Garnering more than 16 million views on SNL’s official YouTube channel, the 2014 skit “U.S. Men’s Heterosexual Figure Skating Championship” draws attention to the common perception that figure skating, particularly among men, is considered to be a “gay” sport.
While the concept seems generally lighthearted, its true purpose is a bit more severe in tone. Prior to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Russia’s oppressive anti-LGBTQ+ laws were called into question in relation to figure skating. On the other hand, athletes within the sport itself have made homophobic comments about the “feminine” nature of the sport. This, then, raises the question, why is the culture of figure skating shrouded in homophobia, when so many athletes identify as a part of the LGBTQ+ community?
While the stereotype that all male figure skaters are gay is far from true, it is fair to argue that some of the finest skaters have happened to be members of the LGBTQ+ community, including Rudy Galindo, Johnny Weir and Brian Boitano.
However, prior to 2018, no male figure skaters were out as gay publicly during their Olympics. American Adam Rippon made history prior to the Pyeongchang Olympic Games, becoming the first male skater to be publicly out during the Games, though saying that he had been out for three years to friends and family.
“I told myself that if I ever had the platform to say anything, I would say something,” Rippon said. “I think if you can share your story, you bring more normalcy to whatever situation that someone young may be feeling that they’re in.”
Since then, more and more brave athletes have been empowered to open up about their sexual identities. In 2018, there were three out male figure skaters. At the 2022 Beijing Olympics, there were eight.
Although positive changes are occurring in terms of representation, the sport is still grappling with homophobia at its very foundation. In 2020, Olympic gold medalist Nathan Chen received backlash for comments about his experience in figure skating as a straight man. In a podcast, Chen was asked if he had ever wished that he had committed to hockey instead of figure skating: “Yes, certainly. Especially as a male athlete … as a straight male athlete in a fairly homosexual-dominated sport,” he responded.
Although he apologized, Chen’s words were very disappointing for many fans, as the comment implied that being associated with femininity and queerness was a negative.
2023 world bronze medalist Ilia Malinin also received flak for his comments on Instagram live, specifically for comments about his position as a heterosexual male figure skater.
“Let’s be honest, I can’t be straight anymore because I need those component scores up, you know? I gotta say I’m not straight, that way my components are gonna be up.”
Malinin’s implication that he is penalized by judges for being straight was also upsetting for fans. The comment implied that if he weren’t straight, he would receive higher program components scores, or PCS.
An additional layer lies within the heteronormative culture of figure skating, especially in the pairs and ice dance disciplines. As recently as October 2021, former international skating judge Alexander Vedenin commented scathingly about openly gay French skater Guillaume Cizeron, claiming that he was “cold” in his performances with Gabriella Papadakis. Vedenin added that “Cizeron does not have a traditional orientation and he cannot hide it,” implying that the French duo was impeded by the fact Cizeron wasn’t straight.
However, it appears that change is on the horizon. Skate Canada, the governing body representing the sport nationally, has announced that it will be redefining teams without gendered identification, now describing teams as “Partner A and Partner B.”
While homophobia and heteronormativity remain in figure skating’s past and present, moves such as the one made by Skate Canada seem to be pushing the sport and its community to a more accepting and inclusive future.