NEW YORK -- On Thursday evening, when U.S. skiers and snowboarders gathered at the American Museum of Natural History in New York for the annual Gold Medal Gala, it had been one week since Gus Kenworthy came out as gay in a cover story for ESPN The Magazine.
Kenworthy, a silver medalist at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games and the Association of Freeskiing Professionals top-ranked skier, had spent days absorbing countless emails, texts and social media messages running the gamut from applause, to rage and indifference. His overwhelming feeling, though, was that he had done the right thing.
“The support I’ve gotten has been amazing,” Kenworthy, 24, said. “I’ve had a lot of kids reach out to me that are feeling like they’re in the same situation. I feel good I’ve been able to step into that role.”
The slopestyler from Telluride, Colorado, talked with TeamUSA.org about his decision and its fallout.
Why was it important for you to open up about your sexuality with the public, and why did you do it now?
I just think it was the right timing for me. I was struggling maintaining this façade and was just ready to let my guard down and let people in. There hasn’t been that person in action sports, and there really have not been very many people in sports in general, to step up to the plate and speak up about their sexuality. I think because there have not been that many people, it kind of further envelopes gay men with a sense of shame, which I definitely felt for a long time. I wished I had someone I could kind of relate to, and I’m just hoping to be that person to someone for other people.
You know, I don’t think it should be a headline-worthy thing. I don’t think someone’s sexuality should be news, but I don’t think we’re quite at the point where everyone is openly accepting. I think there is a lot of intolerance and a lot of ignorance. I’ve definitely received a lot of great, great, great support, and I’ve received a lot of negativity, too, and so that negativity further shows me why it’s important to speak up about it. I don’t think anyone should be ashamed of who they are.
You’re at the top of your game, and you have sponsors. After coming out, did you get any negativity from them?
No, I certainly haven’t gotten that from my sponsors. And it wasn’t that I was nervous that a sponsor was going to be upset, necessarily; it was just more that our whole sport, my income, everything is based around image. But in the end I am gay, and it’s not something I have a choice over, and it’s something I’m proud of. I’m more than happy to be open about it and so far everyone, from a sponsor point of view, is supportive.
We live in a world of round-the-clock social media interaction, whether it’s Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. How has it been dealing with all that?
Social media adds such a crazy element to everything we do, because people are so quickly connected to you. I don’t know if they actually realize that you’re actually reading the stuff they write to you. They don’t associate a human being on the other side. I’ve definitely had my fair share of nasty comments, and people telling me to kill myself or whatever. But I’ve also had really sweet comments. The good more than outweighs the bad.
The people closest to me, I told them in advance (about coming out), they were supportive. They wanted me to be happy, and they saw how much I was kind of struggling with it.
What would you say to other athletes who might be struggling with the decision of whether to open up with the public?
The only reason people still have to announce it is that it’s kind of not what you would expect within sports, especially in the role I was kind of playing. When I announced it, I had some people that were shocked. They were saying, “You lost my support.” And then there are all these new people; I’ve gained their support.
You have to embrace it, become proud of it. I think it’s not so globally accepted that you can be, “I’m gay, so?” and feel that it’s (routine). I want that to be the case, but I don’t think we’re there yet. Kids shove it away for so long and eventually make the choice to come out, (and) it makes it a big deal when they do go to college, or move, or retire from a career. It’s a big deal always for the person involved. I think the only reason it was a big deal for me was just because of where I was with the sport.
Back to the slopes. You’re coming off a leg and knee injury last season. What are your goals for this season?
I want to defend my title as the overall AFP world champion. I want to get medals at the X Games. I just want to come back really strong and feel good and make the most of the season. So far, (my training) has all been dry-land focused, I haven’t actually been on snow since my injury. I’m just waiting for the Colorado season to get started, and I’ll get back to being on my skis for the first time in a while. I’m hoping to be 100 percent by the first event.