Pairs figure skater Timothy LeDuc likes to say that he is “unapologetically myself.” But he’s had to fight – and is still fighting – for acceptance on and off the ice.
When LeDuc told the parent of a former skating partner that he was gay, he recalled her saying, “Oh my goodness, you need to keep that to yourself. That’s going to make us look really bad. Don’t tell anyone in my family – they’ll try to perform an exorcism on you. But you skate really good, so we’ll let you stay.”
Now LeDuc, 29, is staying true to himself. In January, he became the first openly gay athlete to win the national pairs title when he and Ashley Cain, his partner of three years, won the 2019 championship in Detroit. Her parents are among their coaches.
LeDuc, who said he identifies more with the word “queer” than the word “gay,” is taking advantage of his new platform to speak out – not only in June during LGBT Pride Month, but year-round.
“Sometimes people will say, ’Well, why does it matter if you’re gay? It doesn’t change what you do on the ice.’ And I would say, ‘Actually it does. It has everything to do with what we do on the ice, because I am authentically being myself and that makes me a better skater and a better athlete.”
LeDuc said being a role model is humbling.
“I know that I stand on the shoulders of so many great athletes that have come before me and who have been very brave and open and unapologetic in their queerness and that has allowed me to be an openly queer athlete,” said LeDuc, who has been out since he was 18.
He said that by being vocal and authentic, “I am giving permission to some other young person who may not be in an affirming environment and who needs that role model to look up to who can say, ‘Look, there is someone who is unapologetically being themselves, who does not have to alter who they are to fit in and they’re also snatching trophies.’”
While LeDuc said it is important to note that Randy Gardner (1976-1980 with Tai Babilonia) and Rudy Galindo (1989 and 1990 with Kristi Yamaguchi) came before him as national champions, “They were not open at the time of winning their pairs titles, and there’s a reason for that. In 2019 it’s much easier for me to be out and open. I faced fewer risks because of the hard work of prior generations who have been kicked out of their homes and had their families reject them.”
Growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, LeDuc started skating at 12, a relatively late age for the sport, although he said, “I don’t skate because I’m gay and I’m not gay because I skate. There’s this stereotype ‘Oh, a gay figure skater, groundbreaking,’ but I think people would be really surprised to know that most of the skaters are straight.”
LeDuc was successful in singles, but said pairs “is something I just fell in love with, something about creating a story and competing and training with another person. Once I did it, I couldn’t go back.”
And yet that added more barriers to overcome.
LeDuc recalled a successful tryout with a girl who chose to skate with someone else. “I find out later that she asked a mutual friend of ours, ‘What kind of gay is Timothy? Is he the kind who is going to freak out and drop me? Can he be strong on lifts?’”
LeDuc was devastated.
“It was really difficult for me to find out that I did not get to have this partnership with someone because they felt that my queerness would be a hindrance,” said the 6-foot-1 skater. “They were conflating weakness with gayness. I felt like a part of me that I had no choice over was preventing me from getting to the next level. Now I have fought through all of those things and overcome those challenges to become the national champion.”
LeDuc said he was fortunate to find a partner like Cain, who pushes him to be his best every day. He had been burned out after not making the 2014 Olympic team and spent two years skating on cruise ships to regain his mental health and replenish his bank account.
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Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc compete at the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 4, 2018 in San Jose, Calif.
Then he and Cain tried out.
“It was magic from the start,” he said of their partnership.
After Cain suffered a concussion during a competition in Croatia late last year, they persevered to get ready for nationals, where they won by more than 10 points. They also placed fourth at Four Continents and ninth at worlds, earning a second spot for U.S. pairs teams at worlds next year.
LeDuc was recently in Cain’s wedding as a “bridesman,” and said she flew back from her honeymoon in the Turks and Caicos Islands, “basically dumped the sand out of her suitcase and flew out the same day to pairs camp.”
Cain and LeDuc were known for the strength of their singles elements – including their side-by-side triple loop – and have worked to bring their pair elements up to the same level. They are adding the reverse lasso lift to their free skate this season, which will increase their difficulty by about a point.
"Without a doubt, our ultimate performance goal is to be on the 2022 Olympic team, to help Team USA win the gold in the team figure skating event and to medal in the individual pair event,” LeDuc said, adding that they hope to move up to top-five in the world next season.
At the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, Adam Rippon was the first openly gay singles skater from the United States while Canadian pairs skater Eric Radford was the first openly gay gold medalist in the team event.
LeDuc said their visibility was “really personal to me, because I didn’t have that growing up. Now we get to see that portrayal in the media, and I feel represented. I can’t stress the importance of that enough.”
LeDuc struggled with his self-esteem in high school in Cedar Rapids and had suicidal thoughts. He had never met a queer person or seen an example of a queer person that was portrayed in a positive way until after high school.
LeDuc said the only representation of queer people were those “mentioned in sermons at church as these sinners. So I internalized that message, that I am this sinner, that I am this abomination.
“I sometimes wonder how maybe things would be different for me if I didn’t spend so much time tearing myself down for something that I have no control over and something that I should not apologize for.”
When LeDuc came out to his parents, they were loving and supportive, yet “it was something we were trying to fix, trying to change, rather than understanding that it was just a part of who I was.”
A television show gave him the role models he sought. LeDuc said when he saw reruns of “Will & Grace,” which ended its first run in 2006, that was the “first time I had ever seen queer people portrayed as normal people, citizens that put their pants on one leg at a time and swear at the traffic on the way to work just like I do.”
His parents, Mike and Becky, also changed their views. “They put their love for their child first, and did the work and now they are amazing allies,” LeDuc said. “They’ve had the opportunity to speak to other parents whose children are in the process of coming out and to help them through that.”
In Dallas, where LeDuc now lives, his parents marched with him for the first time in a pride parade. Actually, Mike and Becky had marched in pride parades for several years, but Timothy wasn’t available to join them because of conflicts with camps or competitions.
He also participated in a transgender pride march the same day as the pride parade.
“Pride is first of all a protest that was sparked in 1969 by the Stonewall Riots, by transwomen of color,” LeDuc said. “We owe them everything for the rights and privileges that we enjoy today.
“Yet there are still so many laws and ordinances that discriminate against queer people. I would just like people to remember that, ye,s party, celebrate, be happy and embrace everything that you are authentically, but remember that the work is not yet done.”
He volunteers with DFW FUSE, an organization where part of his platform is speaking about HIV awareness and prevention strategies. It’s also an empowerment program.
On Facebook, LeDuc describes himself as “Queer athlete. Practicing the discipline of gratitude, kindness and empathy.”
He said that while he has received a lot of positive feedback, he has also encountered criticism and people who try to “straightwash” him.
“Some people will say, ‘Why can’t you just be who you are behind closed doors, why do you have to throw it in my face all the time?’” LeDuc said. “It’s because there are those people like me out there who need to have visibility, who need that person to tell them, ‘There is nothing wrong with you.’
“I said in the past that everyone who has the means to be out should be out. Some people do not have the means, and some people do not have the environment or the resources to be out and open and that’s OK. I’m really fortunate to have affirming family members and a great coaching team and a great skating partner.
“I can be out, and so with that platform, with my voice, I will be that voice for those who can’t be.”
Yet LeDuc recognizes that his outspokenness makes some people uncomfortable.
“There’s a certain expectation for queer people still to assimilate and when we don’t assimilate it can be very threatening,” he said. “And so I think people would prefer if they just saw me in a way that they were more comfortable with, which would be separating my queerness from what I do on the ice.
“I’m here to say, ‘No, you can’t do that.’”