PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Gus Kenworthy is free. Eat your heart out, Mike Pence, and anyone else predisposed to sneering at his good, gay life.
It took the freestyle skier 24 years to get to this place — to stop hiding, to love himself unabashedly — and that is more valuable to him than his slopestyle silver medal from the Sochi Olympics. Since Kenworthy came out of the closet in 2015, he hasn’t flaunted his sexuality as much as he has owned it, with an intent to inspire others to shun the shame. He and figure skater Adam Rippon are Team USA’s first openly gay male Winter Olympians. The fact is wonderful, not controversial. If you disagree, that is now your problem, not theirs.
“I’m here at the Olympics,” said Kenworthy, 26. “Not many people get to say that. And doing so as a gay man makes me feel amazing.”
The U.S. Olympic Committee hails its 243-athlete squad as both the largest group any nation has sent to a Winter Olympics and the country’s most diverse contingent. Some wonder why the latter deserves such recognition. They must not understand the harsh effects of social exclusion. It’s too easy to marginalize, to judge and to hinder people considered different. So Kenworthy’s pride matters. He’s one of the best in the world at what he does. And he’s gay. Don’t merely tolerate it. Celebrate it.
“It’s 2018, and you see how open-minded many parts of the world are,” Kenworthy said. “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.”
At the Opening Ceremonies, Kenworthy posted an Instagram photo with Rippon. They embraced in the image. As part of the caption, Kenworthy wrote: “I feel incredibly honored to be here in Korea competing for the US and I’m so proud to be representing the LGBTQ community alongside this amazing guy! Eat your heart out, Pence. #TeamUSA #TeamUSGay”
Rippon has been outspoken in his criticism of Vice President Pence, who led the official U.S. delegation to the Winter Olympics. His strong and passionate words against Pence’s questionable record on LGBTQ rights became a major story this week when he blasted Pence once again to USA Today. Pence has offered to meet with Rippon to clear the air. Rippon has said he is open to talking to the vice president.
If Kenworthy ever received such an offer, he probably would decline.
“I think I’ve kind of made my opinion on the matter pretty clear,” Kenworthy said. “I don’t think that I have any inclination toward a meeting. I think that, in terms of distractions, that would be a much bigger distraction for me, and right now, I’m just focusing on competing.”
There’s a diminishing value to focusing too much on confrontation. It cheapens the larger message. It’s more beneficial to consider, with compassion, how liberated Kenworthy feels now. He looks back at his first 24 years and sees fear. He was an Olympic silver medalist and he was ashamed of himself. Once he stopped treating his sexual orientation like a dirty secret, he found peace and a higher level of performance.
His superpower — he can ski really fast with exquisite body control, wondrous grace and stunning athleticism — used to be a crutch. He used to use the spectacular within him just to feel normal. Now he’s free to be extraordinary in every way.
“Yeah, it’s crazy,” Kenworthy said. “I’m actually sort of shocked that I was able to get a medal in 2014 and really have any of the success I had before because as soon as I came out, it was like a whole new world for me, and I felt so free, so confident, that it’s actually shocking that I was able to compete any other way. And I think that being in the closet is really hard. It takes a toll on your mind. It takes a toll on you. I think it just makes every aspect of your life more difficult.”
The hardest part? He didn’t know who to aspire to be. He thought there was no prototype. That’s why he’s so open now. He wants to provide vision for other gay athletes or anyone foraging life to find a comfortable place.
“As a kid, I just felt like I didn’t really have anyone to look up to that I felt like I could really relate to, someone that was out and gay and also competing in sports and finding success,” Kenworthy said. “And someone I could kind of emulate and try to follow in their footsteps. And so I hope to just be someone that the younger generation can kind of see themselves in and just really be visible for people that haven’t really been able to be visible in the past. And, of course, getting a medal would be incredible, and that’s my goal, and I feel really good about my skiing. But win or lose, I think I’m going to be leaving with my head held high. And I feel very proud to even just be here.”
Kenworthy doesn’t want to be known merely as “the gay skier, the gay Olympian.” But for now, it’s important that he live with the label to change perceptions and counter the hatred of people such as John Moody, the executive vice president and executive editor of Fox News, who wrote an embarrassingly closed-minded piece about the Winter Games last week. It was so bad that Fox spiked it on Friday, but it was too late. We had been exposed to the poison for nearly 48 hours.
Moody wrote (if you can call it that): “Unless it’s changed overnight, the motto of the Olympics, since 1894, has been ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger.’ It appears the U.S. Olympic Committee would like to change that to ‘Darker, Gayer, Different.’ If your goal is to win medals, that won’t work.”
Later, he considered the USOC’s touting of its diverse team a “frankly, embarrassing laundry list of how many African-Americans, Asians and openly gay athletes are on this year’s U.S. team. No sport that we are aware of awards points — or medals — for skin color or sexual orientation.”
The implication is that a more diverse U.S. team is somehow worse. The implication is that Team USA didn’t hold Olympic trials and instead tried to create a rainbow. The implication ignores that Shani Davis (the first African American to win an individual gold medal at a Winter Games) has four Olympic medals, that Kenworthy can earn his second here, or that Ghana-born Maame Biney is the future of U.S. women’s short-track speedskating and Korean American snowboarder Chloe Kim might be a transcendent talent.
Why does diversity matter? Well, for one thing, it can shut up people who think like Moody.
Kenworthy is out of the closet and back at the Olympics, and in the future, there will be more, not less, of him.
“So I’m so proud that now you can exist as a gay man and be an Olympian, and it can be beneficial rather than negative,” Kenworthy said. “So it’s amazing. And I just think I feel so liberated now that I’ve been out of the closet for a while, and so I’m free in that I just get to be myself, speak freely, act freely, and I think that I am competing confidently.”
Eat your hearts out, bigots.
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