Hot Star on Ice

by Lorrie Kim
Philadelphia Gay News
November 24-30, 1995

You can't watch TV these days without seeing figure skaters. If you're like many viewers, you can't watch male skaters -- ah, those sequined Adonises with their tight butts and triple jumps -- without wondering: gay, or just Russian?

Chances are, you'll never know for sure -- unless you're watching Doug Mattis. This 29-year-old Philadelphia native is one of American skating's hottest properties right now, and he's out.

What does it mean to be "out" in this balletic, beauty-conscious sport, where all the men endure homophobic charges of effeminacy? Mattis' guest appearance at last year's Gay Games, where he skated two exhibition numbers, might have been declaration enough. (He and Canadian Matthew Hall, who took top honors in that competition, are the only two international-level skaters who are openly gay.)

But more importantly, Mattis' skating routines are infused with overtly gay sensibilities, from the steady endurance of his AIDS memorial programs to wicked parodies that shock audiences into screaming ovations.

There is nothing of the closet about Doug Mattis. Even if he observed a discreet silence about his sexuality -- like so many of his peers -- the first time you saw him lampoon Peggy Fleming's beehive during a competitive routine, you would know.

Mattis' achievements as an amateur (that is, eligible for Olympic competition) included the 1985 national junior title, a sixth-place senior national ranking and strong showings in top-flight international competitions. His style and precision flourished under the crack coaching of Robin Cousins (1980 Olympic gold medalist) and Frank Carroll (currently best known as coach of Michelle Kwan).

But after six years, he quit and went pro, frustrated by an ongoing battle with judges who pressured him to add the triple axel jump to his repertoire.

The triple axel is the diamond of skating jumps. Not even all Olympic male competitors can land it. Mattis, who lands about one in 40 triple axel attempts, opted for beautifully clean skates unmarred by a fall, but "got beaten by people who fell four or five times, but had a triple axel." Judges warned him privately that he would have no chance unless he risked that jump.

"I didn't know who to please, how to please them," he said. "Don't even think skaters have more of a handle [on judging] than you people at home -- they don't. Obviously there had been some discussion. The rules of the game had changed, and I was not playing by them."

For the judges

He left the amateur ranks in high trickster glee, however, getting the last word at the 1991 national championships. After a dazzlingly perfect performance, in the last 10 seconds he sprang a backflip, the most illegal of amateur moves. Spectators roared with delight; aghast judges clutched their pearls. No one even knew the correct deduction for such impudence.

"Did he just give us the finger, or what?" laughs Mattis, imitating the shocked judges. It had been Cousins' idea, "just to show them this has nothing to do with _them_. They couldn't believe I had the balls to do it. I got a standing ovation from the audience and competitors." Skating aficionados talk about that backflip to this day.

Free from amateur rules, Mattis let loose in professional skating, which rewards rather than regulates offbeat originality. He became infamous for a pairs routine with his partner "Dorothy Helium," a fetching blow-up sex doll in sequins and skates, doing a tango to music from "Victor/Victoria" -- "talk about gay genre," as Mattis notes.

"Doug and Dorothy -- it sounds a little bit like Dorothy Hamill, which is actually a joke in itself because that number became very popular in skating circles for two years before Dorothy Hamill saw it or heard of it. She said, 'Oh, I didn't know you skated pairs,'" Mattis said. "I told her, 'You are my partner's idol, so I wonder if you would give her a few pointers.' Then she saw the number. I guess she just about cried laughing."

In the routine, Doug and Dorothy barrel through every miserable, sexist cliché of pairs skating: manic giddiness on the "girl's" part, vertiginous throw jumps (the poor thing lands on her head, but gets up and gamely continues), blinding face-in-crotch lifts and a "headbanger" which, for once, lives up to its promise. It brought down the house at the 1994 Gay Games.

"I kind of find some of the antics that dance and pairs go through ridiculous, and they do, too," Mattis said, noting that nobody is more aware -- or critical -- of the stylized sexism than the skaters themselves.

"I wasn't introducing a new concept, I was just parodying it," he said. "For instance, throw jumps. They're kind of amazing, but the woman is looking lovingly at this man, saying, 'darling, could you swing my face to the ice?' When they don't work, they're..." He broke off with a shudder.

So, do straight audiences get the humor?

"I've performed that number for thousands of people," Mattis said. "People who were gay got it that way. It's a very good crossover number. [Straight people] totally enjoy it in a different way. I think a lot of the humor in it is gay in nature. As long as it puts a smile on their faces."

Rise in the ranks

Mattis' gay-inflected comedic gift catapulted him into skating's front ranks last December. He captured the silver medal at the U.S. Open Professional Championships with "The Imitation Number," a showstopper that had spectators doubled over with laughter.

"The Imitation Number" posits Mattis as a young skater, emulating his idols -- Dick Button, Scott Hamilton, Brian Boitano, Paul Wylie, Viktor Petrenko, Peggy Fleming. As he enumerates them, he performs devastating send-ups of each skater's signature moves, in some cases making it difficult to ever look at that skater the same way again.

But all that is just prélude to the last imitation. Mattis careens around the rink, pumps his butt up and down crudely, makes for a triple lutz, aborts, then blubbers over to the judges and gesticulates wildly at his skate lace. "Tonya!" cries the voiceover.

Gay sensibility

There's a gay sensibility in all of this, in refusing to allow people their genteel fictions without a quip or two. Yet Mattis, trickster-like, knows just how far to go.

"There's a point at which being irreverent hurts people," he said. "I worked very, very hard on those parodies -- these are people I respect and love." He reminds us, "There are a lot of straight people who do good parody."

But how do we, the viewers, know who's straight when we're watching? Mattis, doing a statistical breakdown of top U.S. male competitors, swears that gays are under a third of the eligibles -- not the 50 percent to 100 percent that some suspect.

"That would put the number way below pro football and hockey players, who are probably a third or better," he estimated.

Football and hockey? Huh?

"What wouldn't attract a young, hot, virile gay man to hanging out with his buddies and being physical with them?" he said with a laugh.

So why does the sports world assume that figure skating has borne the brunt of AIDS casualties?

"Maybe some of that is based on homophobia," Mattis speculated. "A lot of losses in football were so unbelievably in the closet that it shocked the hell out of their families. And who knows how many have been put down 'died of natural causes'?"

Skating, he points out, draws attention to issues by its nature.

"You're talking about a sport where what we do is a venue for artistic expression," he said. "I mean, what would you have in football, an AIDS memorial drop-back-and-punt play?"

The art of the skate

It is that artistic element that "queers" skating for many viewers, unaccustomed to appraising men's bodies for beauty. In competitive skating, half of a skater's score is for what he or she does; the other half is for how good he or she looked doing it. To get high marks, you have to be balletic. [Note: This is wrong. I was perpetuating popular misconceptions about the presentation mark through ignorance. See a skating rulebook or the FAQ on Sandra Loosemore's Skateweb for correct information.--LK] The Russians don't experience ballet as effeminate, but Americans do -- a cross-cultural translation clash. So even though, as Mattis says, "lots" of female skaters are bisexual or lesbian, men are the focus of what mainstream media call "an image problem."

In the past few years, since the high-profile AIDS-related deaths of champions John Curry, Brian Pockar and Rob McCall, there have been more skating fund-raisers for AIDS, and more discussions.

"It possibly has relaxed things very slightly," said Mattis, "but you're also talking about a very permissive industry, anyway."

Mattis portrays a complicated gay sociology within the skating world. He would "absolutely" recommend it to young gays.

"There's good evidence and representation there, people who are not necessarily flag-wavers, but it's a known thing that they're gay," he said.

They include skaters, coaches and influential members in the "extremely conservative" United States Figure Skating Association.

Yet, as nurturing as things may be within skating, to the outside world, these people present an extraordinarily unified, tight-lipped front. The skating world, like any proper subculture, exacts a toll of protective silence from its members in exchange for the unique privileges it offers. It's secretive in a way that's related to, though not quite the same as, being closeted.

The general feeling, Mattis said, goes something like, "This is a sport that's really gaining ground in integrity. We're getting respect in the media and in the public. Let's keep going in the same direction and nobody cares whether we're gay or not, and maybe 10 years from now..."

Skaters who don't declare their gayness know that "their salaries are ultimately going to be paid by people who might be offended by that knowledge" -- the audiences of conservative America.

That said, it must be noted that Mattis has "suffered no shunning, no difference of attitude" in the nine or so years he's been out. He is so comfortable with his sexuality that "it only becomes an issue when somebody derives strength from it," he said. Being out is a crucial element in his skating persona as a trickster, traditionally the healing and transformative role given to gays.

At the word "trickster," the self-educated Mattis is up and running again: "I think if you're gay and you're closeted, there's a fear as the trickster of outing yourself. Because I'm out and it's not a concern to me, I'm not worried that people are thinking, oh, God, he must be gay to be doing this."

Emma Abraham contributed to this story.

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