Four years ago, American freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy had planned to come out as gay with a televised kiss at the Sochi Olympics before backing out. It was too soon, Kenworthy decided. He wasn’t yet ready to make that statement.
“I hadn’t told my mom, I hadn’t told my dad, I hadn’t told any of my friends,” Kenworthy reflected in January with NBC. “So it would have been a shock to the world, but it also would’ve been a shock to my inner circle. I think it just wasn’t the right time for me, so I waited until it felt like it was.”
On Sunday in PyeongChang, there were no second thoughts as Kenworthy, one of the first openly gay Americans competing at the Winter Games, casually kissed his boyfriend, Matthew Wilkas, before his first slopestyle run. The moment, which lasted a few seconds, was aired on NBC and celebrated by LGBTQ activists as a sign of progress.
Kenworthy tweeted about the televised kiss after finishing in 12th place in the finals of the men’s slopestyle competition. Teammate Nick Goepper won silver.
“Didn’t realize this moment was being filmed,” he wrote, “but I’m so happy that it was. My childhood self would never have dreamed of seeing a gay kiss on TV at the Olympics but for the first time ever a kid watching at home CAN! Love is love is love.”
Kenworthy, 26, publicly came out in 2015 and has embraced the platform the Olympics have given him.
“I’m here at the Olympics,” Kenworthy, a silver medalist in Sochi, told The Washington Post’s Jerry Brewer last week. “Not many people get to say that. And doing so as a gay man makes me feel amazing.”
“It’s 2018, and you see how open-minded many parts of the world are,” Kenworthy continued. “But there are also many parts of the world where being gay is punishable by death, punishable by jail time. It’s a new world, and it’s also not, and I think that the only way to change perception is through visibility, through representation, and the more that we have that, the more normalized queer becomes, the easier it is for people to wrap their heads around it, and I think that the more we’ll see positive change.”
Supporters online applauded the moment, and clips of the kiss immediately began to spread on social media. For some, the kiss represented much more than just a sign of affection. It was a step toward acceptance.
“Pretty cool that [NBC] not only showed Gus Kenworthy kiss his boyfriend, but acknowledge him as such,” one Twitter user posted. “It shouldn’t feel like a big deal and yet it does.”
“Gus Kenworthy, you’re making so many LGBT Americans so very proud of you!!!” another wrote.
It’s been an eventful past few days for Kenworthy, who broke his thumb Thursday in practice but elected to continue competing. He also received a shout-out from pop star Britney Spears, who apparently is a big fan.
“I can’t really speak for Gus. I can only assume it’s monumental for him,” Wilkas told NBC on Sunday. “I think it’s overwhelming. I think he probably won’t be able to fully process it until later. This whole experience has been unexpectedly moving for him. I think he feels the pressure of it. The pressure of representing the community here and wanting do so well here for people who love him and also people who hate him and are wishing him to not do well just because of who he is. The pressure of that is intense for him.”
Kenworthy credited Wilkas for his success, calling him his “Seoul mate” in a social media post Saturday.
“So happy to have my bf, my family and some amazing friends here in Korea to cheer me on!” he wrote. “Win or lose I just wanna thank you all SO much for your support and encouragement. I wouldn’t be here without you.”
This post has been updated.
Read more PyeongChang Olympics coverage: