PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Had he known an NBC camera was trained on him, that the lot of the United States tuning into the PyeongChang Games was watching, Matt Wilkas wouldn’t have settled for a simple peck on the lips. He would have pulled his boyfriend, Gus Kenworthy, in tight and offered a far better kiss, one to properly memorialize the occasion. Something Olympic-level.
As it stands, the small token of affection left a large impression on the gay community for whom Kenworthy has become a hero. He and figure skater Adam Rippon became the first openly gay American Winter Olympians here, and their combination of skill and activism has reverberated online and live. Rainbow flags flew Sunday afternoon as Kenworthy tried to repeat as a medalist following his silver in Sochi, when he was still closeted.
“That’s something that I wanted at the last Olympics – to share a kiss with my boyfriend at the bottom – and it was something that I was too scared to do for myself,” Kenworthy said. “And so to be able to do that, to give him a kiss, to have that affection broadcasted for the world is incredible. I think that’s the only way to really change perceptions, break down homophobia, break down barriers is through representation. And that’s definitely not something I had as a kid. I definitely didn’t see a gay athlete at the Olympics kissing their boyfriend. And I think if I had, it would’ve made it a lot easier for me.”
This is why Kenworthy, Rippon and other gay athletes fighting for equality and acceptance matter. It is not for personal gain, not for profit, not for social-media likes. It is to speak to audiences small and large – the tight-knit LGBTQ community for whom out athletes serve as a beacon and an America that still struggles with inclusion and understanding and compassion. It is selfless and pure, two qualities respectable no matter one’s feelings about sexuality.
“To see Gus kiss his boyfriend openly, proudly, full of love, not trying to hide it, not trying to say this is just my friend – that means a lot,” said Tyler Oakley, an LGBTQ activist and friend of Kenworthy’s who traveled to see him compete in person for the first time. “And that little bit of hope helps kids around the world, helps adults around the world.”
While Oakley sees progress in the United States, the treatment of the LGBTQ community in countries where one’s sexuality can lead to imprisonment or death – and even in the White House, where vice president Mike Pence has drawn severe criticism for past anti-gay sentiments – gives him an even greater impetus to champion his cause. He found willing collaborators in Rippon and Kenworthy, whose unrelenting criticism of Pence earned both rebukes from Trump supporters – and hosannas from the gay community.
“It’s just about honesty. He’s being honest,” Wilkas said. “I don’t think he meant to provoke. And also, if you have the platform to speak your mind, you might as well take the opportunity to if it matters to you.”
Kenworthy’s platform grew initially not just from his medal but his adoption of stray dogs in Sochi. He came out in an ESPN story in 2015, and any fear that it would affect him professionally quickly evaporated. Sponsors stuck with him. Others celebrated him. For a sport with a marginal following outside of Olympic years in the U.S., Kenworthy grew into as marquee a name as freestyle skiing had to offer.</p>