Or are we a lot closer to them than we think?
I was a competitive figure skater as a teen. Oh, I wasn’t any good—I started too late for that. But I spent my adolescence in several mildewy local rinks, twirling and daydreaming and landing on my ass more often than not. Most of the kids I skated with were girls. Most of the coaches I knew were women. But I worked with three male coaches over the years, in summer clinics and training camps…and all three of them were gay.
Plenty has been written elsewhere, about the USFSA, the various Olympic committees, and whether they’re constantly searching for The Great Straight Hope, in men’s figure skating. I don’t have the tools or the inclination to analyze this, now, to explore why and whether gay men might be disproportionately drawn to the sport. I mean, sequins and Stravinsky don’t have some inherent magical gay-making power. And I have no idea whether the men I knew were out at the time: to their other friends, their families, out in their public lives away from the rink. Looking back, I don’t remember it being a topic of discussion, either…more of an open secret. They were gay. We all just knew, and didn’t care.
Tony taught me my first rudimentary spins, the coiled etchings of my blade on the ice like a plate of spaghetti. (Tony also lost his shit and screamed at me when, during rehearsals for the annual ice show/recital, I botched his vision, tripped, and collapsed in mortified, giggling paralysis.) Ryan was a brilliant choreographer, a prankster, a wiseass. Ryan swapped books with my mom, danced with me at somebody’s wedding. Alexi spoke English as a second language. “More slow, please,” he’d beg me, when my breakneck teen-girl blithering proved impenetrable. They were my teachers, friends, fixtures in my world. They were just people.This was the mid-to-late 1980s. A history lesson in another disproportionate percentage: two of these stories end badly. Tony died of AIDS-related complications while I was away at college; first he vanished, then he died. I heard at roughly the same time that Ryan was sick. That’s how I was told, in that circle: a half-whisper, low tones, already too late. Someone was Sick. Ryan is…Sick. “Oh, Ryan, be careful,” my mother had blurted, once, the lone time AIDS had somehow come up in conversation. I remember that he promised that he would. Whether he was or wasn’t, I couldn’t know. Maybe it already didn’t matter. Ryan hung on, fought like hell in fact, for 17 years…but died a decade ago at 42. Younger than I am now.
I associate the “SILENCE = DEATH” message with the ACT UP movement in the same late 80s-early 90s period. I’d remembered it as both a demand for more research into HIV and AIDS, better medicine, a cure…and an exhortation not to remain silent—to protect each other by practicing safe sex, keeping everyone informed, being aware of one’s HIV status. But it turns out that, all along, it also meant being open about one’s true self, gay, straight, bi, trans…so that by calling attention to prejudice, oppression, danger, we can fight against it and root it out. From the Silence = Death Project’s manifesto: “’silence about the oppression and annihilation of gay people, then and now, must be broken as a matter of our survival.’ The slogan thus protested both taboos around discussion of safer sex and the unwillingness of some to resist societal injustice and governmental indifference.”
This is why I’m watching the Sochi Olympics, why I couldn’t bring myself to support a boycott. Russia’s discriminatory policies and human rights violations are an offense, and they deserve—NEED—to be called out on the world stage. I’m proud and protective of the brave athletes from around the world who are willing to defy these wrongs, in whatever large or small way they can: Ashley Wagner rainbowing it up. Alexey Sobolev making Bob Costas invoke the name “Pussy Riot” on national television. Brian Boitano, realizing that saying nothing is just another form of silence.
And this is why NBC’s decision to excise those portions of the IOC President’s speech so grates upon me. Matt and Meredith spent a lot of last night’s narrative talkin’ ‘bout Putin: how these were his Games, his message, his stage…almost as if he were single-handedly pulling every cable on the floating schoolgirl, twirling inflatable onion domes, and light-up hockey players swinging from the stadium roof. Putin, Putin, Putin! But if we don’t talk about why we’re talking about Putin—or why he is intimidating, sinister, sitting up there in his box like a reptilian cyborg—then we’re silencing ourselves. We’re silencing the good people fighting for change: those who are gay, those who aren’t, all of us just people like the coaches I knew. And silence = acceptance. Silence = the continuing wait for a cure. Silence = discrimination, imprisonment, getting beaten to death on the street or trapped inside a burning nightclub. So don’t give in, don’t give up. Be loud. Shout and cheer, for your team, your athletes…and for their humanity. For everyone you and they know and love.