A Step Forward

As an adult figure skater, and an avid skating fan, the world figure skating championships are always an incredibly exciting event for me to watch. The 2015 world championships in March were particularly interesting, because they were the first world championships of the four years leading up to the 2018 Olympics. As usually happens after every Olympics, many recent world and Olympic competitors have retired or have decided to take a break from competition. So the 2015 world championships were one of the first opportunities for skaters to begin establishing themselves as potential contenders for 2018.

But something else important occurred at the 2015 world figure skating championships. It’s something that didn’t get a lot of attention in the media, but it should be acknowledged. And that’s the fact that Eric Radford, who won the pairs event with his partner Meagan Duhamel, is the first openly gay skater to win a world championship.

There have been some male skaters that have won world championships and then come out as gay later on (e.g. Brian Orser and Randy Gardner). There have also been some male skaters that were out for at least part of their competitive careers, but did not win a world championship (e.g. Rudy Galindo and Matthew Hall). Radford came out in December of last year, in this interview, and revealed not only that he is gay but also that he and his partner are parenting his partner’s teenage daughter.

(As far as I am aware, there are no lesbian skaters that were out during their competitive careers.)

A skater’s sexuality shouldn’t have any impact on their skating career. But skating tends to be a very conservative sport, and its audiences are perceived (wrongly, in my opinion) as also being very conservative. Non-skaters tend to assume that most, if not all, male figure skaters are gay – if for no other reason than male skaters wear sequined costumes and must be “artistic” as well as athletic in their performances. And pairs skating and ice dance, with their male-female couples, subtly and not so subtly reinforce heteronormativity.

Eric Radford and his skating partner Meagan Duhamel competing in the pairs free skate at the 2015 world figure skating championship. (credit: cbc.ca)

Eric Radford and his skating partner Meagan Duhamel competing in the pairs free skate at the 2015 world figure skating championships. (credit: cbc.ca)

Thus, competitive elite-level skating is strongly affected by many conflicting elements of gender stereotypes and societal expectations. (Ellyn Kestnbaum’s book Culture on Ice, an analysis of the cultural and performance aspects of skating, is a very good read on this topic.)

There’s no reliable estimate of how many men in skating are straight and how many are gay. But I have heard some parents say that they wouldn’t let their child take skating lessons from a male coach if that coach was gay. I have also known some young male skaters who loved the sport and were good at it, but who quit skating because of the homophobic abuse they got at school and elsewhere for being in a “gay sport”.  And male skaters who actually are gay may be implicitly or explicitly encouraged not to reveal that – for fear of reprisal within the sport, or for fear of reinforcing the negative external stereotypes of the sport. Gay men competing in dance or pairs may get even more pressure to stay in the closet, so as not to threaten the illusion of a “couple” that they and their female skating partners are creating on the ice.

Doug Mattis is a former US junior men’s champion who came out in 1994 during his career as a professional skater, and is now a coach and choreographer. Here’s what he had to say on Facebook about Eric’s accomplishment:

I see Eric as a kind of hero; the first to ascend to World Champ after coming out formally…publicly–with the full glare of the global spotlight on him. Forever, he sets the example for generations to come by smashing– obliterating–the (understandable fear-based) contention that to come out would likely impair a skater’s ability to surmount the National and World podiums…let alone become World Champion.

Eric–when I came out 20 years ago…many friends, skating officials, and show producers told me not to do it. They warned I was likely putting my career potential in peril…and (some said) damaging the already fragile reputation and public perception of Figure Skating.

It just wasn’t the case.

Coming out and being completely open about it was beyond freeing for me and my career flourished as a result of that freedom coursing through my veins.

Eric, thank you for having the courage to come out during a time in your career where, now, your awesome achievement with Meagan has proven that a life can be lived with full honesty, full disclosure, and openness–and your dreams in skating can still come true.

I’m happy to see this significant event finally happen in my sport. It’s been a long time coming, and is long overdue. And I hope that it will encourage more acceptance of diversity within the sport and outside it as well. Congratulations, Eric!

3 comments

  1. Thanks Fiona for this article. Eric’s story should be spread far and wide. He is a person of great integrity, and great courage. And how wonderful for FS that the truth did not get in the way of results. Huge kudos to Eric , and huge congratulations to Megan and Eric for their World Championship win.
    Alison

    1. Eric is a great role-model not just within the LGBT community but the entire figure skating family. Doug Mattis has it right and his comments could not have been said any better. The courage, honesty, and integrity shown by Eric makes me proud to be a fan of figure skating and the many fine people that contribute their life’s energy and commitment to the sport. Thanks to Eric for shattering skating’s false narrative of non-acceptance.

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