At first, I couldn’t tell what drew me to Adam Rippon. His skating was graceful, sure, but I don’t really care about figure skating, or the Olympics in general. And yes there was the fact that he is gay, and that I am also gay, but that didn’t explain it either.
There have been plenty of gay celebrities (including plenty of gay figure skaters) in the last decade, and none have really thrilled me. I remember watching the football player Michael Sam come out and thinking, “Good for him,” but I didn’t excitedly text 10 of my friends about it. Yet I can’t shut up about Adam Rippon—his twinkish face and hair, his lispy voice, his burgeoning Twitter friendship with Reese Witherspoon, how he can’t stop talking about his looks even in the face of serious politics, the fact that he wanted to skate to his own rendition of Rihanna’s “Diamonds” at the Olympics (but was advised against it).
And then, after watching Rippon say in his singsong voice, while flailing his wrists about, “More than anything, I want to make Reese Witherspoon proud,” it dawned on me why I was so excited by him, why he felt so resonant: Adam Rippon is not only gay, but our first nationally recognized and respected faggot. Yes, there have been other flamboyant gays before Rippon, but none on such a large stage. (Figure skater Johnny Weir didn’t come out until after the Olympics; the only other prominent very-gay-gay that comes close to Rippon’s level of fagginess was Jack on Will and Grace, a fictional character.)
Rippon is not Michael Sam, kissing his long-term boyfriend chastely on TV during the NFL draft, or Gus Kenworthy with his square and stubbled jaw. His gayness is not an afterthought, but a central piece of his personality. In conservative parts of the country, or even on New York’s streets, he might, like many of my friends, still be called a fag and gawked at.
For decades, gays, lesbians, trans people, and queer people have made a bargain: We get representation on television, in movies, and in sports (albeit barely—there still aren’t any out gay men currently active in professional sports), but only if we convince the rest of the world we’re just like everyone else. In the 1990s and 2000s, the idea that gays and lesbians were as boring as straights became such a common narrative that The Onion even poked fun at it in 2001, declaring that the lewdness of gay pride parades would show straights what gays were really like, and erase all the progress they’d made.
But most of my gay friends are nothing like straights. Many have lisps. We gesture expressively. We have sex frequently with different people. Almost none of us have an interest in marriage.
And while I was never explicitly told all of the above was wrong, that is the message I’ve internalized from the mainstream gay rights movement. For decades, the unstated strategy for equality seemed to be to pretend that you love monogamy, button-down shirts, and whatever else straight people expect—or get out of the way. Ellen DeGeneres’s coming out in 1997 felt revelatory to me as a gay kid. It was brave, and felt ahead of its time. Yet in interviews, she jokingly reassured people again and again to not worry, she was just like you, she’s not gonna go all butch.
In 2005 Andrew Sullivan posited that this normalcy was a sign of progress, that we needed to mourn our previously ghettoized identities, and accept boringness. “For many of us who grew up fighting a world of now-inconceivable silence and shame, distinctive gayness became an integral part of who we are,” he wrote. “It helped define us not only to the world but also to ourselves. Letting that go is as hard as it is liberating, as saddening as it is invigorating.”
Our march toward normalcy wasn’t only about culture. In the 2000s, the diverse political struggles of LGBTQ people were subsumed into a battle for assimilation. The vast majority of dollars and effort went into winning the right to marriage and the right to die in wars alongside straights. In 2013, undocumented trans activists were told to stay silent and take down their trans pride flag at a rally for marriage equality so that mainstream gay organizations could look more palatable on TV.
That same impulse is reflected in what is now celebrated on screen: a gay culture that is oddly and awkwardly conservative. Most representations of gayness show us that gays want to be exactly like straight suburban couples, like on “Modern Family.” One of the most highly acclaimed movies of the last year, Call Me By Your Name, is about gay romance, but its stars are straight, and its characters are essentially straight, too. Where is our Oscar-nominated movie about an unapologetic gay who is secure in his sexuality? Nearly every mainstream gay film ends in death, or love that cannot be reconciled (see: Moonlight, Carol).
This tendency is especially true in sports. When NBA player Jason Collins came out in 2013, he essentially admitted that he needed to overcompensate in order to be accepted in basketball. “I go against the gay stereotype, which is why I think a lot of players will be shocked: That guy is gay?” he wrote. “Am I so physical to prove that being gay doesn’t make you soft? Who knows? That’s something for a psychologist to unravel.”
It’s an understated but revealing comment, hinting at something that many gays have had to do: be someone other than themselves, kill off their most vulnerable parts, to appear readable to straight society. Until Adam Rippon, I’d given up caring about gay representation because it seemed to me inherently assimilationist, and inherently restrictive. I did not want to have to sacrifice parts of myself in order to be viewed as worthy of love.
I am reading way too much into Adam Rippon. I know he really dislikes Mike Pence and Donald Trump, but I don’t know how far his analysis of queerness goes, or anything else about him, really. But I do think he’s a sign of a new direction in gayness and our visibility. As he talks about needing a “Xanax and a quick drink”, as he shows off his butt on Instagram, he’s signaling to us—or to me, anyway—that we can be nothing like you, and still demand respect.