Avenging Johnny Weir: Overcoming The Louganis Factorby Shawn Baker
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?’”
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.”
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.”
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.