Brian Boitano competes at the Olympic Winter Games Calgary 1988 on Feb. 20, 1988 in Calgary.
“I didn’t think it was something that I wanted to ever share with people who weren’t inside my circle,” says Brian Boitano, the 1988 Olympic gold medalist in figure skating. “I just felt like it was a private thing. It was nothing that I tried to hide with my family and friends…but it was something that I wanted to share with only those people who were close to me. I didn’t feel the need to (publicly come out), really.”
Over 30 years since his Olympic triumph, Boitano does feel the need – and proudly – to discuss his sexuality, having been asked out of the closet in late 2013 as a part of the U.S. delegation for the Sochi Olympics (more on that later), and watching the sport’s modern stars like Adam Rippon, Guillaume Cizeron, Eric Radford and others be more public in their coming out stories in recent years.
“It is a different era,” said Boitano. “I do think the open-mindedness of the world and the freedom to be who you want to be is becoming more accepted. Especially with the younger generation, which is who the skaters are inspiring now.”
Boitano is clear-headed in who he was, who he is now and how it all happened. Privately open and dating men in his adult life, Boitano never spoke about his sexuality with the press, or even with close training mates like 1992 Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi, whom he traveled for years with as a competitor and on tours.
In the days following his historic “Battle of the Brians” triumph at the Olympic Winter Games Calgary 1988, Boitano had an agent in his ear reminding him the figure skating audience was predominantly female.
A public coming out then?
“It wasn’t even something I had ever entertained,” said Boitano.
Finding His Voice – Reluctantly
Brian Boitano performs during Skate Canada on Oct. 1, 1987 in Calgary.
Boitano, now 56, has become a household name since his rise as a top-level figure skater in his early 20s.
Having won four consecutive U.S. titles, two world championships, an Olympic gold medal and made a return to “amateur” skating (as it was) in 1993-94 to compete at the Lillehammer Games, where he was sixth, Boitano toured as a headliner in hundreds of shows and competed in now-defunct professional competitions for much of the 90s. This was skating’s heyday, the era of Nancy vs. Tonya, Kristi, Michelle vs. Tara and – of course – Brian.
He, too, branched out.
He became a TV mainstay on cooking shows, wrote a best-selling cookbook, was parodied on South Park and filled his life outside of skating, restoring a family home in Italy for an HGTV series.
But when he was named to an athlete delegation to represent the U.S. in Sochi in 2014, Boitano was not told that the other athletes being named to the same delegation were LGBTQ+ sports icon Billie Jean King, and openly gay hockey player Caitlin Cahow, a two-time Olympic medalist.
In the fervor leading up to the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014, media coverage of Russia’s so-called gay propaganda law was through the roof, and the naming of King, Cahow – and Boitano – to the delegation was poignant and pointed, yet left Boitano, who hadn’t officially publicly come out at that point in his life, in a difficult position.
“I thought, ‘If I’m going to support this, and I’m going here to support President Obama and to support his message, I have to come out,’” said Boitano.
He recalls having woken up to a press release about the delegation and his name trending on Twitter.
“I have to come out,” said Boitano. “Whether it’s ‘late’ for me, or people are surprised or not surprised, I have to make a statement, because I believed the message the President was sending.”
Having been out privately for decades, Boitano was now facing his first-ever breaking point to make a public statement about his sexuality.
So Boitano decided to send his own message.
He crafted an old-school press release that was “exactly what I wanted to say.”
“I’m glad it happened when it did for me,” said Boitano. “I wouldn’t have chosen to do it before. The sacrifice that I would have made I think would have been immense, and I had the career that I did because I didn't (come out).”
A Different Era
Brian Boitano performs at the Olympic Winter Games Lillehammer 1994 on Feb. 17, 1994 in Lillehammer, Norway.
Boitano is beloved in both the figure skating and Olympic communities, mostly due to his outgoing personality and ease to be around.
He’s revamped U.S. Figure Skating’s alumni efforts, hosts skating viewing parties and – this year – went undercover at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships as a mustachioed reporter, “Pete Pepper,” fooling the like of Scott Hamilton and a host of current U.S. skaters, including national medalists Mariah Bell, Kaitlin Hawayek, Jean-Luc Baker, Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea.
Yet in the 80s and 90s, while the likes of Billie Jean, Martina Navratilova and Greg Louganis were out, being publicly open about one’s sexuality was “generally recognized as a kiss of death in the lucrative world of endorsements,” wrote Karen Crouse in the Orange County Register in a 1994 article.
After his 1988 win at the Olympics, Boitano’s aforementioned agent had been up front with him as he did a whirlwind of interviews, many promoting upcoming tours and competitions that he was going to be a part of. Keep the conversation on skating, and – if the convo veers – express your desire to get married and start a family – one day.
“All the people watching the skating TV shows were women,” said Boitano. “All the people buying the tickets to the events? Women. They were the fan base; they were the reason that the ratings were so high. And I wanted a career.”
In a sporting realm today that features countless out athletes and their success stories said decision might be hard to fathom, but it’s as simple as looking at sports like American football, basketball, baseball or hockey – known as the “Big Four” U.S. team sports – where very few athletes have come out, even in retirement.
“When I toured through certain places, I would get fans coming up and… don’t know if they knew any gay people, (my sexuality) didn’t even dawn on them,” said Boitano. “In fact, I was so surprised when I retired from skating that people thought that male skaters were gay, because I was the only gay kid on the whole world team. I literally didn’t have any contemporaries who were gay. I had no role models at all to model myself after. I mean, look at all the champions. It was Charlie Tickner, it was Scott Hamilton, it was David Santee and all these guys were straight. So, I just kept my mouth closed, you know?”
Rudy Galindo, the U.S. champion in 1996, did come out in the 90s.
Boitano made a point to be clear that his sexuality was known by those skaters they toured with, but that it wasn’t spoken about. He and Galindo, however, did discuss it.
“Rudy knew about me. (And) let me be clear, they knew about me, but I never spoke about it,” said Boitano. “Rudy and I would talk about it, but he knew that with my fans I didn’t speak about it. He knew that that was important to me and he respected it.”
‘Feeling Free:’ A New Kind Of Thinking
Brian Boitano poses for a photo at The San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus' 41st Season Crescendo Gala Fundraiser on April 27, 2019 in San Francisco, Calif.
Following his press release in the winter of 2013, Boitano did the rounds, this time not to avoid his sexuality, but solely because of it. He was featured on Hardball, Anderson Cooper, Meet the Press, Piers Morgan and more.
Cooper, who publicly came out in 2012, became a confidante in what were unchartered waters for Boitano, who wasn’t used to feeling off-balance.
“I called Anderson and I was kind of freaking out a little bit,” said Boitano. “We talked for 45 minutes and it really helped me. It’s very unusual that peers of our age help other peers. They don’t ask for help, they try to do it themselves. But he was so helpful. He probably made the biggest impact in the aspect of me coming out.”
On the phone, Boitano spoke to Cooper on a wide arrange of elements of coming out, but also specifically about the Russian law and stances that he should take.
Meanwhile, at an art gallery in New York, Boitano was part of a discussion series and had been confronted by LGBTQ+ activists with the message, “You have to stand up to Putin harder!”
Boitano was feeling some of the backlash for not having come out prior.
Boitano was learning as he went, not easy for any of us in life, especially someone in the public eye who was taking on something new 25 years after winning Olympic gold.
“Anderson walked me through the whole thing,” said Boitano. “I hope to be able to do that with some of my peers, or not even my peers, but someone else one day when they need the help.”
Boitano has taken steps to do just that, recently signing on with Athlete Ally, the LGBTQ+ sports equality organization, as an ambassador, and doing interviews like this one, something he has been hesitant about in the past six years.
“I don’t have to monitor it anymore,” said Boitano. “It’s like, yeah, sure, let’s talk about it. Let’s do this. I like not having to avoid the subject. I like feeling free. That’s where my freedom comes into play. I had always constructed the right answers for when people might ask me about my sexuality and what my response would be to kind of avoid it. That was before. Now, I like the freedom of being able to talk about it and be open about it and contribute and to work with organizations that I wouldn’t work with on a regular basis. So, it’s nice to be able to give back at this point.”