The public incorrectly assumes all male figure skaters are out and proud. Newsweek published an article last month overviewing homophobia in figure skating titled “The Frozen Closet.” Even Jonny Weir, the flamboyant two-time Olympian, didn’t publicly come out until he stopped competing, and there were no publicly out competitors in this crop of American male figure skaters at the Sochi Olympics.
When one homophobic judge can ruin the career you’ve worked a lifetime to achieve, it’s not surprising that gay male figure skaters follow the same trajectory as any other gay male sportsman: a lifetime career in the closet. As ironic as this might seem, the day that internationally competitive male figure skaters start coming out will mark a major step for the international gay rights movement. In the context of a political and subjective judging system, I would go so far as to predict that internationally competitive figure skaters will be some of the last male sports figures to publicly come out.
It would seem as if the sport itself were on a quest to remove its association from homosexuality. De jure, the US Figure Skating Association (USFSA) rulebook has an anti-discrimination clause that does not include sexual orientation or gender identity. De facto, the men in the sport conduct pervasive self-policing. When I was 15, my coach said to me, “I’ll kill you if you grow up gay.” I remember forcing a laugh to pretend I agreed. As a competitive figure skater for most of my childhood, I grew up with zero gay mentors or idols.
Nor does the mainstream gay rights movement pay much attention to figure skating. The Human Rights Campaign blog has 2 posts on figure skating – both about Brian Boitano, who came out last December at the age of 50 – and 48 posts on football. Recent encouragements and celebrations of gay athletes have focused on the “big four” sports: baseball, basketball, football, and hockey. The Gay City News celebrated NBA player Jason Collins’ coming out with the headline “First Male Athlete from Big Four US Professional Sports Comes Out.” Where Jason Collins and football player Michael Sam have been applauded for coming out and creating spaces for gay men to be masculine, a gay figure skater that comes out only reinforces feminine stereotypes.
Faced with these particular challenges, the fight of gay figure skaters encapsulates the future of the gay rights movement. While we work to add non-discrimination protections to the USFSA rulebook, we are faced with the broader challenge of addressing the more subtle forms of judging discrimination that are so difficult to prove. While we work to help the young gay figure skating boys feel less isolated, we are faced with the broader challenge of keeping stereotypically feminine sports like figure skating involved in the blooming gay sports movement.
Allister Chang is an MPP candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School. He has passed all nine US Figure Skating Association tests, and is on track to becoming a figure skating judge.