When I ask figure skater Jeremy Abbott how athletes should respond to Russia’s anti-gay laws, his eyes widen. “Um,” he says, and stops. He shrugs a little and glances over at the U.S. Figure Skating (USFS) handler who’s standing nearby.
“You don’t have to answer that,” the handler reassures him.
Abbott takes in a breath, glances down. “Yeahhh,” he sighs, almost inaudibly. Then — “I’m going to walk away from that one.”
We’re backstage at the 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, which serve as an unofficial qualifier for the Olympic team, and Abbott’s a favorite. He’s 28 years old, planning to retire at the end of the season and cautious; he was criticized last year for comparing Russia’s laws — which have motivated the rape, torture, and murder of gay men and women — to bad interior design. (“I’m not going to go into somebody’s house and be like, “Um, the way you decorate is hideous.”) A bunch of athletes had been cornered on the topic, and the less media-savvy skaters hadn’t yet mastered the art of expressing compassion while sidestepping responsibility. Abbott just happened to come up with a particularly inept metaphor.
Later, when I pass him in the hallway, he apologizes twice.
To outsiders, men’s figure skating is widely perceived as the Gayest Sport Ever, the butt of endless jokes — consider last weekend’s SNL cold open about the “U.S. Men’s Heterosexual Figure Skating Team.” The direct action group Queer Nation has recently protested figure skaters Brian Boitano and Johnny Weir for not speaking up against Russia’s anti-gay laws. One of the group’s representatives, who asked to not be named, tells me, “Everyone assumes all male skaters are gay. So what? … I have a hard time believing that figure skating is a particularly homophobic sport. I don’t understand this impulse, particularly from figure skaters, to hide their sexuality. You can’t tell me that if Jeremy Abbott came out as gay that it would affect his standing in the skating world.”
To insiders, though, it’s no surprise that skaters are reluctant to speak out on LGBT rights, let alone come out themselves. Most male skaters and officials are committed to keeping their sport in the closet, whether that means choosing “masculine” music, hinting about a girlfriend, or outright denying any connection to homosexuality. A figure skater can never quite outskate the judges’ opinion of him, and judges and institutions, it turns out, are notoriously conservative — as some would say, “family-friendly.” At the National Championships, which took place this January in Boston, a phrase I heard often was “don’t ask, don’t tell.”