Olympic figure skater Adam Rippon, the first openly gay U.S. athlete to medal in the competition, explains how, for him, coming out was—and still is—an ongoing process.
I came out publicly in 2015, when SKATING magazine approached me and my good friend Ashley Wagner to do a cover story. It was tucked into the story, and it wasn’t really a big deal at first. It felt like weeks went by before anyone even got to that part in the article! But, in that moment it felt so powerful and I felt so in control.
Within the skating community, people thanked me. On the ice, the quality of my work improved. In skating, you have a few minutes to show the judges what you’re made of, and being out, I was able to completely be myself. At the same time, it suddenly felt bigger than me, like I was representing other people. And when I was tired, when I felt done, doing it for them was easier than doing it for myself.
[But the truth is,] my coming-out wasn’t one moment. It’s a process never really ends. Coming out is about about finding out who you are in stages, through moments of self-discovery.
Ironically, my first one was the result of a crush I had on a girl in third grade. I thought she was beautiful and funny, and I remember thinking, “Oh my God, I wish that I could kiss her!” But as soon as I said it to myself, I was like, “Wait, I don’t want to kiss her.” Of course, I didn’t know what that meant, but it was the weirdest feeling that scared and confused me.
The first crush I had on a boy was in fifth grade. Well, now I know it was a crush. Back then, I was just like, ‘I think he’s really cool … and handsome … and funny… and smart … and, I just wonder how he’s doing … all the time!’
But for so long, I was really uncomfortable with the idea of being gay. I grew up in a small, [conservative] town in Pennsylvania where I had no connection to any [LGBT] people (that I knew of). When I was maybe 12, I remember being in a conversation about a gay person. Someone interrupted and said, “Ugh, that’s disgusting!” And I held onto that for a really long time. It made me uncomfortable with who I was and gave me anxiety that someone would find out. So right away, I put up this huge wall.
In my 20s, I couldn’t [bury that part of myself anymore]. I met a guy who was gay and we started flirting, and it was unlike anything else that I’d ever experienced. I knew in that moment: I’m not bisexual. I also don’t think girls are disgusting. But I am gay. And I felt like I understood for the first time what that meant to me.
Up until then, I sort of felt like, ‘I’ll deal with these feelings when I’m done skating. Right now, I’m going to focus on that.’ But there comes a time when life takes over. You get in this depression, feeling like everybody around you kind of knows but you keep pushing this lie. I finally got to that point where the weight was so much that I needed to come out to friends.
The first time I said it out loud to another person, I was 22 and visiting one of my skating friends in Arizona. And let me tell you, coming out is one of the most non-organic conversations you can have. It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. I remember I said it flat out: “I have something to tell you. I’m gay.” I felt the words leave my mouth. I also felt like I’d dropped like 20 lbs. (I wish every time I said I’m gay now I would drop 20 lbs!) The reaction was the best case. “Thank you so much for sharing this with me. I love you. It doesn’t change anything.” And then the conversation moved on. From there, I had moments where I’d tell people who were close with me. Otherwise, I’d plant seeds and just act and say whatever I wanted.
The next big step was telling my mom later that year. She was in California to watch me skate, and I knew it was the last time I’d see her for months. I [texted] her, “Hey mom, can you meet me in the parking lot of the rink?” I was so nervous, I kept procrastinating with small talk. “Did you like the show? Was it good?” In my mind I’m like, ‘Tell her you’re gay! Tell her you’re gay!’ She’s about to leave, and I said, “Mom there’s one more thing I need to tell you … I’m gay.” She looked at me, took a breath, and said, “I know.” A small part of me was shocked, because I thought I’d covered it up so well—which, of course, I hadn’t. I mean, I was wearing a tank top with crystals on it. But she goes, “You were inside me for nine months. I know.” I was like, “First of all, that’s disgusting. And second of all, what a huge relief.”
When I told the rest of my family at home a few months later, I didn’t want to do anything dramatic like stop dinner to make an announcement. Except I’m one of six, so telling everyone individually ended up being way more dramatic. One of my brothers had my favorite reaction. We were playing a video game together when I told him. He looked at me and said, “Okay. Can we keep playing the game, though?”
[The decision to come out publicly was slower.] It was something I wanted to do since before the 2014 Sochi Olympics, when Ashley spoke out about Russia’s “anti-gay propaganda” law and was one of the only athletes to do it. I was moved. [But I was also scared that if] I made the Olympic team, I could be putting people in danger. And when I didn’t make the team, the timing felt off.
Even after [speaking openly about my sexuality, though,] it took a few years before I settled into who I really was. I remember I started dressing, like, the “straightest” I had ever dressed: Skateboard shoes, ugly button-ups, ironic tee shirts with terrible sayings on them! I was hyper-aware and trying so hard not to be a stereotype. Obviously there was a lot going on in my head. Then, maybe a year or two ago, I was like, you know what? Fuck it. I tried new things. I had purple hair. I had blue hair. But in a way, that’s also an extreme. I think a lot of times after you come out, you’re this amplified version of yourself because you spent so much time not being yourself that you want to try all the things you never got the chance to try.
It took me a minute to figure out that maybe I align with some stereotypes but not all, that everybody’s a different sort of gay person just like everyone’s a different sort of straight person. Now, when I make style choices, they feel more like something I do for me than a statement.
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To me, Pride month is about thanking all the people who made it possible to even have a Pride month. I had an amazing conversation with tennis legend Billie Jean King about our coming-out experiences, and they couldn’t have been more different. I knew mine was talked about, but hers was career-ending. She fought and made it completely okay for someone like me to be able to be who I am and be embraced for it.
As vulnerable as it feels to come out, I wish it weren’t limited to just LGBT people. We’re lucky we get to have that experience because, while it’s fucking terrifying, it’s also a moment when you tell the world, “This is who I am.” In those moments, you own your existence and gain a lot of strength. I hope everyone can go through an experience like that, where, in front of the world, they recognize and appreciate who they are and what they’re about.