2016 U.S. Figure Skating Men’s Champion Adam Rippon has qualified for a spot on the American Winter Olympics figure skating team. But Rippon also received another honor: He has become the very first openly gay man representing the United States for an Olympics game in any sport. (Only seven out athletes participated in the 2014 Sochi Games, and they were all female non-Americans.) Yes — he will be the first of all openly gay figure skaters to compete in the Winter Olympics!
Along with Nathan Chen and Vincent Zhou, he will compete next month against the world’s top male skaters in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
In a sport where artistry is as vital as athleticism, it’s still surprising to us that Rippon made headlines this week not because of his abilities but as a proud gay man in his field. Several world-class male figure skaters did eventually come out later to the public, but only after they won major competitions like the Olympics.
Reasons why these athletes stayed in the closet? The conservative culture of figure skating plays a considerable part, even though the sport has long been deemed very gay itself.
Billed as a “family-friendly” sports event, figure skating’s governing body, the International Skating Federation, fights hard to preserve this image. With a large female audience, the federation has a tight reign over how athletes should conduct themselves on and off the ice.
The judges also make it hard for gay figure skaters to come out. These judges — typically older and conservative — play a huge part in advancing a skater’s career. So skaters need to present a wholesome image to these old-school judges to win major competitions.
Rippon’s openness about his sexuality is a step in the right direction for the sport. He is telling future LGBTQ athletes that it is OK to be your authentic self and still achieve your dream through dedication and hard work.
Rippon may be the first out American athlete competing in this year’s Winter Olympics Game, but we’d like to take this opportunity to salute other world-class gay skaters — past and present Olympians, plus world and national titleholders. They may not have come out publicly at the height of their skating careers, but their openness has since paved the way and made the coming out process more comfortable for all gay figure skaters.
1. Brian Boitano
Despite winning a gold medal in the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics and two world titles, Boitano kept his personal life away from the public for a long time. After the United States named its skating delegation to the 2014 Winter Olympics, Boitano finally came out to support LGBTQ activism against those Sochi games and the Russian anti-gay “propaganda” law that was passed in 2013.
2. Jeffrey Buttle
A two-time Canadian champion, Buttle also won a bronze medal in the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics. He retired from competitions in 2008, though he stayed active in the skating community, and he married his longtime partner, Justin Harris, in February 2014. Buttle currently plays ice hockey for a team in the Toronto Gay Hockey Association.
3. Robin Cousins
The most decorated British skater, Cousins won the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. He also earned three world medals during his competitive days. An expressive athlete who was also an excellent jumper, Cousins deftly combined artistry and athleticism. He married his longtime partner in late 2000 and is one of our openly gay figure skaters who still occasionally performs for the public.
5. Randy Gardner
Garder, a U.S. paired skater with Tai Babilonia, won the 1979 World Figure Skating Championships. He also won five U.S. Figure Skating Championships (1976–1980), and the pair qualified for the 1976 and 1980 Winter Olympics. Gardner briefly dated another skater during the ’70s, but his primary focus was always training for competition, so he hid his sexuality.
It was also tricky for Gardner to come out after his competition years. He was afraid he would lose his career of family-friendly shows like the Ice Capades. If Middle America had an issue with the openly gay skater — and stopped buying tickets — he would have had no career, Gardner has told Outsports. Gardner came out in 2006, and now he is a proud, out spokesperson who continues to encourage others to live authentically.
7. Brian Orser
Orser won back-to-back silver medals at two Winter Olympics in the ’80s. Famous for his artistic interpretation in programs, Orser is now a prominent figure skating coach and led both Kim Yuna (2010) and reigning men’s Olympics champion Yuzuru Hanyu (2014) to Olympic gold.
A one-time coach to Adam Rippon, Orser is openly gay. He was forced to reveal his sexuality in November 1998 when he lost a legal battle preventing public disclosure when an ex-partner sued him for palimony. Orser initially feared the revelation of being gay would ruin his career, but he has since embraced support from other gay figure skaters and the public.
8. Eric Radford
Rippon may not be the only out figure skater competing in the Pyeongchang Games this year. Radford, a six-time Canadian national paired skating champion, he will likely make his second Olympics appearance with his skating partner, Meagan Duhamel. Out publicly since December 2014, Radford became the first competitive figure skater to go on to win back-to-back world championships (in 2015 and 2016.)
Radford’s and Duhamel’s gold medal win in 2015 was significant in that it made him the first openly gay figure skater ever to win a medal at a world competition. He is now an ambassador for the Canadian Olympic Committee’s #OneTeam program, focused on combatting homophobia in sports.
9. Johnny Weir
Even before he came out publicly, Johnny Weir was described as the most flamboyant skater in the sport. A two-time Olympian, Weir also won three national titles and one bronze medal from a world competition. A real performer, Weir dazzles his audiences with artistic routines, glittering costumes and by skating to music like Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.”
Weir is now an on-air commentator for major skating competitions. He also works on several charity projects focusing on LGBTQ causes. In 2010, Weir collaborated with Traver Rains (formerly of Heatherette) to raise money for The Trevor Project. In 2013 the Delaware Valley Legacy Fund established the Johnny & Victor Weir-Voronov Scholarship Fund for LGBTQ Youth.