Graphic by YIKES,Inc.

Michael Kirby on Ronnie Robertson

In his December 2000 book Figure Skating to Fancy Skating: Memoirs of the Life of Sonja Henie, author Michael Kirby mentions in passing the late Ronnie Robertson (September 5, 1937 - February 4, 2000), one of Kirby's former students.

Kirby is one of those skating folks who are invisible to the public, but universally known behind the scenes for his vital contributions to the sport as it has developed. He has been a competitor, show skater, ISI president, coach, and large-scale owner of rinks and skating schools. There is no question that he is a man of enormous talent and vision, whose impact has reached every corner of the North American skating world. While his claim to fame for this book was partnering Sonja Henie, aficionados will also be impressed that he coached not only Robertson, but Richard "Mr. Debonair" Dwyer as well.

Unfortunately, Kirby doesn't do very well by his late, great student in this book. He mentions Robertson only very briefly, in what is mostly a personal memoir (which reads as though someone had mistakenly taken the first draft to the printer, dropping commas along the way). But those passages tell volumes about the atmosphere for gay skaters in the 1950s.

Kirby's friend Scott Hamilton wrote the introduction to his book, and it's not surprising that Kirby handles gay issues the same way that Hamilton did in "Landing It." Both men discuss their anti-gay attitudes; Hamilton describes Kirby first and foremost as "a family man," code for "heterosexual." And both men outed famous, recently deceased skaters who had chosen not to be out in public life: Brian Pockar and Rob McCall for Hamilton, and Robertson for Kirby.

Kirby tells us, on p. 7, that at 12 or 13, he was molested by a priest. He speculates that this trauma "probably caused my lifelong antipathy toward homosexuality (please note, homosexuality, not homosexuals). My position is like the theological position -- hate the sin, but love or at least, like, the sinner." On the following page, he says, "Yet despite the past, my subsequent experience throughout my life has been most pleasant with priests and with homosexual persons. We'll get to some of them later."

It turns out he means Robertson. Although he has known countless gay men as a show business and skating veteran, the one man he chooses to name is someone recently dead, who is not around to have anything to say about it. Is there anything wrong with posthumous outing? No; nor even unethical; historians do it all the time. It simply doesn't settle very well when the outer comes off as telling his stories at the expense of the outee, possibly to promote his own "heterosexual agenda."

During the 1950-51 season, Kirby was skating in a show with Sonja Henie and coaching Ronnie Robertson during the day. On pp. 123-124, he writes, "I knew that a number of homosexual boys in the show thought Ronnie was an excellent prize, so I let the word out that I was responsible for him to his parents and that he was completely 'off limits.' However, one night the boys and Ronnie broke the rules. I arranged for him to have a room next to mine, and every night I checked on him after the show. One night in St. Louis when I did so he was not in his room. After checking around the hotel with other members of the cast, I discovered that there was a 'gay' party in one of the rooms. I went up to the room and discovered Ronnie sitting in a circle in the center of the room, obviously the main attraction. I confronted the host who admitted that he had induced Ronnie to come to his room. I was so mad at him that I knocked out two of his front teeth. I paid for their replacement, but I am afraid that the effect to Ronnie's psyche was already done."

It takes more than one pass to assimilate this complicated scene.

Apparently, the "effect to Ronnie's psyche" to which Kirby refers is NOT the damage to a young teen of seeing one's homophobic coach busting in like a cop and committing violent assault upon a friend, at a time when the repercussions of being gay and associating with other gays were deeply frightening. It seems, nearly fifty years later, that the author is bemoaning "the effect to Ronnie's psyche" of having successfully managed to find older peers who could provide kinship, of speaking to them at a party, and of being accepted and admired by them.

The phrase "I paid for their replacement, but" is endlessly compelling. For the lack of remorse, and even the self-consciousness of having behaved virtuously by paying. For the unspoken flip side to the story, of a gaybashing and its mundane aftermath, the bloodied trip to the dentist, the inevitable "show must go on" appearance together in subsequent shows. The knowledge among the gay cast members that the male lead had committed what we would now call a hate crime and gotten away with it, had seen them all together and condemned them as a group, and had felt that right was on his side.

Certainly, one thing this anecdote proves is that there was a gay subculture in pro skating in the pre-Stonewall 1950s, a dangerous time to be gay. This is valuable historical evidence for anyone wondering if the representation of gay men in skating shows is a recent phenomenon only.

The struggle among male skaters, between those who are gay and those who wish there were no gay skaters, is far from over. As tempting as it may be to question why a homophobe would even stay with this sport -- to point out that they are always welcome to switch to hockey, if it bothers them so much -- the truth is that the sport as a whole largely adheres to a silence about gay issues that is closer than not to Kirby's views. Those coming of age now, after half a century of advances in gay rights, can pay tribute to Robertson's memory by speaking out about their gayness, staking claim to their own life stories before death permits others to use these stories at will.

And Then, On the Other Hand

Postscript, August 5, 2001

In an informal phone call, a retired gay male Ice Capades skater who was coached by Kirby for years had only the highest praise for him, and spoke of him with great affection. Kirby had known this skater was gay, and treated him very well and without the least prejudice. The skater speculated that any anti-gay beliefs on Kirby's part might have been dictated by religion. His last words on the subject of the Robertson incident were: "Don't hold this one against him." It was not, he said, at all typical of Kirby's day-to-day gentleness and ease in dealing with the many gay men and lesbians on the show skating scene.