishisation of masculinity, placed the inherent campness of the sport firmly in the feminine category. Essentially, it became gendered.
Indeed, ahead of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia, Blair Braverman wrote a piece for BuzzFeed asking why figure skating was still stuck in the closet. The piece argued that there was a distinction between “athletic” (i.e. masculine) skaters and “artistic” (i.e. effeminate) skaters. Skating, much like the rest of society, exists, therefore, within a hierarchy of performative gender roles, albeit more subtle in its inflections. “For instance, twirling is masculine but arm-flapping is not,” Baverman wrote. “Sheer sleeves are only dangerously feminine if they come to a point at the wrist. Sequins are fine. Cutouts are not fine. Lunges are more macho than spirals. Fewer feathers are manlier than more feathers.”
Anyone who has seen I, Tonya, the biopic of controversial figure skater Tonya Harding, will be aware of the judges’ bias in figure skating. Harding, a talented skater, was held back initially due to her lack of assimilation into the sport’s regimented and conservative world, but also because of her class background. It’s something that Baverman says also impacts gay figure skaters -- whether or not the judges would admit it, there’s a homophobic bias.
Skating’s rigidity is also perhaps behind a near two-decade dwindling in public interest in the sport. In 2014, The Los Angeles Times reported that in the US the viewership of figure skating plummeted. Once a sport that, in 1996, beat the men’s NCAA basketball tournament in TV ratings in the US, its appeal was falling, its ratings slipping and skating salaries shrinking. Former champions such as Peter Carruthers and Brian Boitano were describing it as “close to death”.
Baverman’s piece suggested that, in part, the sport’s “gay reputation” was to blame for the drop in the sport’s reputation. Yet according to a piece published in 2015 on The Odyssey, the reasons most cited were the rule changes implemented by the International Skating Union in 2002 following a judging scandal made the sport hard to follow for viewers at home. These changes, the piece argued, stripped the sport of its magic identity, forcing it into anodyne box ticking. Likewise, the musical choices -- mostly dramatic classical music or songs from musicals -- had dulled any excitement. The whole spectacle had become stale.
In 2018, though, figure skating seems to be about to enter into a new era. Firstly, this year’s Winter Olympics was the first to take advantage of the 2014 rule change that allowed skaters to use songs with lyrics in. As Owen Myers wrote for The Guardian, it allowed for the routines to resonate with modern audiences but also for them to showcase personality. Then there’s the sport’s newfound openness around LGBTQ athletes. Starting with Johnny Weir, who came out in 2011, and now with Adam Rippon and Canadian Eric Radford, the first openly gay man to ever win gold medal at any Winter Olympics, figure skating seems to be twirling towards LGBTQ acceptance.
Rippon’s unabashed queerness, S&M gear and his appearances on Ellen where he picks male celebrities he’s attracted to would probably not have been possible four years ago. But then much has changed in just four years; the homophobia-dogged 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics were a shake-up, helping shine a light on the inequalities faced by LGBTQ individuals, as well as the queer experiences of athletes who may or may not have been in the closet. Trump’s America, the rise of the so-called alt-right and Brexit have not only furthered these discussions about LGBTQ inequality, but added a new sense of agency to them, and it’s refreshing now to see an athlete like Rippon speak openly against their own country’s administration.
Most poignantly, though, is finally having a figure skater and public person who is so secure in their sexual identity, so unabashedly queer, camp and exuberant. The assumption of deserved equality Rippon exudes -- mainly because he knows how good he is and isn’t ashamed of that -- means he doesn’t exclude himself from narratives of success. That this comes at a time where queerness -- especially queerness that incorporates camp and feminine characteristics -- is refusing to hide behind heteronormative binaries of gender performance, feels synchronistic. Rippon, by celebrating his homosexuality both on the ice and in the public eye, is both mainstreaming his effeminacy while refusing to compromise or buckle to detractors. It’s allowed him the language to unapologetically discuss his queerness while navigating the fraught waters and nuances of modern political discourse.
Unknowingly, figure skating -- with its seemingly invisible rules ready to be subverted -- has become the perfect conduit for this tide turn; it’s finally having its gay glo up. No wonder that it’s resonating in a moment where queer lives are being threatened by shifts in governmental policies. With its history of controversies and draconian sensibilities, the LGBTQ community could just be the ones to thaw figure skating’s reputation and help save the rink from melting forever.