Monday, January 28, 2008

Heeeere's Johnny!

Last night I had planned on watching the UConn Women’s Basketball team trounce Notre Dame, but while cruising through the channels I came upon the U.S. National Figure Skating Championships men’s final free skate.

Evan Lysacek, the defending champion, was in second place to Johnny Weir, the former three time champ, after the short program. Now, I know next to nothing about figure skating (Except that you are not allowed to whack your opponent across the knees with a baseball bat right before the competition. Thank you, Tonya Harding). My own ice skating choreography is limited to the combination of a single toe stumble followed by a double arm windmill culminating in a double cheek butt slam (Ouch). Nonetheless, men’s figure skating in general, and Johnny Weir in particular do capture my attention because, in the words of junior high school students everywhere, it is so gay (not that there is anything wrong with that).

Much to the dismay of national and international skating officials, men’s figure skating has always been perceived as a “gay” sport what with all the sequins, make-up and leotard tops. And truth be told, there probably are lots of gay male figure skaters, a few of whom have come out publicly: Rudy Galindo, Brian Orser, and John Curry to name three prominent gay skaters.

Alas, figure skating governing organizations and judges are very conservative about their gender politics. They like the women to be child-like, frilly and feminine, not too athletic or muscular, please. They like the men to butch it up on the ice: More quad jumps and “classic elegance” (read masculine choreography, whatever that is),” and less “flamboyance” and fewer sequins (read gay). Suffice it to say that men’s figure skating is a teensy bit defensive about its gay image. In pairs competition, heterosexual pairs only, of course. Same-sex pairs are strictly verboten.

Johnny Weir loves sequins. He has described his costumes as “princessy.” He refuses to “butch it up” on or off the ice. Commentators describe his skating style as “lyrical,” “artistic,” and “flamboyant” which, of course, means “gay.” Johnny must drive the figure skating establishment nuts. I bet they were all rooting for Evan Lysacek last night. (FYI, Evan did win even though he and Johnny had the same number of points. Apparently the free skate, which Evan won, carries more weight in the scoring).

Speculation about Johnny’s sexual orientation is rampant on the internet. He certainly gets my gaydar twanging. Johnny, however, has not come out. He maintains that who he sleeps with is no one’s business but his. In a bizarre twist, he has been publicly criticized for not coming out by a really snarky gay guy, Mark Lund, who is head of International Figure Skating and Rudy Galindo, an openly gay former national champion who has taken over Leona Helmsley’s title as the Queen of Mean.

Some heterosexual reporters have defended Johnny’s refusal to identify his sexual orientation on the basis that it is private information. Other commentators claim that it is homophobic for reporters not to ask because the silence assumes being gay is something that should be hidden and creates a double standard when heterosexual athletes’ sexuality is on display for all to know.

I always celebrate when gay, lesbian and bisexual athletes come out. I believe their openness makes it easier for other gay athletes who come after them. I wish they would all just get it over with and tell everyone.

I also know that, because we have not yet won the battle against homophobia in sport, there can be negative consequences for some athletes and coaches who are openly gay. For this reason, we need to respect, or at least understand, their decisions to keep it on the down low. We need to work on changing sport and society so that hiding who you are isn’t necessary. Factor in other things like racism for LGBT athletes of color and sexism for lesbian and bisexual women and the whole coming out thing gets more complicated than just calling the ones in the closet a bunch of scaredy cats.

Plus, we all know how objective figure skating judges are, right? Ok, I know what you probably thinking – Johnny might as well come out because everyone thinks he is gay anyway. Well, maybe he will, but maybe he won’t. Maybe he isn’t. We do keep confusing gender expression with sexual orientation, don’t we? I mean who suspected that Esera Tuoalo, an NFL lineman, was gay? Why not? Because he looked “straight” and played professional football. Some gay men are flamboyant and artistic; others can hide in plain view because they don’t fit our preconceived stereotypes that are mostly based on gender expression, not sexuality. Quentin Crisp said that we are all born naked, the rest is drag. Something we should all remember. Why couldn’t a heterosexual man love sequins too?

In the meantime, I think we should just let Johnny be Johnny – flamboyant, lyrical, artistic and outrageous, and maybe gay. The figure skating establishment may not appreciate it, but Johnny Weir is the most interesting and authentic character on the ice right now and, in the best of worlds, whether he is gay or not really wouldn’t matter. He’s a great skater. Even an accident waiting to happen on the ice like me can see that.


k said...

I could not agree with you more - and I follow figure skating!

But I do have to note that Rudy and Johnny have totally made up and are now good friends. Which doesn't make him less the Queen of mean, but now he's one Johnny appreciates, I guess.

Pat Griffin said...

K - thanks for your update on Rudy and Johnny. I'm glad they've resolved their issues. It would be a shame for two of the few prominent gay skaters to be on the outs.