Out? In? Or Past All That? Johnny Weir's Fancy-Free Skate

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 17, 2006

A figure skating fan from Moscow, writing in to Johnny Weir's Web site, asked ever so delicately the one question sportswriters and the figure skating community have mutually skirted every four years for decades now -- a question put more bluntly in an early-'80s new wave hit written before Weir was even born:

Johnny, are you queer?

"People talk," Weir answered. "Figure skating is thought of as a female sport, something that only girly men compete in. I don't feel the need to express my sexual being because it's not part of my sport and it's private. I can sleep with whomever I choose and it doesn't affect what I'm doing on the ice, so speculation is speculation. I like nice things, and beautiful things, so if that is the only way people are determining that I swing one way or the other, then to me, that's sad. You can't judge a book by it's cover, ever. . . . I am who I am, and I don't need to justify anything to anyone."

In last night's long form program at the Winter Olympics in Turin, Weir placed fifth, failing to win a medal. Things had looked so much better Tuesday, when Weir confidently skated the short program to a second-place standing. Something happened; the psychological monster that occasionally ruins all routines got loose, and Weir kept making mistakes. I am who I am. The sureness that oozed from him seemed to vanish, and the 21-year-old stomped out of the rink.

"I never felt comfortable in this building," he told reporters. "I didn't feel my inner peace. I didn't feel my aura. Inside I was black." A diva after all.

And, oh, the mouth on him -- such anathema to the clinched, Boitano-esque platitudes of what must be one of the most neurotic sports (if not the most) in Winter Olympicdom: There was the time he called a competitor's routine a "shot-of-vodka, snort-of-coke" performance, which went down in his permanent record with officials. (Tut-tut.) Or when he said his mother was "probably getting drunk right now" after he won a spot at the U.S. Olympic team.

He grouses, he self-deprecates, he effuses, he blogs: After a news conference at the national championships in January, he wrote: "I still think it's crazy that I get a press conference, and I like to perform for the media just as I would for an audience. I don't put on a happy face . . . I can just chill with the press and be myself. The next morning the papers came out and all of a sudden I was causing a stir because . . . I was wearing a chinchilla scarf that someone thought was a boa.

"First of all, boas are so out. Secondly, I would never wear a boa to a press conference."

But still this is not a man who will say whether he is gay.

One of the privileges of modern celebrityhood is a comfort zone between fabulousness and outness, and it is here that athletes, pop stars and actors who seem as if they might be the slightest bit gay go to live.

The safest refuge is to equate being gay with a set of sex acts only and not address it as part of an identity. Whether Weir is gay or not has little to do with his skating, at least on the surface of things. There's some common sense behind the argument -- that the world doesn't need to know he's gay, and need not ask, either. When you were 21, you probably didn't want to tell the press all about your sex life. (Forget for a moment all the straight and gay 21-year-olds telling the world plenty about their sex lives, usually on their blogs or MySpace.com profiles.)

Advocacy groups such as Parents and Friends of Lesbian and Gays must be dying to get to know Johnny, if he's actually gay. And if he's not, what an ally he'd be anyhow, for here is a fine example of what to do with your fey little boy, whom you love so much: Adore him.

Let him prance around in whatever he likes, practice triple axels on roller skates in the driveway, and marvel at his tastes and abilities. Tell him it doesn't matter what the kids at school say. Tell him he can do whatever he sets his mind to. Teach him about honesty and self-criticism. Let him find himself. He might possibly grow up and reward you, not only with infinite gratitude, but with the sort of success that comes from sheer force of will: an Olympic medal, someday, or some cute thing he bought from Fendi in duplicate -- one for you, and one for him.

These are all things Weir's mother, the equally outspoken Patti, did.

She raised a kid who would grow up to nickname himself "J. We" and "Tinkerbelle" and tell Sports Illustrated that his only other ambitions right now are to own an apartment in either Chelsea or Soho and start his own fashion line. At home, in Quarryville, Pa., bullies at the rink would shoot hockey pucks at Johnny while he practiced, Patti Weir told the New York Times. "I raised him to speak his mind, even if it's about me," she said.

Weir has done what so many oddballs, gay or straight, raised by understanding mamas and papas in the sticks, have done -- he became a cultural omnivore. He loves hotels, he loves high fashion, he loves being in the world as opposed to shutting himself off. He's learning Russian. He names his costumes. He is complicated, self-aware to a maximum degree, and he loathes being misunderstood.

Among those who've really examined and thought about the inherent psychological battlefield of figure skating (Is it sport or art? Farce or glory?), there is a tacit understanding that no amount of practice and perfectionist tendencies can cure the neurosis of self-deprecation. Even though skating has been called the gayest sport, it sure doesn't want to be thought of that way.

"There are some moves such as laybacks and spirals, that are more frequently done by women and considered effeminate on men," writes Lorrie Kim on Outsports.com, which covers gay athletes. "Obviously, skaters like to include their strongest moves in their programs, but a male skater who is strong in these moves knows that to perform them is to risk prejudice."

Jon Jackson, a skating judge and author of the recent tell-all "On Edge: Backroom Dealing, Cocktail Scheming, Triple Axels, and How Top Skaters Get Screwed," told Outsports: "They really feel that they have to present themselves as a 'passable' masculine skater. They don't want to be the skater that hurts figure skating's image and TV contracts.

"Until you're fully comfortable with who you are and have complete confidence in yourself, you can't express yourself on the ice," said Jackson, who is openly gay. "This holds them back."

To watch Johnny Weir this week was to believe the problem had been licked.

NBC worked very hard to make sure we in the mainstream got the message anyhow, in its highly stylized mini-biography of Weir, which aired just before he skated so beautifully Tuesday and came in second to his idol Evgeni Plushenko.

"Most of all, [Weir is] a man comfortable with himself," the narrator explained. Then came what seemed to be a staggering quantity of little clues. (Which were helpfully illuminated the next day in online gossip chat and deconstructions. "Seriously, you can't help but love the crap out of Johnny Weir," swooned Gawker.com. "Unless, of course, you're completely homophobic.")

"I've been raised to be outspoken, to have my own thoughts," Weir said, as the camera slowly caressed his lithe body and alabaster face. He was sprawled on a couch, Calvin Klein Obsession-style (though fully clothed). "I know that a lot of people, especially the more Republican-style people are very afraid of what I mean to the sport and what I'm going to say, what kind of revolutionary crazy things are going to come out of my mouth. And you know, good for them. They should be scared. I'm a real person. I do real things."

The real thing he was seen doing next was driving in his car, listening to Christina Aguilera on the radio. The message rings clear:

Mamas, let your babies grow up to be figure skaters.

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