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Olympics More Gay-Friendly, But Athletes Still Keep Quiet

By L.K. Regan

The Vancouver Winter Olympics, now underway, are breaking new ground in hosting gay fans. With two Pride Houses on the Olympic grounds, spectators and athletes no longer need to feel that "gay" and "sports" are incompatible. Even so, publicly out athletes are very hard to find. Direct homophobia may not be the cause of their silence—rather, there is a sense among gay competitors that sexuality should not dominate discussions of athletic skill. In short, as gay athletes become more public, the relationship of sexuality and sport becomes more complex.

Previous Olympics have had gay bars or gathering spaces, but nothing on the scale of the Pride Houses at the Vancouver Games. Two Pride Houses are located at major gathering points for spectators, and are designed not only to provide a place to hang out, but are intended to broadly address the problem of homophobia in sports. Pride House Whistler is in the middle of Whistler Village, near many of the ski and snowboard events. It includes a bar and lounge with TVs for watching the Games, as well as internet access. It also includes exhibits by gay artists. Pride House Vancouver is coordinating events around the city, including outreach to foreign visitors. Internet access is free, and the Games are televised there as well. For the first time in Olympic history, there are designated gay-friendly gathering places that are designed to be fun, informative, and socially aware.

For gay athletes at the Games, however, it continues to be the case that being out will often overshadow one's athletic accomplishments. There are still very few openly gay Olympic athletes, and those that there are have a complicated relationship to their sexuality. For example, the only out lesbian athlete at the Games is Dutch speed-skater Ireen Wust, who has been romantically linked to teammate Sanne van Kerkhof. When asked in an interview about that relationship, Wust bristled. “I want to talk about ice skating," she said. "You are not asking Sven Kramer [the Dutch gold medalist speed-skater] about how his [straight] relationship is going. So why would you ask me? If I would’ve had a relationship with a guy, you wouldn’t have asked me either.” Being out turns the label "athlete" into "gay athlete;" even competitors comfortable with their sexuality may feel that coming out will too sharply change the conversation.

The endless questions that will follow an athlete even suspected of being gay provide some competitors with a serious incentive to keep quiet about their identities. This is clearly the situation of American figure-skater Johnny Weir, whose elaborate outfits and extreme make-up have been the talk of this Games, as of his career in general. (Weir designs his own costumes.) In interviews, he has consistently refused to say whether he is gay, though he comes right up to the edge. In part, he cites the same reason as Ireen Wust—that his sexuality has nothing to do with his sport. As he said in a recent interview, "People talk. Figure skating is thought of as a female sport, something that only girly men compete in. I don't feel the need to express my sexual being because it's not part of my sport and it's private. I can sleep with whomever I choose and it doesn't affect what I'm doing on the ice, so speculation is speculation."

But Weir is also responding to efforts, like that of Skate Canada early last year, attempting to make figure skating seem more masculine—which many people read as code for "less gay." Skate Canada executives asked for fewer sequins and feathers, and more talk of speed, risk and power. Weir's reaction? "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," Weir continued, "because there’s no putting me in some two-piece pants suit to skate in."