Olympians Adam Rippon and Gus Kenworthy on Mike Pence, Visibility, and Becoming Gay Icons

February 12, 2018, 5:37 PM UTC

There are only two openly gay athletes on Team USA at this year’s winter Olympics: figure skater Adam Rippon and freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy.

Their new friendship and visibility at the games has already sparked some criticism, but there has mostly been an outpouring of support from the LGBTQ community and allies.

Other athletes have come out as part of the LGBTQ community after their Olympic careers, but this is first time that American athletes who are competing in the winter games are openly gay.

Adam Rippon

Rippon, 28, is the first openly gay athlete to make a U.S. winter Olympic team. He came out in 2015 after the “gay propaganda” law Russia implemented ahead of the 2014 Sochi Games. The law made it illegal to promote “nontraditional” sexual relationships to minors.

The skater makes his Olympic debut after narrowly missing making the team in 2010 and 2014. He trains with and competes against Nathan Chen, a gold medal hopeful ten years his junior. But it’s Rippon’s sexual orientation, rather than his age, that has garnered attention. He is the oldest male figure skater competing on team USA this year, and the oldest figure skater to make his first trip to the Olympics since 1939.

“Being gay has never been a big deal to me, which is why it’s a little funny to be getting all this attention about it,” he told GQ.

Rippon gave a strong performance Sunday night to help the U.S. secure the bronze medal in team figure skating.

Before the games began, he voiced his concern over the decision of Vice President Mike Pence leading the Team USA Olympic delegation, turning down a meeting with Pence ahead of the opening ceremony.

“You mean Mike Pence, the same Mike Pence that funded gay conversion therapy?” he told USA Today. “I’m not buying it.”

The vice president responded on Twitter, but Rippon remains skeptical.

On Monday, Rippon said he would likely boycott any visit by Team USA to the White House in order to support the LGBTQ community.

Gus Kenworthy

Freestyle skier Kenworthy also came out as gay in 2015. This is the second Olympic Games for the 26-year-old silver medalist, but it’s his first time representing Team USA since coming out.

Kenworthy has also used his platform for a message of inclusion. “I’m incredibly honored to be here in Korea competing for the US and I’m so proud to be representing the LGBTQ community alongside this amazing guy!” he captioned a photo of himself and Rippon on Instagram. “Eat your heart out, Pence.”

“I think that the only way to change perception is through visibility, through representation,” he told the Washington Post, adding that he hopes to be a role model for younger athletes.

Kenworthy will compete with the U.S. slopestyle skiing team on Saturday. The team is expected to be medal contenders after taking home the silver in Sochi in 2014.

Gay Athletes at the Olympics

Former president Barack Obama sent tennis legend Billie Jean King as part of the U.S. Olympic delegation in 2014 at the Sochi winter games, sending a critical message of Putin’s anti-gay laws.

The delegation for the closing ceremony in Sochi also included Caitlin Cahow, a two-time Olympic medalist in ice hockey, and Brian Boitano, who won the 1988 gold medal for figure skating—both openly gay athletes who were closeted during their time representing Team USA.

A record number of LGBTQ athletes participated in the 2016 summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with more than 40 openly lesbian, gay, and bisexual competitors representing countries from around the world.

Team USA in Rio included four openly lesbian players on the women’s basketball team: Delle Donne, Brittney Griner, Seimone Augustus, and Angel McCoughtry. The majority of LGBTQ representation at the games has been by women competitors.

But the last time the U.S. sent an openly gay man to the Olympics was in 2004 when Robert Dover, who came out in 1988, won a bronze medal in team dressage, a summer Olympics event.

Rippon and Kenworthy both emphasize the importance of being out and visible on this international stage and the significance for LGBTQ athletes in years to come.

“The next athletes who come out won’t be ‘gay Olympians.’ We’ll just call them ‘Olympians,’ ” Rippon told GQ. “Which is what they are, and what I am.”