OUT ON THE ICE: PART ONE

From the outside, figure skating might look like a queer haven, a space where LGBTQ+ athletes can be out and open… but inside of the sport? That couldn’t be farther from the reality.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Hey everyone –– my name is Ari Saperstein and I’m the host of Blind Landing. 

If you haven’t heard the show before, Blind Landing is a documentary podcast and each season we look at the culture of a different sport. Last year, we released the first season of Blind Landing, which went behind the scenes in the world of elite gymnastics. And now, for our second season of Blind Landing, we’ve got a handful of new stories about the world… of… figure skating. 

We’re gonna be getting up close and personal with some of the biggest names in figure skating, like Adam Rippon and Kristi Yamaguchi –– and some skaters you might not know, but should, like Mia Kalin and Mabel Fairbanks. Today’s episode is the first of a three part story.

So I started off the very first episode of Blind Landing by explaining that I’m a journalist, not a gymnast. And I think it’s worth saying right now that I am… also not a figure skater! I couldn’t tell you an axel from a lutz. Until recently, I thought it was “sow-cow”, not salchow, that the jump was an allusion to cows, somehow? I am so, so not a figure skating expert. 

But when I was a kid, , there was something about figure skating that left a big impact on me… see, I associate figure skating with the first time I remember hearing about gay people –– long before I knew that I was gay, before I really knew what being “gay” even meant. 

And that’s because there’s this widespread stereotype about men in figure skating being queer, a stereotype that I remember seeing everywhere when I was growing up. I just remember seeing so many TV shows and movies where it was a joke or punchline like… in Friends…

ARCHIVAL AUDIO:

You know, I’m an ice dancer, all my friends are gay. I was just trying to fit in. 

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host):… and Sex And The City 

ARCHIVAL AUDIO:

He’s a bisexual.

Well I could’ve told you that, sweetie.  He took you ice skating, for God’s sake.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): … and The Simpsons! 

ARCHIVAL AUDIO:

Don’t you hags know that all male figure skaters are twinkly in the lutz?

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): And I mean, there’s Blades Of Glory, an entire movie essentially predicated on this stereotype… so I’ve always thought that the world of figure skating is a space that was a) full of queer people, especially queer men and b) where queer people were out and about, in every sense. 

Until… I talked to my friend Chris.  

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): Oh Ari… sweet young innocent naive Ari… 

ARI: (laughs) OK so I’m sitting here with Chris Schleicher, the resident figure skater in my life. And Chris.. It was about four, five months ago I think that we were talking on the phone, when I told you about my perception of figure skating and you… basically…. laughed in my face, yeah?

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): Oh, no… I think that sounds way too mean…  it was more like a… condescending chuckle, right?

ARI: Yeah that sounds about right….

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): In all fairness, of course you’re not alone in that presumption of skating being a queer haven… I’ve heard that from so, soooo many people in my life… and I can’t help but laugh because it is just so different from my lived experience. 

I’m a former figure skater. I used to compete as a pair team with my younger sister on the national level. From age 5 to 21, figure skating was my life. And that gay stereotype… like you, I was also aware of it, very aware of it, from a young age –– because kids on the playground were throwing it in my face all the time. Everyone was telling me that I was gay before I had any awareness of my sexuality. 

You’d think Inside the sport that it would be safer than the playground –– you’d think I could twirl around to my hearts content… but in fact, on the ice, I was constantly  told I was doing the gay sport too gay. Judges told me that my style was too “soft” and “artistic” and I needed to look “stronger” as the boy in a pair team.  A coach once slapped my limp wrist and directly told me outright, “Don’t do that, it looks gay.” I learned quick that the skating world was well aware of the gay stereotype… and was not into it.

ARI: To what degree do you think that was just, you know, your specific experience as a skater? 

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): Every male skater I know, no matter their sexuality, was asked to conform to a very narrow idea of how a man should appear on the ice. And for me? living through that pressure left me with a really complicated relationship to my masculinity and sexuality, to what I was allowed to be.  

I was participating in one of the most stereotypically gay sports on the planet and I didn’t come out a couple months after I retired. My brain just did not feel like it was an option for me while I was still inside sport. 

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): You know Chris hearing you describe this its just so different from my perception. Watching the Olympics over the years, I guess I always assumed that a lot of the male skaters I was seeing were queer and publicly out.

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): Well, the reality is: the US didn’t send an out figure skater to the Olympics until 2018, when Adam Rippon was named to the team. 

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): That seems… impossible.

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): Yeah, you know, when I tell people this fact, that’s always the reaction — “there must’ve been someone else!”…. “It’s figure skating, for crying out loud!”… And I get it! 

ADAM RIPPON: Yeah, it is completely unbelievable to me that I was the first. 

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): Even Adam Rippon he gets why people are surprised.

​​ADAM RIPPON: I mean all the time I don’t believe it. It feels unbelievable. And it was just something I’m like, ‘this can’t be true in 2018.’

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): And part of the reason it’s surprising is because there’s a truth with figure skating’s gay stereotype –– for decades, there have been gay skaters at the Olympics, gay Olympic champions even… but none were out before Adam. Olympics aside, Adam Rippon is on a very short list of skaters who’ve come out during their careers. 

To understand why there haven’t been more out skaters, why it took so long for there to be an openly queer skater at the Olympics, you have to understand what happens behind the scenes… that in a sport where the male skaters are presumed to be gay, there’s been a culture of fear, a culture where queer skaters have been told that being themselves is not okay. 

ADAM RIPPON: I was just always, always, always trying to like, appease and appeal to these people who like, we’re in charge of my destiny. And I did all of the right things. I did everything everyone asked me to do and it would still just fall short. 

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Over the next three episodes, we’ll be hearing from some of the top skaters in the world, skaters from across generations and try to get to the bottom of this great contradiction: that the so-called “world’s gayest sport” has had a problem with gay people.

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): And this story… it’s a story that goes beyond just the experiences of gay men, but of all queer skaters, of all marginalized skaters in the sport: a history of intense pressure to conform and the bravery of skaters willing to put everything on the line for something greater than gold.

ELIOT HALVERSON: I knew what the path was going to look like, and it was terrifying 

AMBER GLENN: I didn’t really see myself and what I wanted to be in another skater.  

TIM GOEBEL: I wasn’t going to like get up on my Olympic press conference and be like, “Oh, and by the way, I’m gay,”

ARCHIVAL AUDIO: I’m sorry I don’t need to see a prima ballerina on the ice.

TIMOTHY LEDUC: I’ve really tried to find authenticity, and part of that was speaking publicly about my gender and my sexuality

ADAM RIPPON: Being the best you can be — that’s when you really feel the most satisfied.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): I’m Ari Saperstein

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): and I’m Chris Schleicher

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): And this.. Is Blind Landing.

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): “Out On The Ice”: Part One

To understand where the gay stereotype with figure skating comes from, if there’s any truth to it and what it’s really like for queer skaters in the sport… we have to go back. Way back — to the origins of figure skating in the 1800s. Now Ari, I’m gonna show you some photos of skaters from the 1800s and maybe you can describe them.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): OK, I’m looking at pictures and it is {laughs}… oh my god, okay so literally, it’s men in three-piece tuxedos and top hats.

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): Yes, the fashion inspiration is very much… Mr. Peanut. These look like guys who know how to do a figure eight without spilling one drop of their martini. And is there anything else that stands out to you?

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Yeah, I mean looking at these photos… It looks like it’s mostly men on the ice…

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): Actually, it’s not just mostly men –– it’s only men.

MARY LOUISE ADAMS: So the early days of skating was done pretty much exclusively by men. These were white, wealthy aristocratic men in Europe, and then in North America.

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): This is Mary Louise Adams, a sociologist who wrote a book on the history of gender and sexuality in figure skating. 

MARY LOUISE ADAMS: They weren’t trying to be artistic. So, it was this kind of upper class, stiff, masculine team sport, and they were wearing very constraining, and constricting clothing.  

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Okay so this thing that we think of today as a quote “girls sport” actually started the opposite–– as a mens-only sport. Wow.

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host):  And even back then, there was a heated discussion happening about whether or not the men looked masculine enough on the ice…

MARY LOUISE ADAMS: The English people were skating to confirm your masculine identity, to become stronger, and they actually looked down on the European skaters who were trying to make an artistic impression.

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): Here we see the roots of an idea that’s still pervasive today: The idea that being too expressive or artistic is a sign of femininity.

MARY LOUISE ADAMS: And the British people would kind of slag off the Europeans for doing this fay thing. And then the Europeans, they look at the British people and like ‘why wouldn’t you want to be artistic? Why would you not want to use this incredible possibility to express yourself?

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): So we see this conflict about how men should appear on the ice since the beginning of the sport–– with some men wanting to express themselves, and other people worried they’ll seem effeminate. It plays out again and again throughout the history of skating… especially once it has that label of being a “girls’ sport”…

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): OK, and how exactly did figure skating get that label though? When does it go from this mens-only sport to one that not only has women, but where women are the face of it?

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): So women start skating in the early 1900s, and the image of figure skating changes really because of one woman…

ARCHIVAL AUDIO:

…Winter Olympics, Switzerland, February 1936. Sonja Henie, queen of figure skaters for ten years, wins her third consecutive championships…

…Sonja Henie of Norway, who won, has been queen of the ice for many years…

…Lovely to look at was Sonja Henie as she cut superb figures on ice…

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): She’s an icon, she’s a legend, and she is the moment. Now come on now… it’s Sonja Henie!

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Okay Chris, I can tell by your tone that this is someone I should know, but I’m embarrassed to say I have no idea who this person is…

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): Oh my god, Ari… you’re so lucky you have me here… Okay, Sonja Henie is like… what would you compare her to… Well, the best analogy I can think of is she’s like the 1930s version of The Rock. 

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): As in… Dwayne The Rock Johnson?

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): Correct. 

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Okay, I can’t wait to hear this. Please, continue.

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): By the mid-1930s, Sonja Henie is hands-down the best figure skater in the world, having won the Olympic title three times and, like The Rock, finds herself at the peak of her athletic accomplishments… and it’s this moment that Sonja, like The Rock, makes the transition from athlete… to movie star.

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…Sonja Henie, world champion skater, whose youthful charm and acting ability have brought her into the front brink of Hollywood’s world star…

…Broadway and Hollywood beckon, and Sonja’s silver skates earn gold…

MARY LOUISE ADAMS: Sonja Henie goes to Hollywood, but then the skating that she presents in those films… that then becomes what people think figure skating is. And it’s kind of — it’s show skating, right? Like, she’s wearing the costumes, she created this very sparkly version of femininity. So then as people are becoming exposed to skating for the first time, that’s what they’re becoming exposed to. 

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): Figure skating wasn’t mainstream yet; It was still kind of a niche thing. There weren’t TVs yet, so very few people had seen the Olympics unless they went to the games themselves. So watching Sonja Henie on the big screen, for a lot of people, it was their first time seeing figure skating — this is kind of like America’s introduction to the sport.

And what happens is people who never skated before start skating because of this glitzy image of Sonja Henie in sequined dresses with cap sleeves, these bedazzled showgirl costumes… and she’s doing all this choreography, and it’s set to music… and life imitates art. The sport does away with the stuffy, expressionless style from the 1800s, and gets remade in Sonja Henie’s image…

ARCHIVAL AUDIO:

…Skating time is naturally fashion time. Leading designers have just been showing what you must wear on the ice…

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): And the other effect of Sonja Henie is this gender reversal of skating. Tons and tons of young girls start skating, while at the same time men stop skating — in part because they’re off fighting the war –– and that’s how skating gets the “girls sport” label.

MARY LOUISE ADAMS: … and so with Sonja Henie, with the adults being preoccupied by the war… all of those things go together to kind of produce the “girls’ sport.”

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): And basically, once figure skating got the feminine label — of being a, quote, “girls’ sport” — there was no going back. 

MARY LOUISE ADAMS: the image of the sport, like no amazing male athlete ever was really capable of changing the reputation of the sport once perceptions changed and it was- it was more considered to be a sport that was more suitable for girls. 

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): And not long after, the “girls sport” label evolves into a “gay sport” label. That’s after the break…

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Before the break, we heard about how, in just a few short decades, figure skating went from a men’s-only sport to one not just filled with women, but feminized — by the influence of Sonja Henie. 

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): And soon after, that’s when the stereotype about men in figure skating being gay starts.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): And why is that, exactly?

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): Well, we usually see this play out the opposite way, right? Think about the stereotypes about women who play basketball or do weightlifting… women participating in sports of get presumed to be queer because they’re seen as doing something “masculine”. But figure skating… because women are the face of it, and it’s filled with feminine-coded aspects like choreography and costumes… figure skating is this totally rare instance where it’s the men that get presumed to be gay because of the sport that they’re doing.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): And we should probably note here that, of course, there’s gendered expectations that are oppressive for skaters of all gender expression and sexualities — and we’ll be hearing from queer women, and trans, and non-binary skaters later on in the story… but for right now, we’re going to focus on unpacking the stereotype about gay men in the sport, the reasons for it, and the consequence of it.

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): So, when figure skating gets the “girls’ sport” label starting in the 1940s, it drives a lot of men away from the sport. But for a certain type of young boy, skating like Sonja Henie is the dream: like Tab Hunter, one of the earliest gay skaters we know about.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Okay a lot of people our age may not know who Tab Hunter is, but I do because I’m a movie buff, so I just want to give some context here: he was a 1950s movie star and one of the teen heartthrobs of his generation. 

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host):  And before Tab Hunter became ‘Tab Hunter the movie star,’ he was a competitive skater… and in his autobiography, he says that Sonja Henie inspired him to get into the sport, writing, quote:  When I was little I had kept a framed photograph of Sonja Henie beside my bed, and every night I’d finish my prayers with “and God bless Sonja Henie,” and kiss her picture.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): I’m inferring that he’s kissing the photo in more of a queer-man-idolizing-Cher-or-Liza-or-Judy kind of way than a romantic kind of way? 

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): Uh, yeah, 100% the former. And Tab, he’s just one of a number of gay skaters from this time: there’s Robin Greiner and Ronnie Robertson — both competed at the 1956 Olympics — and a number of skaters in the 1960s and ‘70s.  The ‘72, ‘76, and ‘80 Olympic Champions? All gay. Now, of course, none of these men were publicly out at the time.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Ok so it sounds like there’s long been some truth to the stereotype of gay men in figuring skating. 

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): Definitely some truth. I kind of feel like there’s at least one of us in every rink, but that’s just my intuition. There’s never been a mass survey of the sexuality of elite figure skaters, despite me constantly petitioning Congress for that funding! I’d say the general consensus is that most skaters are straight, but there’s always been a good number of gay men in skating. 

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): I meean, it makes sense because historically queer people have long been drawn to creative and artistic spaces.

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): I mean just look at us: a pair of gay men doing our storytelling hour.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Ironically we are in a closet.

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): And while not all queer men are effeminate — and not all straight men are traditionally masculine — many of the men who lean into the effeminate side of skating also happen to be gay. And in the ‘70s, this was true of the two biggest names in men’s skating, two men that were pushing the sport to new artistic heights: Toller Cranston and John Curry.

MARY LOUISE ADAMS: Toller Cranston, his skating was very theatrical.

TOLLER CRANSTON: What I think that I brought was a certain spontaneity, and a certain flaunting in the face of inhibition.

MARY LOUISE ADAMS: … and then John Curry’s thing was more about trying to represent ballet on the ice.

JOHN CURRY: I was trying to do something different, something that hadn’t been done with skating before — which was drawing from the world of theater and dance. 

MARY LOUISE ADAMS: They really challenged the norms of what was considered acceptable in the sport.

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): And throughout their careers, Toller Cranston and John Curry both get critiques for their effeminacy, with people behind the scenes telling them to “tone it down” …being told that judges wouldn’t give them good scores because they’re queer. And it’s not just judges, but also coaches, and other skaters, and officials — a collective of people let’s call ‘the skating establishment’.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): So does that end up limiting how far they’re able to go in the sport?

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): Amazingly enough, in spite of the pushback they get, they both medal at the 1976 Olympics because,well, they’re the best on both an artistic and technical level, John Curry in particular. He has this crowd absolutely roaring every time he lands another jump. And the scores from the judges for artistic presentation? They’re near perfect.

[SOUND OF CROWD CHEERING]

ARCHIVAL AUDIO:

Truly one of the finest, most beautiful moments of skating I have ever seen, and he knows it!

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): And what happens is that at those 1976 games, John Curry, the Olympic champion… gets outed by the press. 

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): What?

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): The news breaks during the Olympics… and the day after winning the gold medal,  Curry holds a press conference where reporters are asking questions about his “masculinity” and “virility”… 

ARCHIVAL AUDIO:

JOHN CURRY: I,  at the time, thought if I said to a journalist “this is off the record,” that it meant that they wouldn’t say anything about it.  Well, of course that was not the case.

iNTERVIEWER: It upset you clearly.

JOHN CURRY: A lot of people said that I, quote, “came out” at the Olympic, but I didn’t… I never set out, intentionally, to make a statement…  

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): …but Curry doubles down, and owns his sexuality… 

ARCHIVAL AUDIO:

JOHN CURRY: …but then having done it I’m not going to turn around and say that a) its not true or b) that I think it’s wrong, or I’m ashamed of it, or anything else, which I…not the case.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Wow, so in 1976 there’s an out-Olympic champion.

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): Well, an out-ed Olympic champion. And Curry’s skating career… it really ends there. After that season he retired, and people pretended like it didn’t happen. The story gets kind of buried; it’s almost like there’s a silent pact to not talk about it and move on— from the press, from the skating establishment, and even from Curry. 

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): So the Olympic figure skating champion is openly gay, but that doesn’t move the needle in the skating world at all?

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): On the one hand, yes, Curry showed that it was possible for a gay man to be a champion in skating, even while sticking to his own style. But it certainly doesn’t make it the norm. And even if queer skaters are gaining an inch of freedom on the ice, outside the rink there’s still a whole world of homophobia in the 1970s to contend with. It’s not surprising that dealing with that outright hatred would make them feel unsafe being themselves. And that? That was the world that Randy Gardner was growing up in…

RANDY GARDNER: The generation before me, the men had to really be in the closet. It was illegal activity. Yeah, I don’t know what they did, then. I don’t know how they handled it. You know, God bless them.

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): Randy Gardner was just starting his career while both Cranston and Curry were at their peaks. When Randy was growing up in the 1970s, he remembers people making presumptions about his sexuality long before he had any awareness of it…

RANDY GARDNER: When I was younger, I was teased, you know, ‘freaking faggot’ and all that kind of stuff. And then when we were a little more successful and things, the other boys and girls kind of got it. I kind of, maybe, just got better because of that … maybe did it in spite… or like ‘i’ll show them’ type of thing.

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): And in spite of kids taunting Randy for skating ––for doing this “gay sport” –– Randy has success competing in the pairs event with his skating partner, Tai Babilonia. 

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Alright, Chris. Pairs figure skating— this is your area of expertise, right?

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): Yeah— so, just a sidebar here: I skated with my sister for a number of years, and… okay the thing about pairs is that because it’s a co-ed sport between a man and woman, there’s often this pressure to look like you’re romantic partners. 

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Oh my god, Chris! That must have been so uncomfortable for you and your sister.

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): Yeah, well, thankfully, people didn’t push it on us because of the whole being-related-by blood-thing. So, as siblings instead of “Romeo and Juliet,” the storyline in our programs was usually something more like,  “hey, isn’t it fun to DANCE?!”… but we were the exception to this long standing expectation…

RANDY GARDNER: They tried to make us a couple all the time. I think by nature of a pair team, that’s sort of built in. So people thought we maybe were boyfriend/girlfriend or married, later on. I ignored it because I had to kind of go with it, so it didn’t… it didn’t affect me that much personally, because I knew it was sort of the way it was part of the game. 

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): That game–– pressure to perform hetero romance on the ice–– was one that Randy was being asked to play right as he started become aware of his queerness off the ice.

RANDY GARDNER:  I compartmentalized a lot of stuff, and it wasn’t a great thing but I had to do it. I definitely was in the closet as a boy. I knew I was different. And then, now this is in the ‘70s, so it was really different. And, you know, I was very focused. I was great at putting myself in denial, but it got me through a lot of stuff. It’s not the healthiest thing to do, and it’s not recommended, but it’s what I had to do. The skating, training and all that stuff … that was number one …

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): So through his teens, Randy puts part of himself to the side and with his skating partner Tai, they just dominate –– five-time US champions, and they win the 1979 World Championships… 

ARCHIVAL AUDIO:

… US and World Champions, Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner …

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): … and right in the midst of that career success, all those career firsts, Randy achieves a number first.

RANDY GARDNER: My very first boyfriend was Robin Cousins …

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): Robin Cousins –– the top male figure skater in the World at the time … 

RANDY GARDNER: … and we had to keep it a secret, because being gay on the … like the Olympic stage, and the world stage, an elite athlete, you had to be careful. So I had to sort of lie, and not be truthful about all that. And then word kind of got out, and John Nicks, our coach, took me and my dad in and said “so we have to like, put a squelch on this, these rumors or. You know, people talking, so we kind of had to be on the down low, Robin and I… And we’d have to sneak off to be together.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Ugh. That is so wild. These two skating superstars — together … but they have to keep it a secret.

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): Not only that, but when Randy talks about sneaking off on the Olympic stage, he means, like,  literally at the 1980 games…

RANDY GARDNER: In Lake Placid, we found, like, empty trailers so we could go hang out, and do our thing — in the Olympic Village! It was crazy. It was our own little capsule that we created. It was love. It was that, you know, embracing that feeling. Having a partner. We were sort of in our own little world, which felt really good.

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): After the 1980 Olympics, Randy retires, and then he starts touring in ice shows to earn a living–– and that’s when a whole new world opens to him…

RANDY GARDNER: When we turned pro in 1980 and did Ice Capades, and did all that, I was 22. It was a nice turning point, because people in the show were gay … and being back there, backstage, you know, your world is backstage. On the tour bus or the planes, at the hotels with this big family so everybody was accepting. So I was like, oh my God, this is a great. You know, there are people like me, and it all felt good, and nobody cared. There was this, sort of, family that embraced all that, and it was like our own little circus world.  And nobody could get in …

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): But of course it’s just a little bit of freedom, and only in this little bubble. When he has to re-enter the outside world, it’s still pretty tough for a gay guy like Randy.

RANDY GARDNER: … And that was 1980, and still there was not any time to really come out. I didn’t want to. It was still a little scary. I was uncomfortable being out in public, and that’s why being in the show for those first three years, I could go back to that world where I could just fit in.

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): And that push/pull — having one foot in the world with his chosen family, one foot in the world with everyone else — it made it impossible for Randy to merge his private and public self for a really, really long time.

RANDY GARDNER: My parents were alive then, and they weren’t against it, but to come out publicly is a whole different thing … and I didn’t really publicly come out till I was 50— publicly, publicly.

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): For Randy’s generation, even if there was some private acceptance or mild public acceptance, by and large queer people couldn’t be “out and proud.”

RANDY GARDNER: … and a lot of people are in the closet for a lot of reasons— whether it’s religion, parents, society, career. Coming out is not an easy thing to do.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Hearing Randy’s fears, I mean, I get it. We’re talking about an era where homosexuality was catagorized as a mental disorder … when public figures like Jerry Fallwell and Anita Bryant were campaigning against gay rights … when it was a crime for men to have sex with men … 

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): And if all that wasn’t difficult enough, it’s also around this time that a new fear enters the public consciousness…

ARCHIVAL AUDIO:

It’s mysterious, it’s deadly, and it’s baffling medical science: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Once thought only to affect promiscuous homosexual males, AIDS is now spreading in epidemic proportions to other segments of the population…

RANDY GARDNER: It was a very, very dark time and it was scary. I was in my 20s and I was losing all these friends.

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): For the first twenty years of what was called the “AIDS crisis,” men who have sex with men make up about half of all HIV infections… And because there are a lot of gay men in the world of skating, it’s not long before the epidemic impacts the sport. 

RANDY GARDNER: This is in the ‘80s, you know, ‘83, ‘87, ‘88, into the 90s. Every day you got a phone call that someone was sick. And in those days, they didn’t last that long. If you got the call it was like, you better go see them today, because you might not be able to. Tai and I used to keep a list, and then we stopped because it got too much. I’m still burnt from that whole thing, because there are so many people that we lost that can be doing so much good for everybody now. 

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): Even though AIDS is tearing through the skating community, no one’s really talking about it. Through the 80s and early 90s, US Figure Skating doesn’t say anything, avoids publicly commenting on AIDS. And then in 1992, there’s this big exposé that comes out, detailing the deaths of dozens of skaters and coaches from HIV-related illnesses… and in this sad way, the AIDS crisis is what, for the first time, confirms just how many gay men are a part of the world of figure skating. And a lot of these guys are outed posthumously because of their cause of death. They were never able to comment on it when they were alive… but some brave skaters were able to speak up, and one of the first skaters to talk openly about AIDS was someone we heard from earlier: Olympic Champion, John Curry.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Yeah, so I was looking through some newspaper archives, and I found the last interview that John Curry gave before passing away in 1994— and in it, he is just brutally honest about how scared he was around disclosing his HIV status.  He said: I thought people would snarl at me and say, ‘Keep away from me you leper.’ I was afraid that people would throw bricks through the window. I think the more open people are, the easier it gets for everyone else, because it demystifies it. I don’t want others to be frightened like I was.

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): Given those fears, it makes sense why Curry wouldn’t want his HIV status known publicly. But apart from those emotional reasons, there were also legal and financial reasons why skaters like Curry felt like they had to stay silent. There were travel bans on people with HIV/AIDS from entering the US — bans that would make it impossible for a skater to tour and earn a living. 

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): It really just sounds like there was just so.. much… fear…

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): You know, there was… but there were also glimmers of hope. John Curry’s wish for the silence to end comes true. In the early 90s, top level skaters were participating in benefits to raise money for AIDS research, and in 1993, US Figure Skating started educating its skaters about safe sex and HIV/AIDS at official training camps. They were no longer pretending like this crisis wasn’t happening. But, even though they talked about a topic that affected the queer community, they were far from embracing the idea of openly queer skaters.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): That is so sad that something as big as the AIDS crisis wasn’t enough of a wake up call for the culture in figure skating to start changing.

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): The changing of a culture, sometimes it doesn’t happen top down. Sometimes you need some rabble rousers on the edges, people making change instead of waiting for it to happen…

ARCHIVAL AUDIO:

I think we’re all united in the hope that, one day, this glorious flag will fly over a country that treats all its citizens the same.

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): In the early 90s, something remarkable happened in the greater sporting world outside of the “official” competitions …

ARCHIVAL AUDIO:

… all those times growing up, looking around thinking I don’t belong, I don’t fit— look at this! We fit.

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host):

Thousands of queer athletes decide to get together and do something different. If there wasn’t any gay presence in the Olympics, they were going to have their own damn Olympics…

ARCHIVAL AUDIO:

… Gay Games …

… the Gay Games …

… the Gay Olympics! That’s what it really is — the Gay Olympics.

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): This is the 1994 Gay Games…an Olympics for queer athletes. And the 1994 Gay Games in New York City are remarkable for a number of reasons: first and foremost, the staggering scope of the event…

ARCHIVAL AUDIO: 

… with almost eleven thousand athletes from 44 countries, participating in 31 different events, the Gay Games are the world’s largest, competitive athletic competition … 

CHRIS SCHLEICHER (host): The Gay Games — it puts the spotlight on the existence of gay athletes.  And there’s figure skating at the Gay Games!  Not from people at the Olympic level, but there were even some retired elite skaters there.  And it shows, not just that we’re here and we’re queer, but that we’re not going anywhere. The 1990s … it feels like the start of a new chapter –– it starts to feel possible that openly queer athletes might soon reach the highest levels of sport … 

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Next time on Blind Landing: one skater who made himself undeniable … who was going to be himself on the public stage, whether you liked it or not… 

RUDY GALINDO: I’m like – okay, you know,  I could start out with a navy costume and strip down to, like, YMCA …

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): That’s next time on “Out On The Ice,” a story from Blind Landing.

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