Four years ago, American freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy dreamed of finishing a medal-clinching run in the slopestyle event at the Olympics, and then kissing his boyfriend at the bottom of the mountain to celebrate. He was able to clinch a silver medal in Sochi, but there was no kiss. At the time, he wasn’t out to his family or his teammates. He wasn’t quite ready.
But in Pyeongchang, things were different. Kenworthy told the world that he was gay in 2015, on the cover of ESPN the Magazine. He came into this Winter Games as one of three openly queer athletes on Team USA, along with figure skater Adam Rippon and speed skater Brittany Bowe. He didn’t medal in his event this time around, but he did kiss his boyfriend at the bottom of the mountain, unaware that NBC cameras were right there to capture the moment.
“I think this is one of the most significant moments in Olympic history related to LGBTQ respect and visibility,” Taylor Carr, the director of communications at Athlete Ally, an organization dedicated to end homophobia in sports, told ThinkProgress. “I think for a long time LGBTQ people in sports haven’t had a role model to see themselves in. And what these athletes are showing is that LGBTQ athletes can excel in the most advanced levels of the sports, and be true to themselves.”
Didn't realize this moment was being filmed yesterday but I'm so happy that it was. My childhood self would never have dreamed of seeing a gay kiss on TV at the Olympics but for the first time ever a kid watching at home CAN! Love is love is love. pic.twitter.com/8t0zHjgDg8
— Gus Kenworthy (@guskenworthy) February 19, 2018
It was an overwhelmingly successful event for LGBTQ athletes. There were 15 out athletes competing in Pyeongchang, up from only seven in Sochi. In the first three days of Olympic competition alone, out athletes won three medals. On Team USA, both Bowe and Rippon captured bronze medals in team events, while elsewhere speed skater Ireen Wuest from the Netherlands won her 10th and 11th medals to become the most decorated LGBTQ athlete in Olympics history, while Canadian pairs skater Eric Radford won bronze in the pairs competition and gold in figure skating’s team event.
And these athletes weren’t just out; they were vocal about their personal and political beliefs. Before the Games began, Rippon was highly critical of the decision to have Vice President Mike Pence lead the U.S. Olympic delegation at the opening ceremonies, and called out Pence for his history of anti-LGBTQ policies.
“You mean Mike Pence, the same Mike Pence that funded gay conversion therapy?” Rippon said in an interview with USA TODAY Sports. “I’m not buying it.” When Pence pushed back on Rippon’s comments, and tried to meet with the skater before his competition in Pyeongchang, Rippon refused to back down.
“I feel that Mike Pence doesn’t stand for anything that I was taught when I grew up, and I think that it’s important if you’re given the platform to speak up for those who don’t have a voice,” Rippon said.
— Gus Kenworthy (@guskenworthy) February 9, 2018
Kenworthy soon joined in on the political pushback. After Kenworthy broke his thumb during a practice run in Pyeongchang, he said the silver lining was that he wouldn’t be able to shake Pence’s hand. Before the closing ceremonies on Sunday, Kenworthy said on social media that he was proud of the entire U.S. delegation in South Korea for working so hard to be there — with the exception of Ivanka Trump, who was on hand for the ceremony. “Honestly, tf is she doing here???” he tweeted.
There is still a long way to go when it comes to LGBTQ inclusion in sports, and society at large. There still isn’t an out gay male athlete in any of the four major pro sports in the United States. Trump’s administration has already rolled back significant LGBTQ protections, and around the world, LGBTQ people are still fighting for rights. In South Korea, for instance, there are no legal protections for LGBTQ individuals, and same-sex marriages aren’t recognized by the government.
But with so many battles left ahead of the LGBTQ community, Carr wants to make sure to take a moment to celebrate the victories in Pyeongchang.
“LGBTQ drop out of sport at a much higher rate than their LGBTQ peers — often because of bullying, but also because you don’t have that iconic role model,” Carr said. “I think Gus, Adam, Eric are providing the necessary visibility, and hopefully act as an inspiration to say, you can succeed in sport, there is a place for you here. There are people who have your back within sport.”
Kenworthy is well aware of this. Despite the fact that he had a very disappointing athletic performance in South Korea, he told CNN that he’s leaving Pyeongchang “more fulfilled without a medal than I did at the last games with one.”
Although his social media mentions are filled with critics wondering why he has to “flaunt” his sexuality, he understands how much that kiss meant.
“Had there been someone kissing their boyfriend on national TV when I was a kid and it was accepted and praised and all good, I think it would have changed the course of my life,” he said.