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Skaters and autobiographies

Homophobia affects all male skaters, regardless of their personal sexual orientation. Many assume that all male skaters are gay; even when individual male skaters are known to be straight, they are frequently the target of anti-gay slurs just for being in the sport.

When it comes to autobiography or authorized biography, male skaters have taken a number of approaches to this phenomenon. In a few cases, the silence has spoken loudly.

Of the male skater autobiographies Rainbow Ice is aware of, only one, Icebreaker: the Autobiography of Rudy Galindo, with Eric Marcus, acknowledges the subject as gay. Another, Toller Cranston's Zero Tollerance, with Martha Lowder Kimball, describes a same-sex rendezvous, although Cranston does not identify as gay or bisexual.

Of the other male skater autobiographies, there are a few which employ a curious "don't ask, don't tell" strategy. It cannot be easy to decide to collaborate with a writer on the story of one's life while omitting any mention of a love life whatsoever, but this is the choice made by Brian Orser in his 1988 book A Skater's Life with Steve Milton, and by the 1998 authorized biography Robin Cousins, by Martha Lowder Kimball.

In Sandra Loosemore's review of Robin Cousins, she says:

"One minor flaw in the book is that certain aspects of Robin's life are apparently glossed over or sanitized. For example, there is basically nothing said about romantic relationships or love affairs, and the omission draws attention to itself because there is considerable space devoted to discussion of Robin's other personal relationships, such as his family life and several long-time friendships. It's unfortunate that precisely because the book provides absolutely no basis for speculation about Robin's love life, many readers probably will speculate about it."

Loosemore has captured the problem in a nutshell. In an otherwise thorough biography, this lacuna fairly shouts the presence of something to hide.

Two other male-skater books, "Boitano's Edge" with Suzanne Harper, and "Heart and Soul" by Elvis Stojko with Gérard Châtaigneau, make no mention of love life. But they avoid the problem of the Cousins biography because they are not biographies or autobiographies; they go into detail only about the skating and associated issues, not into any part of the skaters' private lives.

"To Catch a Dream," by Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler as told to Lynda Prouse, says the same thing many male skaters say on the subject, but (unsurprisingly) without mincing as many words. On pp. 18-20, Eisler says:

"I also got into a lot of fights and at least once a week I would be back in that principal's office. The confrontations were always over figure skating, which just wasn't done by boys in Seaforth back then. I think I was the only boy in my town doing it and figure skating is not playing hockey with the rest of the guys. It didn't matter where you lived. In those days, if a boy figure skated, everybody assumed he was gay. It was as if something was wrong with you...why didn't you play hockey?

"I was also very little, only four foot ten, until I was fifteen years old, when I suddenly shot up fourteen inches. So I was small and the other kids picked on me a lot. They'd call me 'sissy' and 'faggot.' I can't remember how many times I heard, 'There's that little faggot again going to skate or missing school.' I hated that they would call me names, so I would mouth right back and get into a fight. Often it would begin in class and spill into the hall or schoolyard. I was never one to back down, which is probably why I was expelled once for four days (it was the third time in a week that I had been caught fighting). But I was raised to stand up for what I believed in and I always did.

"Never once did I think there was anything wrong with figure skating. I didn't think for a minute that maybe I shouldn't be doing this if they were going to call me names for the rest of my life. I loved what I was doing. I didn't feel any different from the others; they always just treated me differently. I look back now and assume some of it had to do with a little bit of jealousy because I was allowed out of class to skate or because I was getting some recognition.

"Now and then, when I return to Seaforth, I run into some of those old classmates who used to call me names and they will ask, 'Hey Lloyd, how are you doing? Remember when I called you a little faggot and we got into a fight?' We laugh about it now but as kids we didn't laugh -- we fought.

"My dad, who is quite masculine, was always very funny about my skating. I guess he was concerned that I wouldn't be straight. He would talk to me without ever mentioning it but I always got the feeling he was worried. When I was a little older and met other boys who figure skated, Dad didn't like me hanging around with them. It was okay with him if I figure skated but he didn't want me to become too friendly with any of the other boy skaters. Until I was twelve or thirteen, I didn't realize why he was so concerned. When I finally understood what he was on about, I used to laugh at him.

"Looking back, I certainly took a lot of abuse and name-calling because of figure skating. But I stuck with it."

Eisler has no qualms about saying the dreaded word, "faggot," which the other male autobiographers are too traumatized or polite to specify. He also never addresses whether or not he has ever been attracted to men. Throughout this book and its sequel, "Brasseur & Eisler: The Professional Years," there are mentions of Eisler's relationships with women (including a love affair with Brasseur), but nowhere does he state that he is heterosexual. Occasionally, his romantic partners are referred to as "a relationship" instead of as "a girlfriend."

To some readers, this word choice may seem too subtle to be considered an indicator of possible bisexuality, but those accustomed to reading between the lines know how common it is to be on the lookout for such key gender-neutral phrases. Whether or not Eisler's dates have included men, the books send two messages: He considers the problem to be with the taunters and not within himself; and he does not feel compelled to state directly that he is heterosexual.

An aside from "The Professional Years": on p. 128, in describing the social life on the Champions on Ice tour, Eisler notes that "Various groups form on tour...the gay skaters...tend to pursue their interests separately." For those who think that Rudy Galindo is the only gay skater on this tour, and that closetedness does not exist within skating, Eisler's use of the plural indicates that there are indeed other champions within the COI roster who are gay, if closeted.

Like the Cousins book, "Orser: A Skater's Life" maintains a deliberate silence on the issue. It discusses some of Orser's most important family and friend relationships, but no love life. After being viciously outed by an ex in 1998, Orser is now on the record as being gay, but ten years earlier, in 1988, he clearly made a decision to be closeted in his autobiography. On pp. 12-13 of his autobiography, Orser did discuss some of the prejudice that male skaters face, but he did not touch words like "gay" or "homophobia" in the discussion:

"Of course, the vast majority of sports fans are males -- although this is changing -- and even if it is reluctantly acknowledged to be a sport, figure skating is perceived as a girl's sport. Indeed, there are significantly more girls than boys registered in figure skating in Canada." [...]

"I can't say that I never had any hassles from the kids at school. Almost all figure skaters in small towns encounter problems. There was one boy, in particular, who didn't like the idea that I was a figure skater: he would grab hold of me at recess and squeeze me in a headlock. He'd grind his arms into my ears and hold me bent over in the headlock for the entire recess.

"I was going to the rink after school for group lessons. At that time my skates happened to be white. One day, when I was in grade four, I felt really brave and decided to go skating at the outdoor rink during the school winter carnival, wearing my white skates. Everyone was there. Before anybody could say anything, I whipped onto the ice and started doing a few tricks -- skating really fast, turning some spins and doing some daring jumps. I figured that they'd give me a hard time, but that once they saw the skating, it wouldn't matter. And it didn't. A couple of the class clowns made their usual remarks; that was all. I was enjoying figure skating too much to worry about what my peers thought. The friends who really mattered accepted it."

It must be considered that Orser's book was published in 1988, long before AIDS forced the skating world into its first timid acknowledgements of homosexuality. Even so, it is notable that the above passage is incomplete. If you didn't know that male skaters are considered effeminate or gay, you wouldn't understand the kind of "problems" Orser described. He didn't explain the significance of "white skates." Why would "the idea that I was a figure skater" be disturbing enough to trigger such extreme playground abuse? What is an example of the class clowns' "usual remarks"?

Between the Orser and Cousins books, it is hard to escape the assumption that any male skater who omits mention of love life in his autobiography is gay or bisexual.

Context is part of the picture, too. Neither Orser nor Cousins has been publicly linked in romantic fashion to any women. This suggests the possibility that they are (or, in Orser's case, were) attempting to retain some shred of integrity by being able to claim that they "never lied," were never "really in the closet," that it's "no one's business," or (the most insidious of all) "those who want to can read between the lines." The problem with this "don't ask, don't tell" approach is that it only offers the semblance of neutrality. Even those who practice it must admit to themselves periodically that it is a form of active closetedness.

Then there is the notion of "protesting too much." Some observers find that it strikes a hollow note when straight (or possibly bisexual) male skaters refer ostentatiously to their romances with women. Yet Rainbow Ice does not find these references inappropriate or politically suspect; these men are simply telling about their lives, as well as making direct acknowledgement of the homophobic stigma attached to the sport.

In his 1991 autobiography "Kurt: Forcing the Edge," Kurt Browning devoted a paragraph to acknowledging that male skaters face prejudice. Choosing his words carefully to offend no one, he stated, "I like girls." With this approach, Browning acknowledged the issue, and acknowledged that a straight skater faces "coming out" just as a gay skater does. He did not need to address the issue, since it is clear from natural mentions throughout the book that he dated women. But the fact that Browning brought up the issue reinforced the message that these women were true girlfriends and not "beards"; that Browning respects the difficulties of anti-gay sentiment in skating, without blaming gay skaters for the problem or distancing himself from them; and that to mention the issue deflates it much better than to treat it with studied silence.

As discussed in the November 1999 Flavor of the Month feature, Scott Hamilton also "comes out" as heterosexual in his autobiography "Landing It," with Lorenzo Benet. Unlike Browning, Hamilton does have a history of blaming gay skaters for anti-gay prejudice, and has actively distanced himself from gay skaters. He discussed these things head-on in the book, and deserves credit for not being afraid to do so.

Between Galindo's and Hamilton's autobiographies, it begins to be possible to form an understanding of the way homophobia and anti-gay prejudice damage the day-to-day lives of male figure skaters. Perhaps future male skaters' autobiographies will continue to add to this understanding.

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