The Culture of Heteronormativity in Figure Skating

Growing up, I was always told that figure skating was a pretty gay sport. We had Adam Rippon and Eric Radford bringing glory to the rainbow flag in PyeongChang, Johnny Weir chatting away in the commentary booth, and the two great Brians – Orser and Boitano – out and proud. I got lulled into believing that the figure skating community was a safe place for openly LGBTQ+ athletes, but a few days ago, I learned that this was not true and never has been so.

It all started when the aforementioned Adam Rippon recently donated $1,000 to a charity for black transgender people and posted about it on social media. Alexei Yagudin, the 2002 Olympic gold medalist in men’s skating, brutally denounced Rippon’s decision to support the cause and proclaimed that trans people and people of color didn’t need charities. He also verbally attacked Rippon himself, although he later issued a perfunctory apology for his choice of words. Many people in the skating community pulled together to support Rippon, but this incident shattered the illusion of an LGBTQ+ haven inside the world of figure skating. It also sparked a discussion about the underlying homophobia, transphobia, and enforcement of traditional gender roles in skating. I saw so many interesting perspectives on the topic, so I wanted to write a blog post to offer an honest, open conversation about what’s going on and what we can to do make this sport a safer place for people of all identities.

First of all, most of the issues that affect the LGBTQ+ community in the skating world are not as obvious as Yagudin’s obscene comments. Rather, subtle homophobia is woven into the sport through the concept of heteronormativity. Despite the many LGBTQ+ skaters who have graced the ice over the decades, figure skating has always been tailored to heterosexuals, and the success of queer athletes has been in spite of the sport’s foundations rather than because of them.

“But how can that be?” you ask. “We have men in feathery costumes and sequins! We have a dozen openly gay skaters!”

I’m going to break this article into four parts. I want to address how heteronormativity affects each discipline – men’s singles, ladies’ singles, pair skating, and ice dancing – in a different way. Also, I don’t follow synchronized skating closely enough to comment on its attitudes towards gender roles, so I would really appreciate if some insiders from the synchro world could share their stories and help us start a conversation if necessary.

MEN:

It seems the belief that “figure skating is gay” started in men’s singles because the first out skaters hailed from this discipline. Rudy Galindo got the ball rolling in 1996 when he came out, then won the U.S. national title. In addition, a lot of recently retired male skaters came out in the years to come, and the tragic deaths of several skaters due to AIDS drew awareness to the prevalence of gay male athletes in figure skating. However, the quantity of LGBTQ+ skaters in the men’s discipline has not necessarily translated to a universal acceptance of gay athletes in the figure skating community.

A prominent Twitter user named Lauren (follow her at @tyrannolaur) brilliantly covered the situation in men’s skating in a long thread. You can read the whole thread here, but I’m going to highlight the main idea by quoting a few of her tweets:

There are extremely powerful people in this sport that are homophobic. There are institutional punishments for being gay: that’s what being underscored for seeming “too feminine” as a man is.

Basically every narrative in general society about men in figure skating is based on the assumption that male skaters must be gay because the sport has been coded as “feminine” since the explosion of Sonja Henie’s popularity in the 20s and 30s.

This association — that if a woman becomes known for excelling in something, it becomes known as women’s work, which is inherently feminine — is dripping with misogyny.

When men do something with this association, we get an intersection of misogyny (femininity is “bad” in men, and partaking in a feminizing act detracts from manhood) and homophobia (society codes a man partaking in what is considered a feminine act as inherently gay).

Because femininity in men is coded as gay, and because figure skating is coded as feminine, there is an automatic assumption by society at large and even fans of this sport that basically all the men in FS are gay.

This isn’t true. Read basically any interview with an out retired skater, and they’ll talk about how the vast, vast majority of the men in this sport are straight.

Furthermore, perceived femininity and homosexuality are punished from an early age — not just outside of the sport, but within it. Coaches. Judges. Officials. Fellow skaters. There’s an overwhelming amount of pressure to be “manly”/“athletic” rather than delicate/“artistic.”

Look at the different narratives surrounding top skaters (even ones whose sexuality we don’t even know), and you’ll see a clear difference in how skaters perceived as “feminine” (or gay) are talked about. The man with the highest quality of technical ability — someone with clear technical prowess — is not seen as nearly as “athletic” as others with lower technical scores because of his perceived femininity.

It comes down to this: the reason people assume skating must be devoid of homophobia is because they assume the men in skating are all or mostly gay. That is itself a homophobic assumption.

Of course, not everyone in FS talks like Yagudin or those Québécois announcers who tore into Johnny Weir. However, just because the majority of punishing of perceived femininity and homosexuality is less blatant and crass does NOT mean it does not exist, or that it isn’t harmful.

[The sport is] not even safe for men who are perceived as feminine and potentially not straight who have said NOTHING about their sexuality. The fact that men are coded as feminine is enough for them to experience discrimination and punishment. They don’t have to be out.

And, to address the elephant in the room — yes, some of the men reinforcing the institutional homophobia in this sport are, in fact, not straight themselves. They were raised in this mess, and they are still upholding norms that punish any men perceived as feminine or gay.

Now, let me make one last thing clear: this whole discussion is not reason for you to label anyone who thinks your favorite skater with unannounced sexuality might not be straight as an ~anti~. That is homophobia, too; it’s predicated on the assumption that homosexuality is bad.

I have little more to say on this topic because Lauren has covered it so eloquently, so I will simply add a few notes of my own before moving on to the other disciplines.

I’ve witnessed this quiet homophobia firsthand, long before I even knew what it was called. I grew up watching Olympic figure skating on TV with my parents, and I have some memories of my dad making shady comments about male skaters based on their level of perceived femininity or masculinity. He thought Lysacek was cool and Weir was an oddball. He called Yuzuru Hanyu’s 2014 Olympic free skate costume a “dress”. He said he liked Javier Fernandez because he was one of the few skaters in the event who looked “manly”. And he didn’t believe me when I told him Eric Radford was gay because “he doesn’t dress like a gay guy”. I don’t think my dad has any true hatred for gay people in his heart – he was very supportive when I came out to him, and I can talk freely with him about my experiences as a young queer woman. Recently, I’ve started talking with my dad about how these old stereotypes are harmful to LGBTQ+ people, and he’s been open to hearing it. But for a 40-something straight man raised on a farm in the American Midwest, seeing a man in sequins and ruffles was like seeing a green-skinned Martian. This doesn’t excuse his insensitive comments, but it gives us some perspective on how the culture of homophobia in figure skating has been built. If you look at the judges at a skating competition, there’s a good chance there’s someone like my dad on the panel. Nine times out of ten, they’re not maliciously underscoring gay skaters because they don’t want gay skaters to win. But they’ve been conditioned to think that the guy in the feathered top and velvet pants is “odd”, and their unconscious bias affects how they award scores. Much of the homophobia we see in society is driven not by targeted hatred, but by sheer ignorance and internal micro-judgments we’ve picked up throughout our lives. It’s time to rethink how we approach the concept of masculinity as a whole.

LADIES:

While the fight for gay inclusion and acceptance in men’s skating took place under the public eye, the struggles of queer women in the sport occurred just beneath the surface. In general, the ratio between openly LGBTQ+ male skaters and openly LGBTQ+ female skaters is startling. Today, there are only a few ladies representing the rainbow flag in comparison to the dozens of out-and-proud men.

It’s a sad truth that the patriarchal structure of many countries has created a system where men typically achieve “firsts” before women – for example, the first man in space came before the first woman in space. But on the topic of gays in Olympic winter sports, girls rule. In both the 2010 and 2014 Winter Games, every openly LGBTQ+ athlete was female. However, figure skating has not yet experienced this boom, and there’s several reasons why.

I must say that the conservative attitudes of the figure skating community are not completely to blame for this statistic. First of all, most of the dominant ladies’ skaters are teenagers whereas many male skaters are in their 20s, and the careers of recent female skaters have been generally shorter than men’s. This means that a girl’s main days in the spotlight tend to occur between the ages of 15 and 18. It’s hard enough to be a celebrity while you’re still in high school, let alone an openly gay one. Not to mention, many top female skaters come from countries where LGBTQ+ rights are not protected, and coming out could jeopardize their careers.

However, I strongly believe that the lack of LGBTQ+ skaters in ladies’ singles is due to the culture of hyper-feminization in figure skating. When you picture a female figure skater, what do you see? Pink tutus covered in thousands of glittering rhinestones? Delicate white skates with the laces tied in perfect bows? Silky hair swept into a flawless bun? Although we’re starting to see some women push the boundaries of this stereotype, ladies’ figure skating was designed around traditional images of grace and beauty. How many times have you heard people throw around the terms “ice princess” and “America’s sweetheart” when they’re talking about skating?

This brings up a problem that affects women not only in sports but in everyday life: intense scrutiny. Women in skating are expected to look perfect, act perfect, and be perfect. It’s all about portraying this classic image, and for the old-school judging panels, being gay is an automatic deduction. In many ways, the world of ladies’ figure skating is still stuck in the Regency era, and judges often prefer skaters who appear “modest” on the ice. (I will state that ice dancing allows much more sensuality in comparison, but we’ll discuss that later). In short, the judges want to see Grace Kelly, not Miley Cyrus. But it’s 2020, and if you ask me, it wouldn’t hurt to have some Miley.

The bottom line is, the figure skating community shows little support for openly gay women because female skaters are largely judged based on image, and the desired image for a female skater is a beautiful, angelic doll. For decades, queer women have been seen as “less” than straight women – less feminine, less beautiful, and less worthy of admiration. This is especially true for the many queer women who don’t conform to the standard conventions of femininity. I could write about the stigma and stereotypes around LGBTQ+ women for the next hour, but for the sake of this article, I will simply say that in the eyes of the judging panels, being queer is somehow seen as crass and unsophisticated. But there is nothing trashy about being LGBTQ+. Look at Amber Glenn’s stunning short program to “Scars” by Madilyn Bailey. She’s a talented skater, a beautiful performer, and an openly bi/pan woman.

During this discussion, my amazing friend @tessaandscott97 pointed out the unreasonable expectations placed on female skaters as a whole in one accurate tweet:

Also would like to add in how all females (regardless of their gender) have to portray a feminine “look” (which includes being skinny, petite, and no visible muscle) and girls that put on more muscle are regarded as masculine, gross, fat, and lazy. THIS SPORT NEEDS TO CHANGE.

This level of judgment has unfortunately fallen on nearly every female skater in the sport. A few years ago, a prominent pair of skating bloggers criticized Elizaveta Tuktamysheva by saying she needed to lose weight. Tuktamysheva competes mostly against teenage girls who are still going through puberty and therefore have naturally slimmer bodies, but she is capable of landing consistent triple axels in competition and even quad toe loops in practice. Clearly, her weight is not hindering her jumps, so the criticism was because she did not fit the stereotype of the balletic, stick-thin female skater. Meagan Duhamel – a tiny powerhouse in pair skating – shared on her blog that she was frequently body-shamed for being muscular. 2019 U.S. champion pair skater Ashley Cain-Gribble got backlash simply because she’s taller than the average pair girl. Kaetlyn Osmond and Ashley Wagner also backed up these experiences with their own stories. If an athlete is performing well, it shouldn’t matter what body shape they have. The only reason why people care is because they believe female skaters need to fit a specific image of beauty. The world cares more about how a female skater looks than how well she can skate.

In a sport that judges women so harshly on their appearance and a society that associates queerness with being unattractive, it’s impossible to create a safe place for LGBTQ+ women in figure skating until we dismantle the systemic misogyny this sport was built upon. If a girl in a pink sequined tutu can land triple jumps, that’s awesome. But if a lesbian in a flannel shirt, ripped jeans, and a pixie cut can also land triple jumps, there shouldn’t be anything stopping her.

Although much of this segment has addressed the absence of openly LGBTQ+ women in figure skating, I want to acknowledge the trailblazers who have defied the limits and paved the way for a brighter future in the face of opposition. The first openly LGBTQ+ female figure skater was Fumie Suguri, who came out as bisexual in 2014. Unfortunately, since she had stopped competing at the elite level a few years before coming out, the media paid little attention to her story. In 2018, American ice dancer Karina Manta also came out as bisexual, becoming the first female skater to be openly queer while still competing. Since then, Amber Glenn, Rachel Parsons, and Fleur Maxwell have also come out, and it is my hope that more will follow.

PAIRS:

Pair skating and ice dancing are both built upon a partnership between a man and a woman. Of the four main disciplines of figure skating, I think pairs is the least heteronormative. I find it to be a refreshing change from the strict gender roles of singles’ skating because in recent years, we’ve seen a wave of fabulous boss women sporting short haircuts and unitards rather than the classic ballerinas in rhinestones. Seriously, there’s nothing I like better than seeing fierce girls dragging huge men around the ice. But while pair skating doesn’t face the same level of scrutiny as ice dancing, it’s still centered around some form of chemistry between male and female partners, and pairs that don’t display this tend to receive lower scores.

I’m pleased to say that several pairs in recent years have broken the mold. For example, Aljona Savchenko/Bruno Massot’s breathtaking free skate at the 2018 Olympics to La terre vue du ciel was an abstract masterpiece that featured a series of insane physical feats arranged to create a dramatic crescendo instead of a romantic storyline. However, we still haven’t managed to erase the age-old narrative that all pair skaters must fall in love. Look, I adore a love story on ice along the lines of Gordeeva/Grinkov, Pang/Tong, and Volosozhar/Trankov, but that isn’t possible for every pair – especially when one or both of the partners is LGBTQ+. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the case of 2-time world champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford. Despite their excellent technical skills, they were constantly criticized for their lack of romantic chemistry, even after Radford publicly came out as gay. Critics often said that they moved “like two single skaters” instead of a pair, ultimately ignoring the unique dynamic they formed in place of a love story. Duhamel/Radford’s chemistry was one of opposites; the tiny, scrappy Duhamel providing the spark of the team while the tall, elegant Radford provided balance and steadiness. Few fans recognize that connection between partners doesn’t have to be inherently romantic or sexual to be beautiful. This mindset is a direct result of heteronormativity.

In fact, this belief affects not only LGBTQ+ pair skaters, but teams where romantic chemistry simply doesn’t come naturally to them. Cheng Peng/Hao Zhang of China were both talented skaters with strong elements and good packaging, but many fans shied away from them because of the large age gap between them. As long as two skaters are equally capable of performing a program, their ages shouldn’t matter. Yet when people saw Peng/Zhang, they said it looked “wrong” because they were a young girl and an older man. It’s only “wrong” because fans automatically filter pair skating through the heteronormative lens, which establishes that a man and a woman on the ice must be compatible for dating. Also, this perspective creates an expectation that all partners must be inseparable soulmates who can’t stop gazing into each other’s eyes. Pairs that have very separate lives off the ice or get frustrated at each other immediately get labeled as “couples headed for divorce any minute”, as if they’re in some legally binding contract where adoring your partner with all your heart is a requirement. Even Wenjing Sui and Cong Han get badgered by the press about their relationship status, although they’ve repeatedly stated that they are only close friends. This is all because the viewers have been conditioned to expect romance. To paraphrase the great Jane Austen, people are taught to believe that a single man in possession of good skating skills must be in want of a wife.

ICE DANCE:

Of all the disciplines affected by heteronormativity, I think ice dance wins the grand prize. It was essentially born from the phrase, “Dancing is a vertical expression of a horizontal desire”. First of all, the ISU requires all couples to perform a predetermined rhythm dance pattern (formerly called the “short dance”). Sometimes that dance is an elegant waltz or a lively polka, but more often than not, it’s a dance steeped in romance, like a tango or a samba. As in pair skating, ice dancers are judged on their chemistry, and the hotter the better. Just take a look at Tessa Virtue/Scott Moir’s steamy program to Carmen from 2013 Worlds and you’ll see what I mean.

In fact, Virtue/Moir are perhaps the best example of heteronormativity gone wild. Fans became so obsessed with their on-ice chemistry that they literally had to go on The Ellen DeGeneres Show to inform the public once and for all that no, they were not dating. Even after Scott announced his engagement and Tessa went public with her new boyfriend, the fandom was still convinced that the duo were star-crossed lovers who would somehow end up together in another life. To a point, it’s natural to fall in love with the idea of two partners who’ve developed a special bond from skating together for so long. I certainly did. The required pattern dances have forced nearly all ice dance teams to project chemistry, even if they aren’t together. (Remember Alexandra Stepanova/Ivan Bukin’s iconic kiss at the end of their Moulin Rouge rhythm dance?). It’s as if every couple is Katniss and Peeta from The Hunger Games, trying to convince the nation that they’re in love so the evil President Snow won’t kill them. And naturally, the fans buy it, because how can you possibly be “platonic partners” when you’re making out in the middle of the ice in front of 12,000 people?

However, I am pleased to note that the culture of this sport is slowly changing. 4-time World champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron pioneered a lyrical, abstract style of ice dancing that breaks the traditional heteronormative template. Thanks to their success, we’ve seen a rise in programs that push the boundaries of “a story of a man and a woman”. The sibling duo of Maia and Alex Shibutani – better known as the “ShibSibs” – worked their way around the romantic themes of the required programs through innovation. The Shibutanis created an iconic short dance to a hip-hop remix of Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life” in place of the sexy blues programs most couples were doing, and they were best known for their trio of emotional free dances to Coldplay songs that express the love between siblings rather than the attraction between lovers. Finally, Karina Manta and Joseph Johnson, the first elite-level ice dance team comprised of two openly LGBTQ+ skaters, took the audience at the 2019 U.S. Figure Skating Championships to the gay club with their edgy, sassy free dance to “Sweet Dreams”.

I’ve already mentioned my queen Karina several times in this article, but I have to quote her once more, because she posted a fabulous tweet that addresses the hyper-feminization of women in ice dancing:

I’m including this tweet because it leads to a social experiment. The International Skating Union actually made an exception to the aforementioned rule in the 2016-17 season, when they allowed women to wear pants or jumpsuits in the short dance. This gave us some stunning outfits – just look at these photos of ice dance goddesses serving looks. Let’s start with Tessa Virtue:

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Maia Shibutani:

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Madison Chock:

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Alexandra Stepanova:

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Clearly, wearing pants doesn’t make them any less gorgeous – and more importantly, capable of skating. But the sport is still stuck in some 1800s mentality of misogyny where girls wearing pants are somehow committing a cardinal sin. It’s because skirts are considered a symbol of old-fashioned femininity, and figure skating isn’t ready for women who don’t conform to these traditional images. And you can imagine how a sport that gets scandalized by women in pants would react to queer women skating in suits or anything that breaks the heteronormative mold. (Shoutout to Piper Gilles for wearing a dress modeled after a tuxedo for last year’s rhythm dance!).

I am aware that there may always be some underlying heteronormativity in skating. It’s a simple fact that straight, cisgender people form the majority in society, and that’s okay. I personally love seeing cute married couples who skate together and deliver beautiful, romantic performances. But I also love seeing openly LGBTQ+ athletes being free to express themselves beyond the traditional themes of male/female relationships and gender stereotypes. Figure skating is an art as well as a sport, and art must be open to a variety of styles and techniques.

Although figure skating has been historically portrayed as a gay-friendly sport, there is still a lot of underlying homophobia beneath the surface.

This is why we need to applaud all the skaters who have come out over the past few decades. No matter how many skaters are out, coming out is still a brave choice because homophobia still exists. Until there is true equality – until we build a world where no one needs to come out because LGBTQ+ is considered normal, we need to keep having these conversations.

Please consider donating to the Okra Project in support of black trans people or the Trevor Project for the LGBTQ+ community as a whole. Also, let’s not forget that the LGBTQ+ rights movement was started by black trans women who bravely marched out at the Stonewall riots, and the relative freedom LGBTQ+ people enjoy in the United States is because of them. Happy Pride Month.

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