Watching figure skater Adam Rippon compete, it’s easy to forget that he’s on skates. His dramatic, sharp movements – and facial expressions to match–emulate those of a professional dancer, at once complementing and contradicting his smooth, unfettered movement along the ice. He hides the technical difficulty of every jump and spin with head-flips and a commanding gaze, a performer as well as an athlete. But there’s one thing Rippon won’t be hiding – this year, he and freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy will become the first openly gay American men to ever compete in the Winter Olympics.
“The atmosphere in the country has changed dramatically,” says Cyd Zeigler, who co-founded Outsports, a news website that highlights the stories of LGBT athletes, in 1999. “Two men getting married wasn’t even a possibility when we started Outsports. Now it’s a reality in Birmingham, Alabama. There are gay role models at every turn – on television, on local sports, and in our communities.”
Even so, the last time that the United States sent an openly gay man to any Olympic Games was in 2004, when equestrians Guenter Seidel and Robert Dover won bronze in team dressage. It was Dover’s sixth time representing the United States at the Olympics; during his second Games, in 1988, Dover came out, becoming the first openly gay athlete to compete in the modern Olympics.
"I wish that all gay athletes would come out in all disciplines – football, baseball, the Olympics, whatever," Dover has said. "After six Olympics, I know they're in every sport. You just have to spend one day in the housing, the gyms, or at dinner to realize we're all over."
Indeed, by the time Dover came out on the international stage, it was clear that gay athletes were competing and winning in all levels of professional sports. Seven years earlier, tennis star Billie Jean King was famously outed when a lawsuit filed by a former lover led her to publicly admit to having a lesbian affair. (King promptly lost her all her professional endorsements, but later said she only wished that she had come out sooner.) And in 1982, former Olympian Tom Waddell – who would die from AIDS at the height of the epidemic five years later – helped found the first Gay Games for LGBT athletes. 1,350 athletes competed.
But it was more than a decade earlier when an openly gay athlete first performed in the Olympic Games. Just not exactly during competition.
English figure skater John Curry had barely come off the high of winning gold at the 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, when reporters caught wind of his sexuality from an article published in the International Herald Tribune. They cornered the skater in a press conference to grill him on matters most personal, according to Bill Jones’s Alone: The Triumph and Tragedy of John Curry. Curry acknowledged that the rumors about his sexuality were true, but when journalists asked prurient questions betraying the era’s misconceptions about homosexuality and masculinity, Curry fought back: “I don’t think I lack virility, and what other people think of me doesn’t matter,” he said. “Do you think that what I did yesterday was not athletic?” (It should be noted as well that homosexual acts were outlawed in the U.K. at the time.)
But even though the competition was over for Curry, custom had it that medal winners were expected to appear in exhibition performances. There, in a fiery, unflinching athletic spectacle, Curry abandoned his usual lively routine of skips and hops for a stern technical masterpiece, making him the first openly gay athlete to perform on the Olympic stage.
“When everyone had telephoned their story and discussions broke out in many languages around the bar, opinion began to emerge that it was [Curry] who was normal and that it was we who were abnormal,” wrote Christopher Brasher, a reporter for The Observer, in his coverage that year.
LGBT journalists and historians, including Zeigler and Tony Scupham-Bilton, have catalogued the many Olympians who were homosexual but competed in a time before being “out” was safe and acceptable. German runner Otto Peltzer, for instance, competed in the 1928 and 1932 Olympics, but was arrested by the Nazis in 1934 for his homosexuality and was later sent to the concentration camps. In more recent years, athletes have waited to come out until after their time in competition was over, including figure skaters Johnny Weir and Brian Boitano and American diver Greg Louganis. Louganis was long rumored to be gay, but didn’t come out publicly until the opening ceremonies of the 1994 Gay Games: "Welcome to the Gay Games,” Louganis said to the crowd. “It's great to be out and proud."
Though the early history of openly gay Olympians is dotted with male athletes, openly gay women have quietly gained prevalence in recent competitions. French tennis player Amélie Mauresmo is among the first women to come out publicly prior to an Olympic appearance – though, Zeigler added, whether an athlete comes out publicly is based in part on the prominence of their sport outside the Olympics. In 1999, a year before her first Olympic competition, reporters questioned her sexuality after an opponent called her “half a man” for showing up to a match with her girlfriend. Mauresmo’s casual discussion of her sexuality as an integral part of her life and dismissal of concerns that she would lose sponsorship represented a shift in the stigma surrounding coming out as an athlete. Fear of commercial failure still underpinned many athletes’ decisions not to come out, but Mauresmo was undaunted.
“No matter what I do, there will always be people against me,” Mauresmo has said. “With that in mind, I decided to make my sexuality clear… I wanted to say it once and for all. And now I want us to talk about tennis.” Mauresmo still faced criticism for her “masculinity.” But her sponsor, Nike, embraced her muscular look by designing clothes that would display her strength, according to the 2016 book Out in Sport. Mauresmo went on to win silver in women’s singles in 2004.
At the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, 11 openly gay athletes competed, only one of whom – Australian diver Matthew Mitcham, who won gold and is a vocal LGBT activist – was a man. All six openly gay athletes at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver were women, as were all seven of the openly gay athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Both of the intervening Summer Olympics saw a greater turnout of openly gay athletes, but women still held the large majority. In 2016, four of the players on the U.S. women’s basketball team – Delle Donne, Brittney Griner, Seimone Augustus and Angel McCoughtry––were openly gay.
This accounting of course elides that sexual orientation is a spectrum. Olympians who openly identify as bisexual, for instance, are growing in number as well. Additionally, the International Olympic Committee, and the many governing bodies within, have made some strides when it comes to recognizing that gender is not binary, though policies for transgender athletes remain a thorny debate among officials and athletes. That being said, the IOC allowed pre-surgery transgender athletes to take part in the 2016 Rio Games.
With this year’s Winter Games in Pyeongchang, Rippon and Kenworthy are the first openly gay American men to compete in the Olympics since the legality of same-sex marriage was established throughout the United States in 2015, and the cultural shift is apparent. While American tennis legend Martina Navratilova, who came out in 1981 but competed as an Olympian for the first time in 2004, has said that coming out in 1981 cost her $10 million in sponsorships, Kenworthy boasts sponsorships with Visa, Toyota and Ralph Lauren, to name a few. The skier also recently appeared in an ad for Head & Shoulders, with a rainbow pride flag waving behind him.
“The atmosphere for LGBT athletes has changed quicker in past decade,” says Scupham-Bilton, LGBT and Olympic historian. “In the 20th century there was more homophobia in sport and society in general. As the increase in LGBT equality has progressed, so has acceptance of LGBT athletes.”
There’s one notable exception: Sochi 2014. The summer before hosting the Winter Olympics, in what many saw as an affront to gay rights activism, the Russian government passed a law prohibiting the promotion of “nontraditional” sexual relationships to minors. The United States used the Olympic platform as an opportunity for subtle protest, including prominent gay athletes Brian Boitano, Billie Jean King and Caitlin Cahow in its Olympic delegation, and protests were staged across the world. Despite the outpouring of international support, Canadian figure skater Eric Radford opted to wait until after Sochi to come out, citing his desire to be recognized for his skill, rather than his sexuality. He’s already made his mark at the Pyeongchang Games, where his performance with skating partner Meagan Duhamel vaulted Canada to the top of the team figure skating competition.
Rippon and Kenworthy have used their newfound platforms to make statements on political issues. Rippon recently made headlines when he refused an offer to meet with Vice President Mike Pence due to disagreements with his stances on LGBT rights – which include past statements that appear to support funding gay conversion therapy. Pence’s former press secretary denied his support for gay conversion therapy during the 2016 presidential campaign. Kenworthy also criticized the Vice President as a “bad fit” to lead the United States' delegation at the Opening Ceremony in Pyeongchang on Friday.
Political platforms and sponsorships aside, Rippon and Kenworthy ultimately hoped that by coming out they could live as freer, more authentic versions of themselves – and empower others to do the same.
“There is pressure that comes with this responsibility and I feel I have a responsibility to the LGBT community now,” Kenworthy has said. “I want to be a positive example and an inspiration for any kids that I can.”