15 February 2018


Its Olympic season and the charismatic Adam Rippon has made his way into American households. Adam is a figure skater and the first openly gay athlete to represent the US in a winter Olympics. Of course it is a running joke that all male figure skaters are gay, but in the world of sports (including the apparently conservative field of figure skating), surprisingly no US winter athlete has yet come out while still competing. Athletes who have come out have done so after finishing their sports career. I’m not a follower of figure skating but I thought Adam’s opening Olympic performance in the team competition was very touching. The beautiful music coupled with his elegant skating was alluring.

It didn’t take much time on line to find criticism leveled his way. To paraphrase some comments: “Who cares about his sexuality?” “Yawn….another gay figure skater.” “He is a disgrace to this country.” A conservative blog even published an opinion piece criticizing Rippon and another openly gay American Olympian, Gus Kenworthy, for being politically outspoken.

Some of that criticism seems to be a consequence of the running feud between Rippon and the Vice President. Adam has not been shy in expressing his dislike for Mike Pence over the last week. Some (conservatives) don’t like it when an athlete or celebrity expresses his or her (typically liberal) political views. (Nevermind that our sitting president emerged from the cocoon of reality TV.)

That debate aside, what I’d like to consider is why it is still necessary and important for LGBT people to be out publicly. Even in 2018. Even the flamboyant figure skaters who leave casual observers little doubt that they are not heterosexual.

It is important to remember that homophobia is a wide array of attitudes and societal reactions to LGBT people that range from pernicious hate crimes to subtle phenomena that marginalize sexual minorities. The obvious verbal slurs, violence, or discrimination in employment or government services sometimes targeted against LGBT people are the blatant evidence that some in society have hardened prejudice against gay people. One hopes, though I am not sure this can always be quantified, that the incidence of these more egregious expressions of homophobia is less now than it has been in the past and that it will continue to decline into the future.

The more subtle manifestations of homophobia are perhaps more pervasive, and probably what most of us in the LGBT community struggle with most of the time. These are the ways in which individuals or society collectively puts down, excludes, and minimizes gay people without shoving them against a wall or refusing to sign their marriage license. We may not think about these forms of homophobia often, nor recognize that in order to protect ourselves we have internalized some of them too.

One of the most common expressions of subtle homophobia is invisibility. If LGBT people are quiet about their feelings, if they hide their partners, if they act straight then they don’t make others uncomfortable and they shield themselves from criticism or embarrassment. Invisibility is antithetical to self-empowerment, but it can be a tool of self preservation in situations of danger.

The invisibility of LGBT people preserves the monolithic heteronormative worldview. In an exclusively heterosexual world, only heterosexuality is portrayed in media. Romance in movies is straight. Love stories are straight. Marketing towards men and women reinforce heterosexual desires and relationships. Everything in society defaults to heterosexuality to the point that coming out is necessary because everyone is simply straight until the public is notified otherwise.

Invisibility is not healthy for young LGBT people. It is during the years when these youth first begin to understand that they are different, that observing examples of healthy, happy LGBT individuals is so critical. Young people need positive role models generally and non-heterosexual or non-cis-gender youth in particular need LGBT role models who can help them form a positive understanding of their sexuality. They need to know that there are older people like them in terms of sexuality and gender expression who come from every walk of life. They need to not just see, but hear, other LGBT people integrated in a normal way into broader society. The public visibility reinforces that they are not an aberration, or a mistake, but rather a normal and valuable human being.

Only in the last few years has a young LBGT person been able – through entertainment, sports, or otherwise – to see that other variations on human sexuality and relationships exist in broader society with any degree of regularity. I certainly saw very little to no expression of homosexuality or bisexuality on TV or in movies while growing up in the 1980s and 1990s. It has taken many brave people coming out over the years to reach a point where today gay and lesbian role models are gaining much greater visibility in sports, in science, in politics, and in business.

In a future hoped-for world, a gay flambuoyant figure skater like Adam Rippon might not feel much need to publicly state his sexual orientation. It may no longer be a brave step for a high school student to come out to her peers. But reaching that world that will require a shift in society. It is first necessary for the majority heterosexual population to remember that there are minority sexualities in their families, their workplaces, and their communities and that their representation in broader society is important. It is first necessary for media, sports, literature, and politics to create a comfortable space where people of all orientations and forms of gender expression can feel that they may freely be themselves.

When a LGBT person is vocal publicly about his or her sexuality, it is not an invitation for a conservative straight person reading Red State to ridicule them or feel they’re the victim of some inconvenience. That some antagonists of equality become so annoyed by our mere visibility in public spaces only reinforces their own insecurity or pettiness. When LGBT people become visible in the public sphere and not just out in their private lives, it breaks down the false narratives that only make room for heterosexuality in human society. Coming out can be a lifeline for the young gay person who is silent and nervous, wondering if there is anyone out there who is like him. Coming out is ultimately a process of personal liberation but it has benefits for others too, especially those still in the safety of invisibility. The triumph of self-belief is to be visible in a world that would often rather we remain invisible.

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