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PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Had he known an NBC camera was trained on him, that the lot of the United States tuning into the PyeongChang Games was watching, Matt Wilkas wouldn’t have settled for a simple peck on the lips. He would have pulled his boyfriend, Gus Kenworthy, in tight and offered a far better kiss, one to properly memorialize the occasion. Something Olympic-level.
As it stands, the small token of affection left a large impression on the gay community for whom Kenworthy has become a hero. He and figure skater Adam Rippon became the first openly gay American Winter Olympians here, and their combination of skill and activism has reverberated online and live. Rainbow flags flew Sunday afternoon as Kenworthy tried to repeat as a medalist following his silver in Sochi, when he was still closeted.
“That’s something that I wanted at the last Olympics – to share a kiss with my boyfriend at the bottom – and it was something that I was too scared to do for myself,” Kenworthy said. “And so to be able to do that, to give him a kiss, to have that affection broadcasted for the world is incredible. I think that’s the only way to really change perceptions, break down homophobia, break down barriers is through representation. And that’s definitely not something I had as a kid. I definitely didn’t see a gay athlete at the Olympics kissing their boyfriend. And I think if I had, it would’ve made it a lot easier for me.”
This is why Kenworthy, Rippon and other gay athletes fighting for equality and acceptance matter. It is not for personal gain, not for profit, not for social-media likes. It is to speak to audiences small and large – the tight-knit LGBTQ community for whom out athletes serve as a beacon and an America that still struggles with inclusion and understanding and compassion. It is selfless and pure, two qualities respectable no matter one’s feelings about sexuality.
“To see Gus kiss his boyfriend openly, proudly, full of love, not trying to hide it, not trying to say this is just my friend – that means a lot,” said Tyler Oakley, an LGBTQ activist and friend of Kenworthy’s who traveled to see him compete in person for the first time. “And that little bit of hope helps kids around the world, helps adults around the world.”
While Oakley sees progress in the United States, the treatment of the LGBTQ community in countries where one’s sexuality can lead to imprisonment or death – and even in the White House, where vice president Mike Pence has drawn severe criticism for past anti-gay sentiments – gives him an even greater impetus to champion his cause. He found willing collaborators in Rippon and Kenworthy, whose unrelenting criticism of Pence earned both rebukes from Trump supporters – and hosannas from the gay community.
“It’s just about honesty. He’s being honest,” Wilkas said. “I don’t think he meant to provoke. And also, if you have the platform to speak your mind, you might as well take the opportunity to if it matters to you.”
Kenworthy’s platform grew initially not just from his medal but his adoption of stray dogs in Sochi. He came out in an ESPN story in 2015, and any fear that it would affect him professionally quickly evaporated. Sponsors stuck with him. Others celebrated him. For a sport with a marginal following outside of Olympic years in the U.S., Kenworthy grew into as marquee a name as freestyle skiing had to offer.
Among the media attention and documentary-film crew following him and cameo in a Nick Kroll movie being shot in the Olympic Village and showing up at skating events to support Rippon, Kenworthy’s schedule overflowed with commitments. Three days before he was due to compete, he fractured a thumb. A day after that, a fall in training left him with a gnarly bruise that filled six syringes with blood when drained.
Kenworthy still managed to qualify for the finals in one of the best slopestyle competitions ever. Last year’s world No. 1, American McRae Williams, didn’t make the finals, nor did X Games winner Henrik Harlaut. Following slip-ups on his first two runs, he had one final crack at a medal, and as he stood at the top of the course, with three rail-filled features and three jumps ready for the taking, he said he felt thankful and appreciative.
At the bottom were his family and friends. Across the yellow band of a rainbow flag, Wilkas had written: “WE LOVE U GUS!” In Oakley’s right pocket were two flags: one for the United States, the other for gay pride. They hoped for the best. Then Kenworthy stumbled on a landing and pulled up before a jump, his improvisational skills simply not quick enough to make up for his mistake. He finished 12th, last among the finalists, and saw fellow American Nick Goepper, the bronze medalist in 2014, take silver.
He was sanguine nevertheless, looking not at one day or one competition but at how the PyeongChang Games augured well for future Olympians who might be afraid to compete out or for those who need not a role model but, as Oakley said, a “possibility model.”
“Being out at this games has meant the world to me,” Kenworthy said. “Just getting to really be myself and be authentic. Landing a run in the final, getting on the podium, would’ve been icing on the cake. But even though it didn’t happen for me, I still had a wonderful Olympic experience. …
“Win or lose, it’s not the thing that defines me. I’m just proud to be here representing the U.S.”
For those who blanched at that representation – who thought disrespectful Kenworthy finding the silver lining in his broken thumb that he wouldn’t have to shake Pence’s hand – understand that his participation here, his commitment to inclusion, his willingness to be that voice and serve as that beacon mean everything to a community that simply wants a world in which two men kissing one another isn’t something memorable. It’s just normal.
More Olympic coverage from Yahoo Sports:
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• British short-track skater Christie doubtful for 1,000M after injuring ankle
• Wetzel: Nagasu was once an Olympian hidden in plain view
• Passan: Why Kenworthy’s celebratory kiss is kind of a big deal
• Olympian has sudden, surprising reunion with estranged mom