Vancouver: A Gay Friendlier Olympics

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Feb 15, 2010

Homophobia in athletics is nothing new, and the Olympics have historically not been an exception to the rule. The last summer Olympics, in 2008, featured only a few openly gay athletes, only one of whom--gold-medal winning Matthew Mitcham, the Australian diver whose victory was given scant airtime and whose personal life was ignored by NBC, while straight athletes were profiled in depth.

But if the winter Olympics currently underway in Vancouver, Canada, are any indication, the deep-freeze on openly gay athletes may be headed for a thaw, both for those in competition and for former Olympians associated with the event.

For gay athletes--as well as the gay coaches, family members, and others associated with Olympic athletes--a pair of Pride Houses are in operation, one in Vancouver's West End gayborhood, and one in Whistler Village, a ski resort hosting several Olympic competitions. Pride House is a first for the Olympics, reports a Feb. 14 Vancouver Now article, which notes that gold medalist Mark Tewksbury, who swam for Canada's Olympic team and took top honors in 1992 in Barcelona, paid the Vancouver venue a visit--and observed that when he was an Olympian, no such venue would have been permitted.

When he was an Olympic swimmer, Tewksbury was closeted; he came out in 1998, and wrote a memoir about being a gay athlete, 2006's Inside Out: Straight Talk from a Gay Jock. "Being at the Olympics was like being in an occupied country where you're never sure who you can talk to," Tewksbury told the press. "If I made a mistake, it could have been the end of my livelihood and that climate is definitely [still] present."

How things have changed. "These Olympics have turned out to be very magical because I'm a very openly gay athlete and I was invited to speak to the Canadian team before they walked into the [opening ceremony], as who I am ... as a gay athlete," said Tewksbury, going on to address the subject of athletes as sexual beings. "We like to pretend that sexuality and sport don't go together," Tewksbury noted, "but in fact, they're part and parcel of the same package. Inevitably, when athletes come together, it leads to a lot of sex. For sure athletes partner up at the Games, that's just what teenagers do and they're surrounded by some of the most beautiful bodies in the world. It's not rocket science."

But it's not as though gay athletes are randier than their straight cohorts, Tewksbury said, noting an ongoing myth--similar to fears raised by opponents of a repeal of the ban on openly gay soldiers--that ""if there is a gay person on the team, they'll want to have sex with everybody." Said the former Olympic swimmer, "It doesn't quite work like that."

Indeed, the controversy about gays in any aspect of society has less to do with gays than the straights who fear and stereotype them. In that respect, the Pride Houses serve another, equally important, function, noted Tewksbury. "The value is not so much about gay people coming out, but straight people coming in" to Pride House, Tewksbury said, opining that it would "empower the gay teenagers," both on and off Olympic teams, "to feel comfortable enough to come out."

American figure skater Johnny Weir, like Matthew Mitcham, is a rare Olympic athlete who feels comfortable about being out even while his career is in full swing. The skater--whose flamboyantly fur-bedecked costumes made him a target of animal welfare activists--gave an interview to gay athletic news site Outsports last September in which he dismissed the notion that being gay was a defining aspect of a person, whatever his line of work. "I was born Johnny Weir, whatever that entails," he told the sports site. "People can make their own assumptions and people can talk and people can chat, but it doesn't change who I am and all of these things that contribute to my life. Being gay? I'm all for it. I love gay people, I love African-American people, I love lesbians, I love Asians. To me, there's no importance to making a show out of something that's just you."

Added Weir, "It's not like anyone goes up to Michael Jordan asking, 'Hey, are you black?' For me, those kinds of things make a person up. I've never once asked a person if they are gay or black. I just ask what their name is, and that to me is something that's very important. I have no shame in who I am, and who I go to sleep with is a very small part of who I am."

Weir also derided a recently announced campaign to make figure skating less "gay." "I don't think turning figure skating into some kind of X-Games event will promote figure skating to the male population of especially North America, but also the world," Weir told OutSports. "This kind of talk has been going around for some time, about making the men more masculine and the women more feminine. But it's not figure skating if you don't have the freedom to express yourself and make something beautiful. That's my goal every time I get new music and get new costumes: to tell a story and to put on a show.

"To butch up figure skating is a ridiculous idea," continued Weir, "because there's no putting me in some two-piece pants suit to skate in." Weir added, "I love my glitter, I love my prettiness, I love getting my hair done before the events, I love putting on makeup because I'm going to be on TV."

Openly gay former Olympian Chad Conley also has a presence at OutSports, authoring content relating to the Vancouver Olympics. For Conley, however, the issue of being gay was not a trivial one: "At the time, I hated the fact that I was gay," Conley said of his time as a junior Olympian in the mid-1990s, during a period on his life marked by drugs and drinking. Conley came out as gay in 2002, four years after sustaining an injury that ended his days as an Olympic competitor. Conley is slated to supply Outsports with articles on the Winter Olympics' skating events.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


  • Ed Meiller, 2010-02-15 13:16:47

    And Canada is a Gay friendlier country even without the Olympics.

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