20 years ago, I asked my mother if we could go to an ice skating rink because Michelle Kwan and Tara Lipinski were cool AF in Nagano, Japan. I mostly ignored the U.S. men and the formidably masculine Elvis Stojko.
I loved the expressive possibilities in the ladies’ program: their uncapped grace I mimicked on the first lap where I tried some front cross overs to the left, to the right, then a waltz jump. Not too shabby for tawdry brown rental skates.
I learned all the basics in a year and could land an axel at nine. The future looked exciting: sadly, no one knew how fast I’d plateau. Interesting enough, I have no clear memories of my ninth year, plenty from 8 and 10 though. Nine seems to be the year when knowledge of my fundamental difference gripped me.
I plateaued because I suddenly realized I couldn’t be myself on the rink. The glitzy shirts, the dancing, skating fast and drawing the attention of strangers lost its appeal as it sunk in to me just what those viewers might be thinking. Like many boy figure skaters in 1999, I retreated into myself. I sensed that even in this space that afforded me so much joie de vivre it wasn’t okay to be queer.
What I was good at—Chinese spirals, sit spins, fast footwork—was the domain of lady figure skaters. By expressing myself, by being the happiest I have ever been, I was making myself a target for scorn.
Increasingly aware of this, I became too distracted to learn anything new. I was constantly asking what were others thinking of me? I stopped practicing the craft.
I started to use my practice time to see how fast I could skate while slouching, hands in pockets. I would only jump when there were few spectators, or when I was in a distant corner.
I let the external world’s judgment wipe away my interior world, my capacity to create and the thrill it strung through me. I know real champions go through this mental vice and come out all right; still, there’s something radically unnecessary about a nine-year-old being shut away from what he loves because of homophobia.
But last night, I finally saw the world of male figure skating shift. Last night I finally saw a space where it’s okay to be gay. Better yet, it’s cool to be straight too and to show emotion. I saw male figure skaters exhibit gestures they couldn’t have done 20 years ago. I heard commentators support rather than eviscerate the competitors. I finally sensed an arena where U.S. boys and men could express themselves—the serious, the stalwart, the silly, the queer—all were welcome.
The U.S. commentators I’m talking about are (of course) Tara and Johnny on NBC. Along with their generous attitude to each skater, they were different from the Dick Button commentators I grew up with in that they didn’t comment on every single jump, and they didn’t throw a skater under the bus to snatch a witticism. They gave each skater room to be; they let viewers watch and appreciate.
Last night was a celebration of human joy: Adam Rippon’s outfit, Yuzuru Hanyu’s Pooh Bears, Javier Fernández performance to “Man of La Mancha.” The men skated to the music they loved: Patrick Chan to Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah”; Michal Březina to “Human” by Rag ‘n’ Bone Man; Paul Fentz channeling Game of Thrones.
I was amazed to hear Tara talk about the loneliness of being the only person on the rink. That attention to the mental pressure of the sport wasn’t, to my recall, mentioned 20 years ago.
Johnny talked about the technical component being a chance to express oneself. When one skater wasn’t doing so hot, Johnny’s diagnosis was that he was looking from the outside in. Growing up, I don’t ever recall such a diagnosis on TV. There was talk of being mentally “tough,” but never such a sympathetic analysis, especially toward a male figure skater.
It was a completely different world than the one I, and most gay boys of the 90s, grew up in. Fortunately, guys like Weir and Rippon were able to become national champions while under a homophobic glare. They were (and are) extraordinary humans, but they also had a strong network of support. Adam Rippon’s dad is simply awesome, and I think he was rather fortunate with his draw in progenitors. I don’t think even he could surmount the cast of homophobia without a parent telling him constantly he was loved.
It’s been a decade since I followed skating closely, so perhaps others aren’t as surprised by this shift. While I was happy for 2008 gold medal winner, Evan Lysacek, it didn’t seem like he was working in a new environment. Johnny Weir wasn’t publicly gay until 2011 and a commentator until retirement in 2013 (the same year Brian Boitano came out). The first decade of the 21st century was still a place where Canadian commentators could say “They’ll think all the boys who skate will end up like (Weir). It sets a bad example.”
But 20 years since I first fell in love with skating—from a viewer’s perspective, from the perspective of little children watching on TV, it’s an entirely different world.
In the skating world I grew up with, the men were restraint. Afraid of being too expressive, of being grouped together with the one openly gay guy who happened to be HIV positive—Rudy Galindo—the men I watched always muted their artistry. I recall watching Johnny Weir in 2004. I sensed that there was some expression he was hiding. He was muted when he wanted to scream. Timothy Goebel too, while all smiley, was so restrained and self-conscious in his movements. Even “retro” footage of Brian Orser made me feel like something was being denied. Todd Eldredge and Michael Weiss were good, but to me, boring compared to the women, whose artistry could be cherished.
I pity the boys I grew up with who quit for some more manly sport. Sure, none of us were making it to nationals, but we could have gone further in this sport and art. If we had commenters like Tara and Johnny, who focus on inner expression and internal validation, I think many of us would have gone further, despite homophobia; we would not, as I do, regret quitting something we loved.
Figure skating was the only thing I showed some instant talent for, and last night, when I saw the kind of expression now possible in male figure skating, I had tears in my eyes knowing that the eight-year olds watching in 2018 wouldn’t be restrained by their sexuality. Last night, the focus was on life. Not in a glib way that ignores sexual, racial, or economic inequalities. One that considers them but doesn’t for an instant believe anyone is tied to their labels. Everyone is free to skate, to cry and dance, laugh and scream. Male figure skating hasn’t reached utopia, of course, but it’s undeniable to me that a great shift has happened, one that I honestly never saw occurring in my lifetime.
Last night, I saw male figure skating become a sport where it was okay to exhibit the gay sass of Adam Rippon or the dramatic choreography of Misha Ge or the teenage texting prowess of Nathan Chen or the nation-building-manifesto of Javier Fernández. In this new and kinder environment, I look forward to seeing what young boys, without shame, will accomplish.