History will be made this month in South Korea as two out American athletes will compete at the Winter Olympics for the first time. Figure skater Adam Rippon and freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy are both openly gay, and join soccer gold medallist Megan Rapinoe as the only openly queer American Olympic athletes ever. Think about that: out of tens of thousands of Americans who have participated at the Games, only three have been openly queer whilst competing.
Adam Rippon grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania (yes, that Scranton) and began figure skating at the age of eleven. Quickly working his way to the upper echelons of the sport, and was close to qualifying for the Olympics in 2010 and 2014. Galvanized by the homophobic propaganda spread by the Russian government during the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Rippon publicly came out in 2015. Since coming out, he has been an outspoken advocate for queer rights and being able to live his authentic life. In being selected for the Olympics on January 7, Rippon officially became the first openly gay man in the world ever to be selected to compete at a Winter Olympics, beating out Kenworthy by a few weeks. Afterwards, in response to being asked what it was like being a gay athlete, Rippon joked, “It’s exactly like being a straight athlete, only with better eyebrows.”
Gus Kenworthy has actually competed at the Olympics before: you may remember his heartwarming adoption of five stray puppies from Sochi after winning a silver medal in the 2014 Olympics. Kenworthy, however, did not publicly come out until an ESPN interview in 2015, becoming the first male action sports athlete to do so. He discussed the stigma he felt associated with being a gay athlete, and how it nearly drove him out of the sport after Sochi. He discusses perceiving a need to the best in the world before coming out so that nobody could “talk shit”, and how coming out has been a massive burden off his shoulders. Since that interview, Kenworthy has also been an outspoken advocate for the queer community, and has been an especially strong critic of anti-queer policies like the recent attempted trans military ban. He was considered a strong contender to compete in South Korea in his first Olympics as an openly gay man, and confirmed his qualification in slopestyle skiing on January 21.
Both Rippon and Kenworthy are not only out and proud, but also outspoken critics of the decision to have notorious homophobe Mike Pence led the U.S. Olympic delegation to South Korea. Rippon has publicly called out Pence’s views on homosexuality and condemned his leadership of the delegation. Kenworthy slammed Pence’s inclusion on the delegation on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and pointed out the irony of having a homophobic official leading the first two openly gay winter athletes into the Olympics. Indeed, the Olympic spirit of inclusion and coming together does not seem to be compatible with Pence’s views, notwithstanding the queer history that will be made this month in PyeongChang.
This spirit of inclusivity is important not only for the Olympics, but for all athletes. Especially for male athletes, the toxic masculinity and stigma associated with being a queer athlete has prevented athletes from being publicly out for decades. In their own coming out stories, both Rippon and Kenworthy delved into their personal experiences with this stigma and how it negatively affected their well-being. They both hope to be beacons of positivity and inclusion for closeted young athletes who are having trouble reconciling their sexuality and societal perceptions of what an athlete should be.
Imagine: Adam Rippon or Gus Kenworthy standing at the top of the podium, gold medal around his neck. The entire world watches as the Star-Spangled Banner plays, and for a moment, an openly gay athlete is the embodiment of American greatness. Imagine the impact that could have on generations of queer people, on queer history. If you watch nothing else during these Olympic games, keep an eye out for these out and proud Americans.
When to watch Adam Rippon: February 12, 15, 16 on NBC or stream at NBCOlympics.com
When to watch Gus Kenworthy: February 12, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21 on NBC or stream at NBCOlympics.com