When I ask figure skater Jeremy Abbott how athletes should respond to Russia’s anti-gay laws, his eyes widen. “Um,” he says, and stops. He shrugs a little and glances over at the U.S. Figure Skating (USFS) handler who’s standing nearby.
“You don’t have to answer that,” the handler reassures him.
Abbott takes in a breath, glances down. “Yeahhh,” he sighs, almost inaudibly. Then — “I’m going to walk away from that one.”
We’re backstage at the 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, which serve as an unofficial qualifier for the Olympic team, and Abbott’s a favorite. He’s 28 years old, planning to retire at the end of the season and cautious; he was criticized last year for comparing Russia’s laws — which have motivated the rape, torture, and murder of gay men and women — to bad interior design. (“I’m not going to go into somebody’s house and be like, “Um, the way you decorate is hideous.”) A bunch of athletes had been cornered on the topic, and the less media-savvy skaters hadn’t yet mastered the art of expressing compassion while sidestepping responsibility. Abbott just happened to come up with a particularly inept metaphor.
Later, when I pass him in the hallway, he apologizes twice.
To outsiders, men’s figure skating is widely perceived as the Gayest Sport Ever, the butt of endless jokes — consider last weekend’s SNL cold open about the “U.S. Men’s Heterosexual Figure Skating Team.” The direct action group Queer Nation has recently protested figure skaters Brian Boitano and Johnny Weir for not speaking up against Russia’s anti-gay laws. One of the group’s representatives, who asked to not be named, tells me, “Everyone assumes all male skaters are gay. So what? … I have a hard time believing that figure skating is a particularly homophobic sport. I don’t understand this impulse, particularly from figure skaters, to hide their sexuality. You can’t tell me that if Jeremy Abbott came out as gay that it would affect his standing in the skating world.”
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.
A decade later, skater Johnny Weir brought exquisite technical and artistic performances on the ice, but he also brought a reality-television show, a pop song (“Dirty Love”), and an outspoken diva-worship of Lady Gaga; a word often used to describe him was “flamboyant,” despite the fact that, until 2011, he kept his sexuality private. And last month, after 1988 gold medalist Brian Boitano was named to the U.S. Olympic Delegation to Sochi, he announced that he, too, was gay. Boitano’s enough of an established legend to be on the safe side, but it seems that in general, gay skaters are just a tad too implicating of the male skaters around them to be seriously endorsed. They are dismissed in countless subtle ways. One pump-up video montage at nationals showed clip after clip of top male skaters performing one enormous jump after another, but depicted Rudy Galindo crossing himself and Johnny Weir bursting into tears.
So what exactly is male figure skating — which has the potential to be a gay haven in the world of sports — so afraid of?
Until the early 1900s, figure skating was mostly a way for wealthy men to show off their aristocratic grace and ample spare time by skating elegant figures and positions on the ice. It wasn’t really until three-time Olympic champion Sonja Henie came to Hollywood in the ’30s — bringing with her short skirts, white skates, and a whole lot of sultry cuteness — that skating became, in the public eye, a primarily girls’ sport. Already by mid-century, Skating magazine worried about the lack of boys. These days, boys are so rare that it’s common practice, in pairs and dance, for the girls’ parents to cover both partners’ training expenses — or, for older partners, to offer rewards like a living stipend and a car to the rare man who will skate with his daughter.
And yet, of course, there are still boys — and by the looks of them, they’re good. It’s day four of the eight-day championship, and the juvenile boys — the lowest competitive level, most of them between ages 10 and 13 — are training at the Skating Club of Boston’s frigid and charmless rink. Even in their leggings and training jackets, the boys seem distinctly feminine, perhaps because they’re younger and more flexible than the top male skaters. They’re doing moves that are often reserved for women, layback spins and spirals, curving their arms and cocking their wrists. One boy spots his upright spin, whipping his head to face the same wall with each rotation, a move classic to ballet but atypical in skating. Another pulls his leg up behind his head while he’s spinning, arching his back into a Biellmann position. They swing their arms and exaggerate their facial expressions, gaping at one another’s double axels or pressing their lips flat in concentration. They’re young enough that they still glance around when they fall, checking who saw.
Their mothers watch from the sides of the rink, clenching their mittens without looking at each other. There are very few fathers. They’re probably at work, one tells me, earning money; he estimates that he’s already spent two to three college educations paying for his 13-year-old’s training.
Across town, the junior men — the second-highest level, eligible for some international competitions but not the Olympics — compete in the short program. They’re older, in their late teens, and fighting to control themselves: Where the juvenile boys seemed precociously unwieldy, these men’s movements are careful, decided. I skated for 10 years growing up and have spent a lot of time in ice rinks, but I’m still surprised, somehow, by how fast these guys are — I can hear the wind as they pass, and their blades leave inch-deep slices in the ice. There are skaters with straight arms and puffed chests, the skating version of men’s men, jumping with their jaws clenched. As if — no, because — they have something to prove. And there are skaters whose shoulders don’t square into place so much as roll languorously back, who seem to luxuriate in their graceful fingers and loose hips.
Off the ice, a cluster of male skaters in slim-cut jackets keep a running commentary, snapping their fingers and rolling their eyes at one another. “That’s my baby!” they shout. “Who run the world?!” They call the men on the ice “Princess” and “Beyoncé,” as in, “I love you, Beyoncé!” Gracie Gold, soon-to-be-ladies champion, watches nearby, and someone yells to her, “Gracie! They’re not red enough!” Then, to his friend, “her lips.” When one guy wears fingerless gloves and performs to music with the sound of engines in it, they snort with laughter: “What is this, the Cars soundtrack?”
If you’ve heard anyone talk about skating, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there are two kinds of skaters: athletic and artistic. But these are coded butch/femme terms, ones appropriate to an activity that still can’t decide where it falls on the gendered spectrum between art and sport. For male skaters, athletic means manly, muscular, stoic; artistic means elegant, graceful, showing emotion. Athletic means tight T-shirts, fists, and military beats; artistic, flowy shirts and delicate fingers. Athletic seems straight. Artistic seems gay. Never mind that some of the best skaters are both athletic and artistic, by standard definitions: In men’s skating, as in any high school locker room, a drop of femininity will negate any quantity of testosterone. That’s why some skaters are considered artistic even if their technical abilities are higher than their competitors’ — and why others are considered athletic, even if theirs are not. For ladies, of course, the pattern runs in reverse, with athletic reserved for muscular, less-than-ultra-feminine skaters, or, often enough, women of color.
To the outside world, the idea of a butch male skater may seem ludicrous. In a 2010 story for New York magazine called “The Less Flamboyant One,” “athletic” skater Evan Lysacek models a bejeweled snake in Vera Wang’s showroom. But the characterization belies an odd truth. In addition to outwardly policing outfits — say, forbidding men from wearing tights — the world of skating has created its own hierarchy of masculinity, which is subtle to the point of being near-indiscernible from the outside. For instance, twirling is masculine but arm-flapping is not. 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. It’s a clever, unspoken system, based on the premise that it’s a lot easier to prove a skater’s manliness by comparing him to another skater than by comparing him to some other kind of athlete.
I’ll note here that without exception, the parents I spoke to at nationals expressed pride and support of their boys’ achievements in the sport. But I noticed something else too. Almost all the parents, including those whose sons were “living the dream” as international competitors, offered a list of other sports their sons participated in: hockey, lacrosse, soccer, martial arts, hockey, gymnastics, running, downhill skiing. Offered proudly, as if amazed by their children’s breadth of achievement, as if compelled to justify their sons as real athletes — not just the most elite skaters in America.
If the skating world is particularly cautious of its reputation at the moment, it may be because the sport as a whole is in trouble. Weir and Lysacek, whose brazen, venomous rivalry gave everyone a chance to pick a side, both dropped out of competition last year. The remaining American men aren’t landing enough quadruple jumps — the sport’s most difficult elements — to make them truly internationally competitive, and the ladies’ team lacks an icon with real star power.
It seems in the beginning of the week that someone’s trying to make CoverGirl Ashley Wagner into that icon — she’s commercial enough, appearing in ads for Hilton HHonors, BP, and Nike, many of which feature throughout the arena. Maybe. Then there’s Gracie Gold, who just started working with famed coach Frank Carroll (who’s worked previously with Michelle Kwan and Evan Lysacek, to name two) and is more sprightly and feminine than ever; when a positive tweet about her is displayed repeatedly on the Jumbotron before the ladies’ long program, people murmur that maybe the judges plan to favor her and are priming the crowd to agree.
People are grumbling, too, about the complex “new” scoring system, adopted 10 years ago to account for charges of bias in the old 6.0 system, whose impacts include making scoring incomprehensible to casual observers and reducing accountability by keeping individual judges’ scores anonymous. The new system also leaves little room for, you know, artistry; skaters get more points for performing a string of technical elements with few connecting moves, a process one coach likens to Pac-Man chomping down dots. It’s enough to make you long for the good old days after Tonya Harding’s husband had Nancy Kerrigan attacked with a baton, an incident which earned the USFS $70 million in media and sponsorships and, more vitally, brought skating an explosion in popularity that lasted a good six or seven years. Sure, 2014 is the 20th anniversary, so maybe the USFS can leverage a little ’90s nostalgia for a media boost. Some of the volunteers keep joking that they should slip batons into the skaters’ swag bags as a hopeful suggestion: “Maybe we can save the sport again, 20 years later.”
Some blame the sport’s gay reputation for its drop in popularity, despite the fact that that reputation is nothing new. One senior coach and former Olympian, who requested anonymity, thinks he knows the problem: “No straight man wants to see a man in sequins or crap like that,” he explains. American figure skating, in his opinion, is skewing artistic. “Europe has more masculine-type skating. Even Japan has a little more” — he makes a fist — “power.”
The coach and I are standing in a hallway at TD Garden, the primary arena for senior practices and competitions. Nearby, an amorphous line streams toward a book-signing table. Brian Boitano and Dick Button are both repping new books this week (What Would Brian Boitano Make?: Fresh and Fun Recipes for Sharing with Family and Friends and Push Dick’s Button, respectively), but the crowd, mostly women over 50, seems less interested in books and more interested in taking selfies with Boitano. I waited in that line after buying my cookbook, hoping to thank Boitano for coming out, and when I did he pressed one hand to his chest, looking almost sad. “Sending the message to Russia, that’s a big message. That’s why I did it. I think for people your age, people now, there’s less of a stigma.” As if, rather than thanking him, I had asked what took him so long.
The coach follows my gaze, shakes his head a little, more to get my attention than anything else. “In the past we had a couple [top skaters] that were so out, flamboyant … especially [Johnny Weir], he was bad for the sport, really, because for a while he was, you could say, the face of the federation. I’m talking about mainstream America.” He laughs. “I literally know like 50 people who would not turn on the TV and watch it because of that. That’s a problem.” His own top skater, he tells me proudly, is “a true-true guy. The straightest they come.”
The thing about skaters who seem gay, the coach points out, is that they attract a gay audience, whereas straight skaters “attract everybody. Entertaining, fun, man. Women like [them], straight men can look and say, ‘Hey, that’s cool.’ Everybody’s OK.” He smiles. Problem solved.
Others have argued that skating is less gay than it appears. Scott Hamilton, a 1984 Olympic champion who has been criticized as homophobic, explains to me later on the phone that skaters aren’t necessarily gay — they just seem like it. “I think that at times, guys in skating may or may not take on some feminine characteristics because the people they’re with are girls.” He sounds apologetic. “That has happened in the past.”
According to Lorrie Kim at Outsports, “unofficial insider estimates” place the number of gay skaters at roughly 25% to 50%. But, notably, a number of gay men have claimed the percentage is much lower — perhaps because, in being out, they feel alone in their communities. Rudy Galindo told Salon in 2002 that he knew hardly any gay skaters, and that the guys he toured with were “basically 98 percent straight.” Brian Boitano once said that “the majority of people in skating are straight. That’s a fact. Nobody in skating would deny that.” Even Doug Mattis, a gay coach and former competitor who makes a point of reaching out to young LGBT skaters, believes the sport is less gay than people think it is. “I’ve been asked out by more pro football players than skaters,” he says, grinning. He’s a short guy in a smart gray suit, at once warm and mischievous. He lowers his voice: “I tell them, ‘Please! You’d crush me.’”
Junior skater Chase “Beyoncé” Belmontes has a style some would call artistic. We’re riding the bus together to TD Garden, where he’ll train on the competition ice before tomorrow’s long program, and his coaches sit behind us, trying not to look like they’re listening in. Belmontes has a bright, expressive face that folds into creases when he smiles, which is often. He leans toward me as he talks. He got into skating “as an old man,” at age 10, when he started going to the rink with his friends, competing to see who could do the most tricks. But his friends were girls, and they could do more with their figure skates than he could with the hockey rentals he’d been given; he got his own figure skates and took classes to try to beat them. From then on he was hooked, and he stayed with the sport despite being mocked at school. Even in Colorado Springs, his hometown and that of the USFS?
“Especially in Colorado Springs,” he says, because it was so conservative. But growing up at the rink was encouraging, and it inspired him to see the top skaters training at the famous Broadmoor Skating Club. Now he’s 18 and just got his diploma after completing the last two years of high school online. At this point, he says, “I think I only have rink friends.”
His coach leans forward and asks: “Are you mentally warming up?”
“Yes!” Belmontes tells her, then whispers to me, “There’s no such thing as a mental warm-up.”
I’m talking to Belmontes because his short program stood out, a lyrical, powerful program to Nigel Kennedy’s “Through the Storm,” rich with subtle movements that he had refined over and over in front of a mirror; the choreography reminded me of Weir, with its unapologetic expressiveness.
Belmontes is thrilled with how it went. “You could tell that I loved every second. I was like, Yes! Skating! I love the movement. I feel like I complete the music.”
He had designed his own costume, a black outfit with one white sleeve that burst at the shoulder like a firework. He airbrushed the shoulder himself. Until last year, Belmontes used to attach all the rhinestones to his costumes, but now he has someone for that. “I’m like a dictator when it comes to my costumes.”
When I ask him why skaters won’t talk about Sochi, he nods. “They’re scared that they’re going to say the wrong thing and offend their fan base. The USFS could get involved if they say too much.” And some of the skaters might be worried about their own safety, going from a stereotypically gay sport into a homophobic country. “In the inside world,” Belmontes explains, “everyone loves male skaters. To the outside world, they think it’s the epitome of femininity in men. People think if you become a good skater then you lose part of your masculinity forever.”
The championship pairs practices are coming up. I’m apprehensive because the lower-level pairs teams seemed, with few exceptions, to pair prepubescent girls with post-pubescent guys, and the effect was bizarre at best. The choreography was tailored to the girls, with lots of toe leaps and toothy smiles, and the chipper movements looked uncomfortable enough on the boys’ lanky bodies to seem inherently disrespectful, like they were older brothers making fun of their kid sisters at a sleepover. But no, I had to keep reminding myself, this was creative expression. The few boys who hadn’t hit their growth spurts looked superhuman, like insects, able to lift their sisters to head level on toddlery arms. They’d all seemed to have rolled in glitter, and I speculated that maybe in pairs skating, with its heterosexual implications, guys can indulge in more feminine costumes. (Then I saw the men’s singles costumes. Myth: busted.)
But if the lower-level pairs boys seemed deeply uncomfortable, the senior-level teams have somehow evolved into models of heterosexual perfection. I’m not planning to stay long at the senior pairs practice, but two hours pass before I can look away.
Four teams — eight skaters — take the ice at a time. They’re all dressed in head-to-toe black, long sleeves and long pants, identical except for the women’s shirts, which are mostly backless. They’re all skating to the same late-‘90’s pop medley over the loudspeaker. But there’s something in seeing these skaters together, without audience or costume, that’s fundamentally different from watching a pairs program on its own. The partners skate in perfect alignment; the angles of their legs and arms are exactly parallel, or else perfect mirrors when they reach toward each other, and when one moves alone — a woman raising an arm as she gazes back at her man, his hands on her waist, his gaze solidly forward — it seems, somehow, as if he is moving through her.
Even so, it’s the non-choreographed moments of unison that are most striking. Partners put their hands on their hips the same; they brush snow from their legs the same; they even slump the same, swinging their arms or rubbing their foreheads before straightening at the same time. Even when they’re all skating separately, when all four pairs have divided and instead eight bodies arc around the ice in a mess of lonely directions, I can see exactly who belongs to whom. The partners’ connection is evident in their rhythms and the angles of their limbs, and when one by one they come together again, it’s almost a relief, things clicking into place. Their bodies are beautiful, made more beautiful by proximity to other bodies, without a trace of sex or romance; each pair seems less an ideal couple than an ideal male and female version of the same human essence.
Because apart from a few specific occasions — namely, at the Gay Games — pairs and ice dance are a mandated heterosexual performance. The rules are grounded in tradition, but perhaps also fear; it’s easy to imagine how threatening same-sex partners, displaying this level of physical connection, could be to heterosexual norms: a dazzling, undeniable example of two becoming one. The pairs practice is, and will remain, the most striking thing I see all week.
But when it’s time for their competition, the mood changes once again. In their costumes, alone on the ice, the pairs are performers, and somehow that seems to cheapen their symmetry. It’s almost disturbing; as an audience member, I feel implicated in the strapless dresses, the rippling ombré shirts, the false eyelashes, even the admittedly charming blazers and ties. After each performance the audience members cheer and throw stuffed animals onto the ice, and a half-dozen little girls in red dresses — “sweepers” — skate out and gather the goods, and one pair of partners after another clutch hands in the Puffs Plus Kiss-and-Cry, waiting for their scores. When it’s time for their awards ceremony, another half-dozen young women in black dresses wait tidily with medals on silver trays, which USFS President Patricia St. Peter — who seems oddly out of place in her demure business suit — presents to the happy winners.
Some of skating’s current homophobia stems from the early ’90s, when a number of top skaters died AIDS-related deaths. The media took off with the story, aligning the sport with HIV, and, by extension, the “high-risk group” of gay men. “AIDS Deaths Tear at Figure-Skating World,” announced the New York Times. One story in the Calgary Herald, by Michael Clarkson, was titled “Skating’s Spectre” and claimed that over 40 skaters and coaches had already died; as sociologist Mary Louise Adams points out in her book Artistic Impressions, “It is not entirely clear whether the ‘spectre’ of Clarkson’s title was HIV or gayness itself.” Brian Boitano called the story a “witch-hunt.” Meanwhile, skating officials struggled to distance the sport from the stigma of the disease — “trying to protect their product,” as David Dore, the head of the Canadian Figure Skating Association, described it.
At the same time, skating’s macho side was re-emerging. Skaters like Kurt “Cowboy” Browning and Elvis “The Terminator” Stojko became media and fan favorites, providing visible reassurance of masculinity in a time of crisis. Not that their strategies always worked: As Adams describes it, “In the 1990s, when some skaters tried to mark their masculinity in an aggressive fashion by sporting tight black T-shirts, studded wrist cuffs, and (fake or real) leather trousers, they were simply trading one set of gay signifiers for another.”
Since then, various individuals and groups have tried to make the skating more manly, perhaps most notably in Skate Canada’s planned 2009 “Tough” campaign, which aimed to rebrand the sport by getting skaters to emphasize the difficulty and danger of their stunts — and, in one case, to pose for photos on Harley-Davidsons. After public outcry deemed the campaign homophobic, Skate Canada retracted its efforts, denying that the campaign had ever existed (“…there is no and never has been any ‘tough’ campaign … There is no interest at Skate Canada in making the sport more macho … As for a skater’s personal life, Skate Canada gives no direction”). The conflict highlights one of skating’s emerging challenges: presenting a facade of straightness for a public that increasingly condemns homophobia even more than it condemns homosexuality.
The most buzzed-about skater at nationals, the adorkable Jason Brown, defies easy categorization. He’s a dark-horse Olympic contender with a trademark ponytail who’s never scored higher than eighth at senior nationals but whom, apparently, the audience loves — and in general, judges like a happy audience. One woman even comes to practice with a hand-sewn Jason Brown doll, which looks uncannily like him, and which her own mother had wanted to make for Brown before she died. It’s sweet and unsettling and moving, and watching Brown swirl across the ice below, landing one perfect jump after another, I see why he’s such a fan favorite despite his glaring inability to land a quad. A reporter beside me leans over, whispers, “It’ll be sad when he has to cut his ponytail off.”
“Why will he have to?”
“Judges,” she says. Case closed.
Because it always comes back to the good-old-boy judges — who they are, what they prefer, what they’re afraid of. In his autobiography, Welcome to My World, Johnny Weir writes that “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.” To Salon, Rudy Galindo (who declined to be interviewed for this story) described judges as “old fashioned, old school. They’re a lot older, and they’ve grown up in the Midwest and the East Coast, and they just want that all-American boy. They don’t want the label ‘the gay skater.’” Even if someone from a different demographic wants to break onto the judging scene, they may not be able to; appointments are kept volunteer-only, which means that they’re not feasible for anyone who doesn’t have the resources to take on a serious unpaid time commitment.
Of course, the judges themselves will be the last to admit bias. International judge Hal Marron agrees to talk to me about how gay men are treated in the sport; we meet in the stands while he takes some time off from watching training sessions. (It’s typical for judges to observe skaters before their performances, even though, technically, their score is only supposed to reflect the program itself.) Marron is a pleasant, older man in a suit and tie, with very pale blue eyes.
“I’ve always felt that someone’s sexual orientation is a choice and doesn’t have anything to do with skating,” he tells me. “These men can jump 40 inches in the air for a quad. These are athletes. I don’t think one is related to the other.”
A woman nearby, who is listening in, leans over and offers, “Hal has a son in skating.”
“He just got engaged to a lady from London,” the judge adds quickly before bringing the conversation back to the competition. “You’re judging a skater, not their lifestyle. I can enjoy [athletic skater] Max Aaron, I can enjoy Johnny Weir. Obviously my son is not that way, but if he found someone he really cared about who was that way, I would support him.” In judging, he says, “It’s all about what’s happening on that surface. But personal life spills over — I mean, you could have a bad day with your boyfriend, right?” We both laugh. I hadn’t mentioned any boyfriend.
It’s nearly impossible to discuss skating and sexuality without pissing people off. After the publication of Christine Brennan’s 1996 book, Inside Edge, which included a chapter on the secrecy surrounding homosexuality and HIV in the skating world, Brennan was, for a while, banned from U.S. Figure Skating events for her “opinionated coverage.” And in April 2011, an article saluting Gay Pride Month on the website Golden Skate garnered so much hate mail that the website canceled an article in the same series that it had planned for Black History Month. (At nationals, after U.S. Figure Skating learns about the topic of my reporting, they don’t fulfill any of my interview requests, which I’d been originally assured would be no problem — of course, there are several possible reasons for this, but at the time I’m given no explanation.)
When Weir was passed up for Stars on Ice, was it because, as GLAAD objected, he was too gay for the show’s promise of “wholesome, family entertainment” — or because he has a reputation for being flaky? Who can say? In sports, as in the rest of society, much of prejudice occurs within the bounds of excusability.
And in a prejudiced setting, much of skaters’ reluctance to come out stems from a honed sense of self-protection — one of the same reasons that non-skaters may be reluctant to come out. When Doug Mattis turned pro, he was warned that coming out would compromise his financial viability; when Brian Orser was outed by a former lover during a palimony suit, he worried that his career was over. Rudy Galindo was skipped over multiple times for international competitions, once even when he was first alternate and an assigned skater dropped out — he’s claimed that he had to skate twice as well as other skaters to win. Today, when officials advise skaters not to come out, their warning is couched in a rhetoric of concern: If an athlete reveals too much about his personal life, he could be attacked on the internet. (Never mind that skaters could be, and are, attacked for plenty of other things, ranging from the shapes of their bodies to their choice of music and costume.) However it’s framed, the warning keeps them in the closet; when an athlete receives advice from the same officials who make selections for coveted international competitions and events, he’ll probably follow it.
One former medalist, who also requested anonymity, suggests another reason that so few skaters come out: “Most skaters start when they’re younger than 10, and immediately their sexuality is a topic of discussion, even before they’re sexual. Adults would say, ‘You’re such a great skater, but I’d never let my boy figure skate.’ Hockey players look down on us for being faggots. We didn’t know what it meant at all, we just knew our peers thought it was bad, so we didn’t want to deal with it. That becomes an ingrained reluctance to bring it up even as we get older.”
Some of the pressure, he says, comes from girls at the rink, who vastly outnumber the boys and can be outspoken in evaluating their rink mates as potential boyfriends; some of it comes from skaters being homeschooled, often living at home until they’re done competing, so they have fewer points of contact with the outside world. “When you treat an issue one way as a young teen, you do the same when you’re older,” the former medalist explains, especially “in the bubble of figure skating, where everyone is making an issue of sexuality. At this point, gay skaters don’t want their sexual lives to be a topic of conversation because it’s been a topic of conversation since they started skating.” He adds, “One of the reasons I went into [perceived masculine industry] is because I wanted to compete with all the douchebags who had criticized my skating my whole life, and I wanted to beat them at their own game.”
Finally, coming out may be too risky, with too little possible reward. As this former medalist puts it, “You can choose to almost disappoint the audience by confirming if you’re gay, and if you’re not, you can potentially earn some points by being straight. The majority of the audience is female, so if you’re straight it’s in your interest to articulate that, because you can garner more female fans.”
And articulate they do, because straight skaters are often rewarded with not just fans but corporate sponsorships, favorable TV commentary, and an extra boost in competitions. Consider seven-time Canadian and three-time world champion Patrick Chan, who holds the world record for highest points despite a tendency to wobble under pressure, and who has inspired a new word: Chanflation. He’s also publicly straight. A few seasons ago, he even skated a short program about picking up girls in bars, in which he pantomimed elbowing someone, taking a drink, and running on his toes with his arms spread. At one point, he lifted his arms to the side and drooped his head, like a jazzier version of Rudy Galindo’s move, in his 1996 AIDS remembrance exhibition program, where he mimed hanging on a cross. But no: Chan had draped his arms around the shoulders of two invisible females, and in another moment he reeled, punched by a jealous boyfriend. It’s playful! It’s funny! It’s heterosexual! Good thing no one understands the new scoring system, because surely that’s worth half a point.
“I grew up in Alaska,” senior men’s competitor Keegan Messing tells me, “so I run with the bears.” He pauses and squints, like he’s not sure what he means, and then he shrugs the confusion off: “Actually, I have got run over by a bear before. That was a fun story. But I mean, we drive around, we go through the woods, we fish, and then I skate pretty much alone, without much skating influence. The only influence I have is from the wilderness and everyone who’s around me in Alaska.” Two days before leaving for nationals, he says, he did a quad toe loop on a public session at a mall ice rink in a pair of brand-new Carhartts. Because he could. And Carhartts, he reminds me, are heavy.
We’re standing in the hallway at TD Garden, adjacent to the bathrooms, listening to the sounds of cheers and tinkling music from the ice dancing competition on the arena. A few women walk by with plush Smuckers strawberries gripped in their hands, ready to toss onto the ice after their favorite skaters. Keegan’s against the wall, half smiling in his leather jacket and kangaroo-leather hat, the one he wears in his competition picture so that fans can recognize him instantly.
In the real world, though — the world outside of skating — he doesn’t tell people he’s a skater until he already knows them. “‘Wait, you’re a skater? You’re a male figure skater? I thought they were all, like, froufrou!’” He switches to a jarringly formal tone: “Yes, there are a couple male skaters who are a little on the softer side, but a lot of the men figure skating out there nowadays, it’s getting very masculine, very much stronger. Not so much in the U.S. right now, but in the world, it’s a very masculine and strong sport.”
Keegan is a masculine and strong skater — the kind of skater that many argue the sport needs more of — and he knows I know it. He wants to tell me about his busted car and half-busted truck, his solo winter camping and downhill mountain biking and the time he was driving with buddies on an ice-covered mountain road at 2 a.m. and finally just put on his hockey skates and skated up the mountain and back down again. But like other “athletic” skaters, he occupies a strange space of privilege and caution: He’s different from much of the world around him, and his challenge is to highlight that difference without outright dismissing his peers, to engage in the accepted norms of the sport — flashy outfits, choreography — without necessarily endorsing them. In fact, the only time he gets tongue-tied is when I ask about his costume, a black outfit with sparkly red swirls draped over one shoulder.
Then he stops cold, and decides to phone a friend: He dials an invisible telephone and raises it to his ear. “Help?”
Meanwhile, the ladies have skated, and most of the Olympic team has been announced, and third-place winner Mirai Nagasu, who skated better than usual, has been left off the team in favor of fourth-place winner Ashley Wagner, who skated worse than usual, and nobody knows what to do about it. Wagner’s crying, Nagasu’s crying, other skaters’ parents are upset, the audience is surprised, the insiders are not surprised, and St. Peter the president is choosing her words very carefully. Within two hours there are rumors in the press room that Johnny Weir is urging Nagasu to sue. And in the midst of this — it’s the last day — the men are skating, and dark horse Jason Brown, ponytail intact, is kicking butt; he’s got a standing ovation before he starts his final spin in a program that will be viewed 2.5 million times on YouTube the following week while he apparently writes personalized thank-you notes to everyone who threw him a stuffed animal.
When Jeremy Abbott and Jason Brown make the Olympic team, with bronze-medalist Max Aaron falling behind, there are murmurs about the wisdom of sending two artistic skaters to represent the U.S. in Sochi. But others are pleased. “The team is pretty darn pro-gay, pretty darn loving of LGBT issues,” says Doug Mattis. “It wouldn’t be surprising to me if after they compete, after they come home, you’ll hear them lend their voice in support of LGBT issues.”
The key word here is after — after they compete, after they score, after the lens of the world media has shifted away from its momentary stall on Russian politics.
But just a week later, Jeremy Abbott, of interior-design fame, speaks up. The laws, he tells BuzzFeed, “go strongly against my personal beliefs. It’s very upsetting to me and very unfortunate … I don’t care what people assume about me, whether or not I am gay or straight … I’m an ally and I believe everyone should be supportive of human rights.”
Maybe because he already made the Olympic team. Maybe because he was planning to retire anyway. Maybe because, for his last competitive hurrah, he dug up a reserve of personal courage. Or maybe because, after 28 years of staying quiet, on his way to a violently homophobic country, he couldn’t not speak.
I noticed something else during the men’s competition. The sweepers, on this final day, are almost all boys — boys in tiny velvet suits with tiny shoulder pads, spreading out onto the ice to scoop up armfuls and basketfuls of plush strawberries and velvet roses and stuffed animals in Ziploc bags. They aren’t good skaters yet, but they’re careful, keeping their arms out and taking long strokes in an earnest approximation of proper form. I recognize them as the kids at the rink, at any rink, probably still taking group lessons, practicing wobbly spins and turns, mastering a new trick every Saturday morning. I remember that — the concentration and the thrill of it. What it’s like to skate for no reason other than that you love it. For a moment, I am more interested in the sweepers than in anyone else.
I meet them when they get off the ice, ask for their autographs, ask what they like about skating. One boy squares his shoulders and steps forward, and I think that he’ll get good someday, if he’s this fearless.
“Well, I just like skating around,” he tells me. Then he sticks out one hip and twirls his hands, considering. “And being free!”
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