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‘I can’t tone it down’: Olympic skater Adam Rippon speaks out for young LGBT Americans

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The newest darling of “the love that dare not speak its name” club skated his way into the history books Sunday night when Adam Rippon, 28, the first openly gay U.S. athlete to compete at a Winter Olympics, also became the first to medal in one. If anything, though, Rippon — out and proud, brash and humble — captured the imagination of LGBT young people in a way I’ve not seen before.

Was it the shimmering electric blue top that clung to him like a second skin? The complete self-acceptance that takes us beyond the binary of gay or straight?  The shade he threw at Vice President Pence? Or is it that he’s a modern-day gay Horatio Alger, who four years ago cried over burgers with fellow skater Mirai Nagasu when they failed to qualify for the Sochi Olympics, but who today is riding high as a Twitter trending topic? Make that a resounding YES to all of the above.

Watching this elegant swan of a man on the ice, I couldn’t help but think back to “I Am What I Am,” the gender-bending anthem from “La Cage aux Folles.”

“It’s my world that I want to take a little pride in
My world and it’s not a place I have to hide in
Life’s not worth a damn
Till you can say, ‘Hey world, I am what I am’ ”

In the afterglow of Rippon’s first competition, I spoke about his appeal with a number of young people, including Eren Guttentag, a first-year student at MIT who identifies as bisexual.

“For the current generation of LGBT people, I think [Rippon] shows you don’t need to conform to succeed. I know a lot of people my age are scared to come out because they think it’ll jeopardize their future. His successes show that people can start saying ‘So what? It clearly doesn’t hold you back.’ ”

Listen also to my nephew Jordan Bean, 20, and an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who confided to me that as a gay kid he’s always felt like an “outsider.”

“Adam Rippon is an example of a young gay man that has most likely felt like an outsider the majority of his life, but has chosen to be who he believes he should be — and in turn is providing someone to look up to for other young LGBT people that don’t feel like they fit the stereotype that’s associated with their sexuality.”

No doubt, Rippon’s impact has been greatest on LGBT young people, but “older” gay and trans people generally found his openness to be both tear-worthy and historic. Ross von Metzke, 38, who oversees special projects for organizations including It Gets Better, told me, “I think the fact that Adam’s completely unapologetic and so authentically himself is something inspiring. To have such confidence is impressive.”

Figure skater Adam Rippon on coming out: ‘I felt myself owning who I was.’

Still, praise for Rippon among LGBT people is not universal. Tim Hulsey, 46, who describes himself as “a Gay, conservative ex-grad student” on his blog MyStupidDog, posted a critical comment on the site, writing: “This is not how the U.S. should want its Olympic athletes to behave. Sure, we’re happy that Rippon et al. are boycotting Trump and Pence, but what if Olympic athletes decided to boycott a President we happen to like? The precedent has been set, after all.” In other words, tone it down and erase the politics.

It’s mind-blowing that in 2018 Rippon could be the first openly gay U.S. winter Olympian. (Brian Boitano, the 1988 figure skating gold medalist, and skater Johnny Weir, who competed in the 2006 and 2010 games, came out after their Olympics. Even freestyle skier and silver medalist Gus Kenworthy wasn’t out when he last competed in 2014.) Eric Marcus, 59, creator and host of the Making Gay History podcast, remembers “all the extraordinary athletes who competed from the confines of the closet — and the out pioneers like Martina Navratilova and Rudy Galindo, who made possible a world in which one young man can put all of his energy into his sport instead of having to battle society’s prejudices to simply be himself.”

I think it’s Rippon’s blending of the personal and political that ignites so much fire in young people. Sarah McBride, 27 and transgender, told me, “Adam isn’t just a first, he’s hope that the heart and aspirations of this country are big enough to include them, too.” McBride, author of the forthcoming memoir, “Tomorrow Will Be Different: Love, Loss, and the Fight for Trans Equality,” added that “with ongoing attacks on the rights of LGBTQ people and today’s toxic political climate, these moments of inspiration and empowerment are particularly powerful.”

But before LGBT Americans do any triple axels in celebration, let’s remember what McBride references. The Trump administration has been steadfast in its anti-LGBT positions (from revoking Obama-era school protections to transgender students under Title IX) to its anti-gay appointees (like Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court arguing that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 doesn’t protect lesbian, gay or bisexual people on the basis of sex).

At a news conference in PyeongChang, Rippon said he didn’t want his Olympics to be about Pence but added: “I can’t tone it down … I’ve got so many messages from kids all over the country — I’m getting so emotional thinking about it — I think that’s why it’s so important. I think as an athlete I use this platform to my advantage. I think it’s giving my skating a greater purpose.”

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