Much has been said and written about Adam Rippon’s ascension to America’s sweetheart.
Interviewers have complimented his blade-sharp wit.
Commentators have cooed over his sequined spins.
Twitter has lamented his unfair appraisal by judges who fail to award his flair.
Newscasters have knighted him “America’s first openly gay Winter Olympian” in every possible segment.
And all the while, Adam Rippon has been dishing out wry quips with a side of vocal fry, and the American public has been eating it up!
Where in the past gay Olympians have had their sexuality edited out or glossed over, Adam Rippon seems to be extolled for his. The media is practically begging to be wrapped around his sassy little finger. (See the 1:00 mark of his short program to see what finger I’m talking about…then watch the rest because WE ARE NOT WORTHY!)
NBC has already offered him a job as a commentator for the remainder of these Olympic Games.
Celebrities from Britney Spears to former NFL player Colin Cole have publicly congratulated him.
The Vice President tweeted almost desperately to get into the skater’s good graces.
Sesame Street invited him to dance with Elmo.
The NBC Olympics Twitter account even posted a video of Adam skating in the team competition and captioned it “ADAM RIPPON. Because he slays,” which kind of feels like pandering…EXCEPT IT’S THE SPORTS WORLD PANDERING TO GAY PEOPLE, SO I’LL TAKE IT!
In fact, the media seems to be leaning into Rippon’s “gayness” at every opportunity, prompting him to talk about his extreme teeth bleaching, encouraging him to showcase his bedazzled outfits, and inviting him to announce his celebrity crush—Harry Styles. And Rippon has not shied away; he has gladly consented to becoming the gay symbol of the PyeongChang Olympic Games, mindful that he is a torch-bearer of the queer Olympic flame, finally entering the stadium and collecting it due applause after so many carried it along in silence for so many decades.
But here’s the thing: Adam Rippon is not a symbol. He’s a person.
I placed “gayness” in quotes because when we talk about it, we often only tell part of the story. When we talk about “gayness,” we usually mean “effeminacy”—sparkly costumes and sassy side comments. These are things that deserve to be celebrated. We need to allow our champions these qualities, and Adam Rippon had embodied them so well.
But he has also told the rest of the story.
In almost every interview Rippon has conducted in these Games, he has reliably made his Reese Witherspoon references and cracked his witchcraft jokes, but he has yet to let anyone forget the unglamorous hours he and his teammates sacrificed to step onto Olympic ice. For every time he tweets something like “I’m a glamazon bitch ready for the runway,” he also sits in a press conference, listens to a question about whether or not Mike Pence did him a favor by casting a national spotlight on him, and responds like this:
“I think my hard work in to getting to the Olympics did me a favor. I think I worked really hard to get where I am, and I didn’t get to where I am for being gay or for speaking out on different issues. I got to where I am for working really hard.”
Adam Rippon serves flamboyant and focused, soft and severe, compassionate and competitive with equal sincerity.
Last week, I finished reading the gay classic The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal. In the novel, a young man named Jim wanders from his Virginia hometown to travel across the country, alternating between jobs as a sailor, a soldier, and a tennis instructor. Along the way, Jim gradually delves into the underground gay societies of 1940s America. The novel, understandably, was scandalously progressive for its time.
Yet, as a modern reader, some of Jim’s sentiments (or perhaps the author’s) unsettle me. Throughout the book, Jim believes his journeys to be mere detours on the path to settling down with his high school tennis buddy, Bob. He fantasizes often about his and Bob’s “perfect masculine idyll” contrasting it rigidly to the frivolous lives of his Hollywood friends:
“He could not imagine himself doing the things they said they did. Yet he wanted to know about them, if only out of a morbid desire to discover how what had been so natural and complete for him could be so perfectly corrupted by these strange womanish creatures.”
Jim attempts to distill his identity brewing over what he is not, villifying the feminine without ever really establishing what masculinity means to him.
Unfortunately, this sentiment still survives today. In both gay society and beyond, there is often a desire to devalue the feminine and glorify the masculine. It rears its head in the gay community whenever gay men talk about “making the rest of us look bad” or label dating profiles with “masc4masc.” It digs its claws into broader society when we value slapdash certainty over careful contemplation or elect comically unqualified men over supremely practiced women.
Which is why it is so wonderful to see Adam Rippon glorified for his femininity. And which is why it’s so wonderful to see that he does not carry the queer Olympic torch alone. Another face of the Games for NBC has been Gus Kenworthy. Kenworthy is brawny and bearded where Rippon is trim and tailored. He wears backward baseball caps. He tapes his broken thumb to his ski pole before landing dizzying corkscrews on the ski slope. He sports sprawling tattoos. He adopts feral dogs he finds in Sochi. At a distance, he appears more a traditional champion than ambassador or “gayness.”
And yet, there he was cheering on Adam Rippon at the ice arena with a rainbow American flag. And yet, there he was giving his boyfriend a quick kiss before his qualifying runs. And yet, there he was, taking down homophobic trolls on Twitter.
The fact is that these two men do not represent opposing ways to be gay: gay femininity vs. gay masculinity. They are not caricatures and necessarily fall on the spectrum between extremes by the simple virtue of being themselves aspiring to an idyll. In fact, we are all a marriage of masculine and feminine, whatever society has decided those words mean.
And if there’s enough room at the Olympics for Johnny Weir’s glittering hairpieces and Nick McCarvel’s steady presence and Brittany Bowe’s grit and Adam Rippon’s finesse and Eric Radford’s quiet confidence and Belle Brockhoff’s spunk, then there’s certainly enough room for it in the gay community and maybe even beyond.
In a rare moment of stripped down sincerity during a recent press conference, Rippon said it best: “Honestly, it’s—it’s, I mean it’s really fun to be yourself. It’s really fun to be me!”
We know, Adam. We’ve been watching.