When I saw that Gus Kenworthy had announced that he prefers having sex with men to having sex with women, my reaction was similar to probably 80 percent of the other people my age in America: I shrugged and kept scrolling down my FB page. Let’s be real. Homosexual people have played important roles in my life since I was 12 years old, although “gay” has not totally lost its stigma to my generation. But the arc of justice is curving quickly towards a world not so insanely obsessed with who you sleep with because of the hard work of the LGBT community and the prevalence of homosexuals in all strata of society.
In fact, the world leader in data acquirement, Gallup, found that at least one in every five Americans considered themselves gay or lesbian and one in every ten across the globe. That study was in 2002; since then, being openly gay has become much more widely accepted. It’s close-minded and utterly ignorant to believe that the legions of sporting professionals would be exempt from this type of sexual preference due to an imagined image of them as the posters of heterosexuality.
Statistics can be hard to trust, but it’s clear that there are many more people that our parents’ generation would like to acknowledge who are attracted to members of the same sex. Statistically speaking, athletes should be no different, and regardless of surfing’s myth of exceptionalism, I’d be willing to bet that at least one of the top 32 is gay. After all, Gus Kenworthy coming out is like Gabriel Medina or John John Florence coming out. For many, that would be jarring. But why?
The significance of Kenworthy’s announcement ultimately says much more about his chosen profession than it says about him. Organized sport is one of the last and most prominent of the hoary, pop-cultural institutions that still gasps at the mere mention of homosexuality. I know: people who have chosen a lifestyle (sports, not homosexuality) that surrounds them with members of the same sex might actually like having sex with the same sex – shocking. While most millennials have daily exposure to homosexuality through the media and in person, sports maintain a stolid myth of heterosexuality with the frantic ferocity of the skinny freshman in the varsity shower room. Behind all the chest thumping, the powers running professional sport are scared. They are scared of what gay people will mean for the anachronistically masculine images they have zealously nurtured in their tiny little worlds, and on a more visceral level, they are just plain scared of homosexuality because they don’t understand it and don’t care to.
Some of this is a generational problem. We all love baby boomers, but many of their sexual insecurities and prejudices deserve to die with them. However, as male-dominated institutions, sports face a very specific problem with sexual politics. Any large fraternity of men from social clubs to the army is instantly threatened by the presence of homosexuals because it forces all the other members to question their own sexuality. And the more sexual a sport appears, the more it must, by the dictates of 20/21st century masculinity, deny any kind of homosexuality. What no amount of denial can hide is how fabulously gay most sports actually are. Where else do sweat-glistening, male bodies sculpted to perfection come in such close contact, in such a public way besides gay clubs or bedrooms? It is the fear of homosexuality (or more accurately the fear of social ostracism that accompanies homosexuality) among men that has always underwritten the extreme focus on sexual prowess off the playing field – ie “fuckin’ bitches”, the insistence on stoicism, or “not being a pussy” and the juvenile obsession with objectifying and overly sexualizing any woman who would presume to participate. Anything that deviates from the idealized Texas quarterback image of dude-dom is inherently destabilizing to a world view based on principles that haven’t changed much since the late 19th Century.
Despite the counter-cultural pretensions of action sports, their definition of what kinds of people and lifestyles fit under the heading of “counter” has never been much bigger than the head of a needle. Snow sports in the U.S. are born from WASPY resort culture and Western cowboy stoicism – both movements that may not be fervently anti-homosexual, but would not look too kindly on anyone making too much noise about it. We saw something of this distaste for discussion – albeit based on different cultural precepts – in a bizarre tweet from Snowboarding pioneer Terje Haakonsen who said:
no, @btoddrichards did this 20 years ago & isn’t all skiiers gay ;
i’m heterosexual #soSpesial
It later became clear that Haakonsen has no particular prejudice towards homosexuals, rather he felt the media around Kenworthy’s announcement was overhyped. In a sense I agree, in that I don’t care who the guy sleeps with, and I would like to live in a world where no one else does either. But contrary to what Haakonsen believes, we don’t live in that world yet, and those involved in pro sports especially don’t live in that world. Anywhere where prejudice exists, public figures leveraging fame can play an important role in fighting it. By coming out, Kenworthy has directly challenged what it means to be a “manly” pro athlete. What’s more, he has challenged and enriched the view of what it means to be “gay” within the LGBT community.
Ten years ago the only openly gay people that the public could regularly see in the media were the archetypically “camp” men who had spent years carving out niches for themselves in entertainment – think Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. That a dude-bro who has spent his life hucking airs and sliding rails could also be gay will come as a surprise to as much of the LGBT community as it was to many of those outside of it.
That’s why all of this is worthy of comment in the first place. Each time an athlete makes this sort of gesture, it widens our perceptions of what it means to be gay or straight or black, or white – in short, what it means to be human. It casts light into dark corners that those within the status quo spend millions of dollars trying to keep dark, so that in fear and ignorance we can keep mindlessly consuming the same tired stories that pump out of the industrial content mine. As far as Olympic political gestures go, it’s not as earth-shattering as Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ black power salute in the 1968 Summer Olympics, but it’s a bold blow that has put another crack in one of the longest held and most pernicious of modern sports’ lies about what it means to be a man.
The larger question is: what now? Will we see a torrent of athletes coming out in the media, demanding they be viewed and marketed as they are, not as the safe, wholesome heterosexuals that sponsors covet most? Well, no. We could conceivably see this more in skiing where the industry, and therefore the community is much larger and more multifaceted than many adventure sports, but other sports with the exception of climbing will continue to struggle with a terminally stunted view of sexual politics. Gay surfers have long been a part of the women’s WSL but none have come out due to the wide-spread, and frankly correct belief that it would make them unsponsorable by the handful of companies that throw a bit of loose change at whatever sweet young thing will wear the smallest bikini bottoms. The men, as is usually the case, have it easier, but thus far only a single world tour surfer – Matt Branson – has come out publicly, and that was after he had retired. Surfing’s founding myth of buff, macho beach boys – regardless, or perhaps because of, how homoerotic it actually is – has proved uniquely resistant to the inclusions of any narratives that might challenge its chest thumping celebration of heterosexuality. This is due partly to a relatively small industry that essentially markets itself to itself, and partly to good old fashioned, small minded bigotry. If change comes, it will not be from within surfing. While there is plenty of good in the international surf community, we are not typically progressive leaders of thought. I have yet to see a sport that is. Before we see an openly gay world tour surfer, our society as a whole will have to make greater strides in de-stigmatizing love and lust between members of the same sex.