BEIJING — Words matter. Labels matter. Pronouns mean everything. American pairs skater Timothy LeDuc, the first openly nonbinary Winter Olympian, stood in the hallway at the Capital Indoor Stadium this week and talked about the explanations they never had for the way they felt growing up.
LeDuc and their skating partner, Ashley Cain-Gribble, are not expected to contend for a medal when they step on Olympic ice for the first time in Friday evening’s pairs short program. The two are widely considered to be the United States’ second-best pairs team in a discipline that isn’t the country’s strongest.
But the Olympics are more than just sports competitions. They are about new experiences, new ideas and seeing the world through others’ eyes. For the 31-year-old LeDuc, this athletic moment is also a chance to start conversations and teach, so they brush away mumbled apologies for what might sound like awkward or intrusive questions.
“I understand because we are all learning together,” they said.
Which is why the words and labels and definitions mean so much. As a teenager in what they describe as “a very Christian conservative household” in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, LeDuc didn’t have a vocabulary for not fitting into strict gender norms. It wasn’t until they were in their 20s, coming out first as gay and then meeting other people who identified as queer, that they discovered actual descriptions for the feelings that hadn’t always made sense.
And because they started to identify as nonbinary only in the past couple of years, things such as interviews at sporting events help, because as much as LeDuc is teaching, they also are learning more about themselves.
“We’ve all been socialized in the same way to believe there is a man and a woman and everybody is going to fit neatly into those categories, so I am also learning with everyone else,” they said. “I understand there is [a need] to take time out to explain and help everyone understand, but I’m willing to do it and I’m happy to do it because I know it helps push the conversation forward and makes the paths of other queer and nonbinary people coming into sport maybe a little easier.”
LeDuc’s appearance at these Games has not been big news, but it still has been praised.
“A great thing … certainly something that we would welcome; it’s what the Games are about,” International Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Adams said when told about LeDuc.
“The fact that that visibility is just growing for other people to [be out at the Olympics] is huge,” said American skater Jason Brown, who called LeDuc’s appearance at these Olympics “incredible and remarkable.”
Several athletes have come out as transgender, queer or nonbinary in recent years. In last summer’s Tokyo Olympics, New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard was the first openly transgender athlete to compete in an Olympics, while skateboarder Alana Smith became the first openly nonbinary U.S. athlete to take part in a Games. Smith’s teammate, Alexis Sablone, also spoke openly about her own queer identity. Yet sports also has been a harder place for LGBTQ people to feel welcome, and very few have come out in major professional leagues or in high-profile sports, especially those that are male-dominated.
But when asked whether it has become easier to identify openly as a queer athlete, LeDuc shakes their head. They have read too many comments on the bottom of stories about them. Transgender people, they said, “are still fighting for basic rights in this country.”
Everyone’s learning, which is why LeDuc said they get that people can be confused while watching them skate with Cain-Gribble. LeDuc is 6-foot-1 with broad shoulders and strong arms that easily whisk Cain-Gribble above their head. They have a beard. Their hairline is creeping off their forehead. They know there will be questions about their appearance.
“Sex and gender are different things, and also gender expression is different from gender,” LeDuc said. “Gender is more an internal sense of self as a man, woman, both or neither. Gender expression can be an extension of that, but it doesn’t always have to be. Yes, I have a beard, but in competition, I wear makeup. And for me as my experience with gender, I portray parts of masculinity and manhood, but I also feel a connection to femininity, [and] it’s just the process of letting that out and letting people see that.
“I think people will focus too much on physical characteristics and focus too much on the gender binary and the sex binary, but what we know from science is people exist out of those binaries both in sex and gender.”
As LeDuc spoke, Cain-Gribble stood beside them in the arena hall. The two have become close friends in the six years they’ve been skating together. At 26, Cain-Gribble has gone through periods of feeling left out and different. She is 5-foot-6, which is seen as tall for a female skater. For a time before meeting LeDuc, she was close to giving up skating.
“I’ve had a lot of people tell me that I shouldn’t be in this sport because of the way my body is shaped,” she said. “But this is my body, and this is who I am. And it was really hard to accept that for a long time. … It has taken me a long time to get where I am and loving my body — and it’s not every day. I still have struggles.”
It’s a perspective, though, that has allowed her to grasp LeDuc’s struggles to realize who they are. The two have talked a great deal in what she calls “a lot of open conversation in our partnership.”
Both LeDuc and Cain-Gribble were close to done with skating before they became partners. Burned out from competitive skating, LeDuc left in 2014 to skate in cruise ship shows. Two years later, Cain-Gribble was at a similar point with the sport, having never been able to break into the top U.S. tier
LeDuc’s cruise liner contract expired around the time Cain-Gribble was thinking of quitting. LeDuc called U.S. Figure Skating’s high performance director, Mitch Moyer, to see if it was worth trying to return to competition.
Moyer called back quickly: Cain-Gribble needed a partner. LeDuc remembered her from events at which both competed as teenagers.
A few days later, they were at Cain-Gribble’s rink outside Dallas and have been skating together ever since.
“It’s pretty cool you know how the other person is feeling or know what they are going to say just by looking at them or holding their hand,” Cain-Gribble said, looking at LeDuc. “A lot of times, we don’t even have to communicate with each other to know what the next step is.”
LeDuc laughed and said, “To quote ‘Frozen,’ we finish each other’s sandwiches.”
Though many figure skaters have come out as gay in recent years, the sport is not as accepting as one might expect. This is especially true in pairs and ice dance, where gender roles sometimes are magnified.
“There’s nothing inherently wrong with a romantic story being told on the ice, a Romeo-and-Juliet story being told,” LeDuc said. “The problem comes when that is centralized or seen as the standard for success and then anything that doesn’t fit that is seen as less than or second class.”
Together, LeDuc and Cain-Gribble have tried to attack those standards in subtle ways. LeDuc still lifts Cain-Gribble, but they competed this year in matching shirts and long pants, and they both skate almost as much as the other as opposed to LeDuc standing around and hoisting Cain-Gribble in the air.
It’s part of a slow fight for what LeDuc describes as “authenticity.”
Standing in the hallway of the skating rink where LeDuc will be an Olympic first, they and Cain-Gribble talked about those early days of skating as a pair in Dallas. Even back then, Cain-Gribble said, she had a vision they someday could be here. They had been through too much and had stayed in the sport too long to not believe this moment could happen.
They pointed at the signs in the hall around them that had the Olympic rings and Beijing 2022 logos. They talked about the thrill of being here, of being able to compete in front of the world and the need for words and labels and pronouns, because it will be another small but significant moment for queer people in sports.
“Well, the title is first nonbinary Winter Olympian,” LeDuc said. “I’m here as an athlete first.”
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