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Avenging Johnny Weir: Overcoming The Louganis Factor

by Shawn Baker
Swan Dive

Representation.

It’s that pesky issue in politics, media, and athletics that daunts the minority figure; with visibility comes acceptance, and the lack of it only further ghettoizes difference. The military is in the spotlight currently, but it isn’t the only diffident macho setting that we give the collective side-eye to whenever a claim of being queer-free abounds.

I’ve personally never followed sports (when asked recently whether I would be tuning in for the Superbowl, I proceeded to hesitantly ask, “Now, that’s for baseball…right?”) because I can’t approximate grown men’s wide-eyed obsessions with the incredible ability to throw a ball through a hoop or a hit it with a stick.

Still, when it comes to the Winter Olympics, my only real interest is the speculation of who is, who isn’t, who’s in, who’s out, why it’s an issue, and why it shouldn’t be.

OutSports’ recent close-to-the-bone piece on the thorny path of the in-or-out gay Olympian has a myriad of salient points that casts the Athletic sector as the civilian equivalent of the military or the Boy Scouts: a “No Girls! No Fags!” club house that remains one of the last strongholds of little straight boys’ grown-up fantasy selves, the sort of Boys Own setting that would be somehow compromised if queers slipped in under the radar and showed they could compete in a real man’s world. Undercutting the cliche that with every token gay you get a defiant activist or an unruly upstart, the article — with its tellingly anonymous source — drives home how simply being an athlete without the G-modifier is just one more thing we can never simply take for granted.

“Being an athlete who is gay may not elicit outright harassment as likely occurred in the past, but it may be perceived by the athlete as a distraction from results. Athletes who are gay have nothing material to gain by coming out publicly. And as an athlete, you must think about things in terms of their utility, especially because sport is now both financially and athletically competitive. No longer is it just, ‘What else can I do to get that extra edge?’ The mantra now becomes, ‘What else can I do to appease and win over sponsors?’”

9301208P OLYMPIC GAMES

Remember Greg Louganis? Handsome, fit, exotic, photogenic, at the top of his game, and later portrayed by C-List entertainment correspondent Mario Lopez in his 1997 telefilm biopic? Louganis was an advertiser’s dream made flesh, save for that one damned stumbling block he couldn’t divulge. He stayed mum, but the public picked up on it. There was no girlfriend in the picture. The gay community was mad about him. He was living with his male manager. While his name and face were known, his gold medal wins in 1984 and 1988 did not translate into the sort of lucrative endorsements gigs that a Bruce Jenner achieves by hitting the same brass ring.

Yes, he scored a sunscreen ad, but the expected big corporate offers to shill for fast food, sneakers, and breakfast cereal did not materialize. Cut to twenty years down the line as openly gay Australian Matthew Mitcham‘s golden dive in the 2008 Olympics was overshadowed by Michael Phelps‘s sweep, his own blond, athletic appeal again failing to parley into the slew of commercial windfalls Phelps garnered. Gold is the standard; Gay is doomed to also-ran status.

“While it may seem from the outside that coming out would generate a lot of publicity, I feel that that kind of media attention would be falsely earned, that it wouldn’t be garnered for my athletic success, but for my sexuality. There is a strong dislike held by many elite athletes for the ‘human interest’ stories that come around every Olympics.”

Golden Boy

This brings nothing so much to mind as the glaringly unequal framing provided to Phelps and Mitcham. Of course the broadcasters love a good “human interest” angle; it generates sentiment for the competitor with viewers and creates a recognizable “face” for the event. If there’s some sort of terrible family calamity like a death of a parent or a sibling suffering from some form of malady, then these become exploitable Triumph of the Human Spirit obstacles that said competitor overcame to reach this point.

No one can deny that Phelps was the face of the 2008 Games: his family received countless pans from the camera, a coy flirtation was played up with swimmer Amanda Beard, and his dating status was constantly alluded to. As for Mitcham? He remained comparatively sidelined, backgrounded, unmoored — his own family effectively edited out of the frame when NBC likely deemed it too much of a risk to show the conspicuous man seated with them who was obviously not his brother. Yes, you can argue that an athletic victory isn’t contingent upon a competitor’s orientation, but the flipside proves more problematic: the gay asterisk has a way of blunting what would otherwise be an across-the-board banner moment, and in that sense, it’s nothing if not relevant.

“Consider another angle: the lifestyle of an Olympic athlete who trains hundreds of hours a year, for upwards of a decade, travels 300 days or more per year, living each week in a new country for a camp or race series, and all the while, focused completely on one goal often years in the future. This is not conducive to a relationship. I thought I was the only gay athlete who felt like this, but apparently, it’s pretty common for many of us to hold out on figuring out our sexuality until after we’re done competing.”

Johnny Are You Queer

There’s that “L” word we’ve come to loathe: Lifestyle. It even sounds glossy, showy, and vacuous, like a scented magazine insert. If being gay was an identifiable physical trait like having a vestigial horn or a third eye, it would, frankly, be easier for everyone, but because it’s something that has to admitted to in order to be confirmed, the awkward couching of words and dancing around the subject gets tiresome.

The big pink elephant in the room
this time out is figure skater Johnny Weir, who’s given every conceivable visual cue of which way he swings — from slicing ice to the sounds of Lady Gaga to inviting an ESPN reporter for a manicure — without just uttering that final necessary affirmation. The ensuing “Johnny Are You Queer?” speculation/codespeak from commentators, journalists, and spectators (“He’s just flamboyant!”) alike has Weir apparently relishing in a guessing game with the most obvious of conclusions, left to serve by default as the male exemplar of a sport not just with perhaps the greatest degree of gay male participation, but also the greatest gay stigma ascribed to it.

Weir’s performances have involved a higher degree of difficulty, yet have proven to be glaringly underscored in comparison with more “safe” routines, leading spectators to cry foul — even the Christian Science Monitor acknowledged that Weir was the obvious and deserved crowd favorite — in a collective jeer that the sport is internally gridlocked in meeting its own vital gay inspirit halfway. Weir can walk away knowing he’s likely the most profitable and recognized American male figure skater with a boffo pro career ahead of him. Still, the outcome smacks of a great talent’s rightful due unjustly deferred for spurious reasons.

It’s this unspoken imbalance that keeps the Olympic playing field from being leveled: that extra hurdle gay athletes have to jump can too often slow their stride, falter their pace, daze their concentration, and ultimately put them out of the running.

  • Anonymous

    I agree that the ‘gay stigma’ is still ridiculously strong in athletics as a whole (though it seems like the walls are primed to start coming down over the next ten years as the rest of society relaxes), I disagree somewhat on Johnny Weir.

    Weir definitely was slighted by the scores, but the problem may have been less to do with his sexuality and more with the fact that he has a reality show and is fond of making ‘outrageous sound bites’. That may be code for ‘being too faggy’ but I doubt it. Figure skating can be elitist and Johnny has swung dangerously close to that ‘Tonya Harding / Nancy Kerrigan’ overexposed, T.M.I. territory and is possibly being looked down on for it. But in the end, the extremely detailed and somewhat convoluted scoring system may be the biggest reason Johnny didn’t get closer to the podium…and he certainly couldn’t have grabbed the Gold or Silver from Evan Lysacek and Evgeni Plushenko.

    At least Johnny turned in a solid program and had everyone on his side. His performances were able to outshine his considerable off-ice persona and that’s a win in itself (again, ask Tonya or Nancy). Plus, despite apparently having and ex-girlfriend (who is rooming with Johnny Weir no less), that Evan guy seems pretty gay. And I doubt that if he was indeed gay and out about it, the outcome of his Gold medal would have been any different…he turned in an amazing performance.

  • salieri1969

    Although it might seem unjust, gay athletes will probably never snag the big endorsement deals that mega-successful straight athletes can count on. Many advertisers need to appeal to a broad demographic, and let’s face it, we are always going to be a minority. As much as we’d love to see a gay athlete and his boyfriend bonding over popcorn shrimp in an Applebee’s ad, the majority of the straight public is not going to relate to that image. Even when homophobia is stamped out once and for all, normal human group dynamics will still be in play.

  • John

    I thought his performance was grand, and I love his personality (for what I’ve seen of it so far).

    Sadly, I’m no expert on figure-skating, and so my opinions aren’t worth much, but I definitely agreed with the commentators that Johnny deserved more appreciation and points for his program.

    But I might be a bit biased :p.

    Quite frankly, figure skating’s already considered to be a reasonably queer sport, and I honestly think that companies would do good to ignore the ‘gay component’ for advertising within this branch of sport, because everybody who likes watching this already knows that much. It’s not a shock, and I hardly think it’ll cause a drop in good PR…

    As usual, it’s all about business. It’s better to fill your pockets by appeasing the bigots than it is to pick a crowd favorite and take a (very small) chance…

  • bats :[

    What would Brian Boitano do?

    (sorry)

  • http://diederickabecker.blogspot.com/ Diederick

    Personally, my interest of sports isn’t limited to concerns of sexual orientation. I really enjoy watching guys work their body. I love gymnastics, diving – and the more bad boy stuff like parcours (free running/jumping, sort of stuff). Real athletes do not need heavy body armour and sticks and balls. The heterosexual’s obsession with spheric objects has always puzzled me…

    Really, I think the only reason athletics is so associated with gay men, is that – unlike all other sports – it really requires artists. You can’t be an athlete and not be an artist. And to put it plainly: I think it is not wrong to say gay men are more likely to be artistic, either by nature or because they are more open to it. It’s a logical association, matching beautiful sports with gay men, be it unfair to the straight percentage engaging in it.

    I think we can see this as a compliment, rather than another unfortunate stereotype.

  • Rick Prick

    Greg Louganis- PRRRR!!!

  • concerned mother

    As a concerned mother, I don’t want Twinkle Toes here skating in front of my kids. It’s bad enough that Disney, the CW and Sesame Street are trying to push the gay agenda. I don’t need it at the Ice Capades too!

  • Anonymous

    Ok, I think I’ve concluded that concerned mother is actually a fake.

  • sexual deviant

    and more than one person! A series of copycats!

  • sexual deviant

    its gary!

  • Anonymous

    “that extra hurdle gay athletes have to jump can too often slow their stride, falter their pace, daze their concentration, and ultimately put them out of the running.”

    See, this is the point. And it applies to other fields and lives as well.
    i seem to recall reading about a gay actor in an AfterElton blog who said how much easier he found acting to be after he came out, because before, there were all these additional arbitrary layers/abstractions due to self-consciousness. is this how a straight actor would play this role? that kind of thing. it’s like an act within an act. imagine how difficult such a double life must be. many of us are already always acting anyway, allowing people to assume we’re straight to avoid the drama and ire, and then to have to filter your work through the persona, too?
    it just sounds like too much to handle.

    Dealing with homophobia (I wish there was a better word for that) and its effect on your own psyche can really be a drain on your resources. who knows how many talented LGBT people just burn out early from the strain of developing their skills/talents while living with prejudice and bashing?

  • Klarth

    (oops, I forgot to post my handle. XD I have only myself to blame for that one.)