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The Anti-Gay Atmosphere in Figure Skating

Figure skater Brian Boitano has “come out.” Come out of what, you may wonder? There hasn’t been much news about Boitano lately, so perhaps he’s been in seclusion. If you are a follower of his cooking show “What Would Brian Boitano Make?” on the Food Network, however, then you will know that Mr. Boitano is often out and about and indeed, that he is very active in the San Francisco area where he lives. His days of Olympic glory are long gone (he won the gold medal in men’s figure skating in 1988), so it is unlikely that he’s been in hiding from overly zealous fans.

No, what Brian Boitano had purportedly been “hiding” is not his person, but his sexual orientation. Yes, that’s right, Brian Boitano is GAY! Who knew? Well, pretty much everyone knew. If Boitano was in the closet, a more capacious closet can hardly be conceivable. Everyone knew about his sexual orientation, everyone that is, except for people in the figure skating community in the United States. Boitano’s “coming out” was reported without a trace of humor on the figure skating website Icenetwork.com. That the announcement was met with pretty much no fanfare is ascribed by the author of the article, Amy Rosewater, to the fact that times have changed so much since when Boitano was actively competing. We are more accepting of homosexuality now, explains Rosewater. This, she submits, is the reason why “[e]ven on the widely read gay news website, The Advocate, word that Boitano had come out was not among its top stories of the day.”

Boitano “came out” officially because he was recently appointed to a presidential delegation that will be part of the opening ceremony at the Sochi Olympics in February. Controversy has been swirling around this Olympics because of Russia’s officially hostile stance toward homosexuality. The figure skating community has emerged as unprecedentedly craven in its unwillingness to speak out on this issue. Ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White, America’s best hope for an Olympic figure skating medal, are on the record as saying that they think the Olympics is not the place to make a political statement. When asked whether this was not so much a political issue as a human rights issue, White’s answer was that this issue was merely “semantics.” Yeah, right. While not all political issues concern human rights, nearly all human rights issues are political issues. Calling them “political issues” just provides a convenient way to skirt them while appearing to remain nobly above the fray.

Nearly all the Olympic hopefuls in figure skating, including not merely Davis and White, but also Jeremy Abbot, Evan Lysacek, Gracie Gold, Mas Aaron, and Agnes Zawadzki, have said they are not going to take a public position on the issue of gay rights. Abbot’s statements on the issue have been particularly offensive. “It’s a very polarized issue,” he is quoted as saying in an article in the Chicago Tribune, “I think there is no right answer.”

Really, Mr. Abbot? No right answer? What if the group whose rights were at issue were a religious or racial minority? What if we were talking about the suppression of the rights of Jews or blacks? Would there still be “no right answer”? Abbott appears to suffer from what is sometimes referred to as “moral idiocy.” According to journalist Philip Hersh, Abbott had earlier compared speaking out in Russia on the issue of gay rights to going into someone’s home and criticizing how they had decorated it.

Moral idiocy is not the only malady that affects the figure skating community. Despite the prevalence of costumes that are so revealing and tasteless they would make the average pole dancer blush with shame, the pervasive sexualizing of prepubescent girls (a la JonBenét Ramsey), and the disproportionate numbers of homosexual men, the sport is marked by an attitude toward sexuality in general that is so backward that the isolation of the athletes and other participants from the larger society is the only possible explanation for its persistence.

Once, years ago, I invited the now retired ice dancers Kimberly Navarro and Brent Bommentre to speak to my philosophy of sport class. Navarro explained how she and Bommentre had competed against each other since they had been children, but that one day, after they’d both become adults, she caught sight of him and a competition and was very favorably impressed with how he had developed (and here she was not talking about his skating skills). “Well,” she said with appreciative surprise, “look at little Brent Bommentre!” The writer from Skating magazine, the official publication of the U.S. Figure Skating, quickly explained to the students, however, that that little remark would not make it into the magazine. Any overt reference to Bommentre’s sexual attractiveness, particularly from his skating partner, was clearly considered unsuitable for the magazine!

It’s okay to dress prepubescent girls in sexually provocative outfits, but it’s not okay to acknowledge a perfectly healthy sexual attraction between two physically mature adults? It’s frightening to calculate the emotional toll such a bizarre and unnatural attitude toward sexuality must take on the sport’s practitioners. The sport remains so vehemently anti-gay that many male skaters are far later in acknowledging and accepting their sexual orientation than are their peers outside the sport.

The only skater to be open about his homosexuality while he was still competing was Johnny Weir. One would thus hope that the ordinarily outspoken Weir would take a public stand on Russia’s treatment of gays. Unfortunately, Weir, who will be covering the figure skating in Sochi for NBC, was quoted in an article in the New York Times as saying that he too thinks “the Olympics are not the place to make a political statement.”

Only one figure skater has had the courage to speak out on the issue of gay rights in Russia. Ashley Wagner, a two-time U.S. figure skating champion said in an interview in September that she was not going to be silent on the issue. “I have gay family members,” she said, “and a lot of friends in the LGBT community… I believe we should all have equal rights.”

So what did Brian Boitano do in publicly “coming out” just before leaving for Sochi? He may not have made headlines, but in violating U.S. Figure Skating’s long-standing tradition of don’t ask don’t tell, he made the kind of political statement that no one else in the skating community apart from Ashley Wagner has been willing to make. Bravo, Brian, and may other U.S. skaters follow your courageous lead.

M.G. Piety teaches philosophy at Drexel University. She is the editor and translator of Soren Kierkegaard’s Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs. Her latest book is: Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology. She is currently working on a book on skating entitled Sequins and Scandals: Reflections on Figure Skating, Culture, and the Philosophy of Sport, that will be out in January from Gegensatz Press. She can be reached at: mgpiety@drexel.edu 
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M.G. Piety teaches philosophy at Drexel University. She is the editor and translator of Soren Kierkegaard’s Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs. Her latest book is: Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology. She can be reached at: mgpiety@drexel.edu 

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