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Gus Kenworthy Reflects on Pride and Advocacy in Action Sports

We sat down with the Olympian to hear his thoughts on celebrating and supporting the LGBTQ community in action sports Monster photo.

It was a defining moment for action sports when Gus Kenworthy came out in 2015, making him the first Olympic skier to ever publicly come out as gay. In hindsight, it is likely that there have been other gay action sports athletes before Kenworthy, but coming out in the action sports world is daunting. Sports like skiing have never been at the helm of inclusivity: often disregarding those facing adversity within realms of race, culture, gender, or sexuality. Worried about his perception, dropped sponsors, and being shunned from the industry, it felt like a massive leap of faith for Kenworthy to tell his true story. However, the response to his coming out was overwhelmingly positive from his fans and sponsors. Suddenly, to his surprise, Kenworthy found himself in a unique position: He had become an icon for the LGBTQ+ community overnight, but had just started to process what it meant to be gay, and for most of his life, had tried to deny that truth.

RELATED: Stephen Shelesky - Coming Out is a Lifelong Journey

In the five years since coming out, Kenworthy has not only owned his identity but used it as a platform for action. For him, advocacy looks a bit like this: Fundraising and participating in the annual AIDS/LifeCycle 545-mile charity ride, attending peaceful protests for the Black Lives Matter movement, or simply calling out injustice when he sees it. This June, during Pride Month, we sat down with Kenworthy to hear more about his advocacy work and why it is more important now than ever before to be speaking up about equality and justice.

What does Pride mean to you?

Gus Kenworthy: Pride is a celebration of accepting yourself and living your truth. The first Pride was essentially a riot of people standing up for themselves, and over the years, this month has evolved into a celebration of living authentically.

It’s also a moment to look back and see where we’ve come as a community. Being openly gay might seem widely accepted, but we still have a long way to go in many parts of the world. Here, in the U.S., it was just written into law that you can’t discriminate against someone in the workplace for their sexual orientation. Before this law, there were 15 states where you could simply be fired for being gay. That was completely legal, and it’s 2020. Gay people still have a hard time adopting children, and in other countries, you can still be stoned to death for being gay.

While the world is certainly a more accepting place now than it ever has been, I think we also should use Pride as a time to remember the work that still needs to be done.

For Kenworthy, Pride is more than just a celebration but an important time for reflection. Monster photo.  

I mean it’s worth acknowledging that Stonewall wasn’t that long ago.

GK: No, it wasn't long ago at all. I mean, the AIDS epidemic happened in the ‘80s, and when you look back during that time there was barely any support for the LGBTQ community. People thought that AIDS was a gay disease. It even got stigmatized as this contagious thing you could get from breathing near one another. Many, many, many beautiful and incredible people were lost during the AIDS epidemic, and many of those people died alone because their families wouldn’t even visit them at the hospital. At the time, not only was it shameful to be gay, but to get AIDS was looked down upon.

In my opinion, it only made things harder for the next generation of gay people because it inadvertently taught you that being gay came with a death sentence. In hindsight, the AIDS crisis was only 35 years ago. It’s important to remember that where we are as a community is owed to all the people who didn't have the luxury of acceptance.

How do you think the ski industry could uplift Pride and the LGBTQ community?

GK: There are probably more queer skiers and people in the industry than we know about because snowsports are still not necessarily the most accepting place. I’ve always found that interesting because skiing is all about freedom. The sensation of skiing is completely freeing and exhilarating. This community can be accepting in some ways, but it's still difficult to step outside of the confines of what it means to be a “pro skier.” I found that athletes tend to get put into this preconceived box, and being gay doesn't necessarily fit within those standards. I think that’s why it was scary for me to come out.

Also, the language that gets thrown around isn’t always the most inclusive, especially when people say things like “that’s gay.” It led me to believe that the industry wouldn’t be accepting of who I was. Ultimately, I was pleasantly surprised by how accepting the industry, my fans, and my brands—Monster, Atomic, and SMITH—have been with my real identity.

I think when queer people are more visible in outdoor and action sports, the next generation won’t be afraid to live their truth. It shouldn’t be shocking for someone to come out. It shouldn’t be shocking for a gay person or a queer person to be in sports/action sports, but right now it’s still a big deal because there's such a lack of representation. We need to celebrate queer stories to create a sense of normalcy, which will uplift those people and hopefully inspire the next generation.

In the years since you’ve come out, has the action sports community become more inclusive to the LGTBQ+ community?

GK: I found that little things went a long way. For example, people are shifting their language. I would hear people catch themselves when they were trying to say, “Oh, this is so—”, but they would stop themselves before saying gay. Or if they did say it, they would quickly correct themselves and apologize. For me, it’s a big deal. It’s been pretty eye-opening because it shows me that people are recognizing these learned habits and biases.

I think that willingness to learn and grow is really important. For example, in the original article I came out in, I mentioned that every year I competed at the X Games, interviewers would always ask me if my girlfriend was at the bottom. I struggled with the assumption that I was a straight man. But the year after my ESPN article was released, the announcers changed that question to, “is your significant other here?” I appreciate that they’re leaving it open-ended because it gives any athlete a chance to decide if they want their sexual orientation to be public knowledge.

Recognizing these learned habits and biases—especially in our language—can go a long way for making marginalized communities feel welcome. Monster photo.

It does seem like those little things make a big difference though. If a major event shows you celebrating your run with your boyfriend, it sends a powerful message to someone who’s gay.

GK: It’s a big deal. The same thing happened at the last Olympics too. If the Media had made a huge fuss about my boyfriend being there, I think I would have been uncomfortable. I know it was a big deal that Adam Rippon and I were the first two openly gay U.S. athletes, but I think if we highlight an athlete’s sexuality without going overboard it will crystallize the fact that being gay is normal, natural, wonderful and special.

Having the X Games show my boyfriend on their broadcast simply says so much, and if we continue to do small things like that it will create a much-needed sense of normalcy for our community.

Do you feel like you've kind of taken it upon yourself to become an advocate?

GK: Yeah, absolutely. The reason I came out publicly in such a big way was so I could help people that might be in the same situation that I was. I feel for the kids out there struggling with their identity, especially if they’re involved with a sport that hasn’t always been inclusive. I mean, there were a lot of things that made it scary and difficult for me to come out, but at the end of the day, they’re similar struggles to what many people in the closet deal with. I feel so lucky for all the opportunities skiing continues to give me, and I feel like it's my responsibility, as someone with a lot of privilege, to try and use that to help others.

Last year you participated in the 545-mile AIDS Life Cycle, what inspired you to do that?

GK: I hadn't really known about it until my friend did it the year before. I actually went to cheer him on at the finish line in LA with a bunch of friends, and when he finished he immediately burst into tears. It was a very emotional day for him. I mean, riding about a hundred miles a day for a week is a difficult, daunting task to begin with. But on top of that, the entire ride is fundraising for HIV-AIDS research and for different community centers that help LGBTQ people that are struggling financially. Just seeing his experience and learning about what this ride entails inspired me to sign up that day and try and raise a huge amount. I figured that since I had a big platform, I had an opportunity to make a significant impact.

My thought process went like this: I have one million followers. If every one of my followers donated a dollar, I can raise a million dollars. I found out that that was easier said than done, since I was not able to get all my followers to donate a dollar. Ultimately, a lot of people made generous donations and I got my sponsors involved. SMITH, my goggle and optics sponsor, did a collaboration with me to create a special pair of sunglasses and a helmet, and we sold those and had the proceeds go to my fundraiser. Together with all of that, we were able to raise a quarter of a million dollars, which broke the record for donations raised by an individual.

These days, Kenworthy is using his platform as a skier and Olympian to speak up about civil rights issues. Monster photo.

How was it doing the ride?

GK: It wasn't even until I was on the ride that I understood its significance. I mean, it's thousands of people riding for more than 500 miles across California, sleeping in tents, and then getting up at five in the morning to ride their bike all day. It's crazy, but it's amazing.

Were you emotional when you reached the end?

GK: I was the most overwhelmed the night before we finished. The second to last night on the ride, they do a candlelight vigil for all those lost during the AIDS epidemic. As someone who didn’t see the epidemic firsthand, you can do your best to watch things, read things, and understand the tragedy, but for me, it wasn't really until that moment that I felt the enormity of it. There was a candle for every person that we lost to the epidemic, and everyone carried those candles out on a beach and it was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. I can't even tell you how many little tealight candles were out there.

The entire beach was glowing and everyone was completely silent. All you heard was the lapping of the waves. It hits you that each of those candles was a life that was cut short. AIDS took the life of an entire generation of gay people: artists, costume designers, set designers, writers, and Musicians. These people could have done so much had their lives not been cut short. I think that was the moment that I realized that this is so much bigger than just the ride and a blurb in an article about Pride.

Those were real lives.

I’ve noticed that you’ve been turning to your platform to speak up about civil rights issues and the Black Lives Matter movement. What compelled you to speak up?

GK: Simply put: Silence equals violence. It's so easy to turn a blind eye to injustice when you’re a cisgender white person that doesn't face any discrimination. I think I can empathize with what's happening. I know what it feels like to be different and not necessarily always be accepted because I'm gay. But I'm also cisgender, white and a man. With all that in mind, I’m at the top of the privileged pyramid. I recognize the struggles people of color, women, and trans women of color face daily in this country. I just wanted to try and do whatever I can to help. If there was ever a time, now is the time to speak up on behalf of the disenfranchised.

It also goes beyond just posting to your social media. It means buying books by Black authors, learning about ideas that may be unfamiliar to you such as red lining, and watching documentaries about wealth inequality between Black Americans and white Americans. You start to realize how awful racial inequality is, but once you’re aware of it you can advocate for it. It starts to become something that you want to speak up about.

It’s interesting too how the Black Lives Matter movement is coinciding with Pride, especially when you consider the history of Stonewall and the Black trans women who fought for that. It feels a bit full circle.

GK: Yeah, Black trans women were at the forefront of our fight for acceptance and equality, and they’ve almost been forgotten about. I think it's important now that we are fighting on their behalf and standing up for them. We don't have equal rights until everyone has equal rights. I also think that with COVID, it’s been the perfect storm for this new civil rights movement because you have people that have been out of work, lost money and locked at home. It's a lot of time for introspection and provides time to think about everything that's going on in your life and the world. I mean, 2020 has been the worst year, but also in a lot of ways, it’s been a year of significant progress because we’re addressing these issues and speaking up for marginalized communities. 

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