Skier Gus Kenworthy’s New Life as an Openly Gay Action Sports Star
We spoke to the Olympic medalist 24 hours after his groundbreaking announcement.
Photo by Nate Abbott
On the morning of October 22, 2015, Gus Kenworthy wrote, then deleted, then rewrote, then edited an Instagram post from his home in Denver. His mind was running wild. In a few hours, the Olympic freeskier would be coming out to the world through an ESPN The Magazine cover story by Alyssa Roenigk. An hour before the story went live online, ESPN emailed him the cover.
"The Instagram post served as my personal coming out," Kenworthy told me this morning. "Alyssa's words were beautiful, but I felt like it was important to have something come from me too."
"I kind of over analyzed it, like I do with anything," he said. "I felt good. No matter what happened, it was going to be a really good day for me. I got to a point where I thought if nobody was accepting, no one cared and I lost all my followers, at least I still have really good friends and family that already know, and they're super supportive."
But, of course, the response was overwhelmingly positive. Messages flooded in to Kenworthy's social media accounts. Friends like Miley Cyrus and Chloë Moretz celebrated his announcement. Michael Sam, Ellen Page, and Anderson Cooper commended his bravery. The ski industry had the back of one of their own.
"Proud of you, @GusKenworthy," tweeted freeskier Tom Wallisch. "You're the man!" Big mountain skier and film producer Sean Pettit followed with "Your [sic] a very inspiring individual to make such bold moves. Proud of ya brother!" The outpouring of support from his fellow-skiers didn't surprise Kenworthy.
"Most of the skiers and snowboarders who said stuff, I expected [them] to say that," he said. "They're my friends. We compete against each other. I got texts from those guys."
Kenworthy is the first action sports professional to come out while actively competing. Swedish skier Anja Paerson came out in 2012, when she and her longtime partner announced they were adopting a baby, but she had already retired from the sport months before.
Not all of the reactions to Kenworthy's news were appreciative. Some asked why an announcement of sexual orientation even matters in 2015, and not all who dismissed the news were Internet trolls. Snowboarding pioneer Terje Haakonsen, who famously boycotted the Olympic qualifiers because he felt it was run by skiers, retweeted a Wall Street Journal story headlined "Why Olympic skier Gus Kenworthy's coming out is a big deal" and said, "No, @btoddrichards did this 20 years ago & isn't all skiers gay; i'm heterosexual #soSpesial."
Others, including snowboard announcer Todd Richards, who is not gay and appears to be tagged for no reason other than a poor attempt at a joke, and professional skier Jacob Wester, along with Kenworthy, immediately denounced Haakonsen's remarks. Haakonsen defended his tweet, saying, "It's 2015 & not the Middle East. Media should have some respect & not treat anybody differently."
According to Chris French, though, Kenworthy's announcement does mean something, even in 2015. French is the founder of Ski Bums, a New York-based LGBTQ ski and snowboard club. It's the largest such organization in the world, with over 2,000 members from 50 states and 17 nations.
"I grew up skiing in a tiny town of 300 people," French said. "That's where a story like Gus's will really resonate. There are people who grew up in the mountains, in rural places, where there are no visible gay people. You don't see depictions of gay people."
French went on to say that words like "gay" and "fag" are still tossed around in skiing and snowboarding. He hopes that with Kenworthy coming out, more people in snow sports will feel comfortable openly identifying as LGBTQ.
"Many of us stay closeted because we don't see people who look like us," French said. "I've heard hundreds of coming-out stories, and many of us in our minds have an idea of what a gay person is or how they talk. Those depictions might not align with how every gay person identifies, particularly if those perceptions are stereotypes. Gus shows it's possible to be gay and still like action sports, and that's OK."
Kenworthy's announcement also comes at a time of growing tolerance in mountain communities, particularly in more conservative states such as Wyoming. "In a previous generation, we were truly afraid to go to a place like Jackson Hole," French said. The ski resort is just hours away from where Matthew Shepard was murdered for being gay in 1998. "A hotel owner would deny a gay man and his partner a room with one bed."
Now, French says, Ski Bums quickly fills its trips to Jackson Hole: "We can feel the freedom to be ourselves in Jackson and all over the world. Jackson is a welcoming community."
Kenworthy was a minor celebrity before his announcement, becoming known by most people when his tweets about wanting to rescue puppies during the Sochi Games went viral. While in Russia, Kenworthy also won a silver medal for ski slopestyle in its debut as an Olympic sport. It gets a bit lost in the news about his coming out, but Kenworthy is a damn good skier, talented enough to bring in new interest to the sport and be the next American skiing icon.
I've interviewed Kenworthy countless times in the course of his career. He is a good person, a skier's skier—the kind you typically find in a town like Telluride, Colorado. He wants to be the best and has never been afraid to say it. That tenacity has served him well in a career filled with X Games and Olympic medals, lucrative endorsements and enthusiastic ski fans. It will continue to serve him well in the next chapter of his life, as the most prominent openly gay athlete.
Barely 24 hours after it began, that chapter is already in high gear. His friends say he's been glued to his phone. Media appearances are being arranged. This morning, Kenworthy took time to write to a few kids who had sent him heartfelt messages about struggling with their own identity and sexuality. In the ESPN story, Kenworthy talks about his own history suicidal thoughts; according to the Trevor Project, LGBTQ youth are four times as likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers.
"I think being an LGBT role model is a good pressure and it would be an honor," Kenworthy said. "It's a position I want to be in."
"I think now I can ski to my ability," he added. "After all this, I just have to ski."
Kenworthy already has the 2018 Olympic Games in his sights, and wants to represent the US in halfpipe and slopestyle. He says he'd love to see rainbow flags flying at X Games events.
"I'm trying to take it all in," Kenworthy said. "This has been a personal victory and allows me a sense of freedom I've never felt before. I struggled so much as a kid. I hated myself at times. I didn't want anyone to know. I was so scared. And there is just no reason for people to feel that way or be ashamed of who they are. I hope my coming out story can be a step in the right direction."
Kenworthy's story gives skiing more depth than a puddle of Monster Energy and more emotion than "totally stoked, bro." It gives mountain-town kids who might be searching for their own identities an inspiration. Skiing and the rest of the action sports world are better for it. Kenworthy's choice to share his sexuality with the world is a brave move in a sport full of fearless people. We already knew he was talented; now we know the true extent of his courage. People like Gus make me proud to be a skier.