The Fighters is a series that spotlights people on the front lines of shifting power. These are the activists and agitators who are fighting to change the world for the better.
Earlier this year, Adam Rippon became the first openly gay man to represent the United States in the Winter Olympics. Wearing a skin-tight shirt made with over 1,000 Swarovski crystals, the 28-year-old from Pennsylvania dazzled the judges in Pyeongchang with a technically impressive routine set to Coldplay in the men’s free skate — and won a bronze medal for his performance.
But Rippon is more than just one of America’s most talented athletes. In January, he criticized the White House’s decision to select Vice President Mike Pence as leader of the U.S. delegation at the 2018 Winter Olympics, telling USA Today, “You mean Mike Pence, the same Mike Pence that funded gay conversion therapy?” When Pence subsequently tried to clear the air by setting up a private meeting with Rippon, the athlete’s answer was firm: No. In April, Rippon, freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy and alpine skier Lindsey Vonn were among 60 Olympians who boycotted the Team U.S.A. meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House. On Twitter, Rippon explained his decision as a refusal to engage with an administration that “discriminates against those who are different.”
“I have this really amazing platform since the Olympics, and I want to utilize it to make a change.”
Research conducted by GLAAD reveals that while 20 percent of young people in the US aged 18-34 define themselves as LGBTQ, they experienced significantly higher levels of discrimination in 2017 based on their sexual orientation or gender identity than they did the year before. A couple weeks before Pride, Rippon spoke to The Outline about how he’s using his platform to raise awareness of violations of LGBTQ rights in America, from Trump’s proposed ban on transgender people entering the U.S. military, to the passage of a state law in Mississippi allowing businesses to deny service to LGBTQ families. Rippon said his aim is “to help those whose lives are being affected by the discriminatory legislation being pushed."
Rippon is currently working with advocacy group GLAAD’s Youth Engagement program, which aims to build a network of “young LGBTQ and ally activists to promote LGBTQ acceptance through the media in youth communities nationwide,” and aims to have over 150 representatives on college campuses throughout the country by 2019.
In what sense are you a fighter?
Adam Rippon: I feel like I’m a fighter, because throughout my athletic career, I’ve had struggles, but I’ve learned from them. They’ve made me stronger. Before, when I would have a setback, I’d get discouraged. Now, whenever I run into a situation where things don’t turn out as I would’ve liked, I see it as an opportunity. That’s the most important lesson I’ve learned as an athlete. It’s something I will carry with me throughout my life.
What struggles have you come up against?
I missed the Olympic team twice, and then I broke my foot one year prior to the Olympics , which was definitely incredibly scary because I didn’t know if I’d be able to come back in time for the Games. But because I felt so bad when I missed the Olympic team in 2014, I knew that no matter what, I would give it my best shot for 2018. My mindset was [that] if I qualified for the Olympics, that would be amazing, but if it didn’t work out, I would still be satisfied because I’d given 100 percent.
You came out to your family at the age of 22, and then to the rest of the world three years later. Did you feel like you’ve experienced prejudice because of your sexuality?
Less and less is there a stigma around being gay, but there’s still a stigma that every boy who skates is gay, which isn’t the case. When somebody is openly gay in skating, there’s almost a resistance to them, because they’re exactly the stereotype. I think parents refrain from putting their young boys into professional skating, for fear that they’ll get teased or made fun of.
I’ve found from my own experience that I was completely accepted, but it was only because I made sure I came out when I was skating really well — when I was competing and getting ready for the Olympics. To me, that was important: I wanted to try to help break that stigma.
You’ve been the target of a lot of online vitriol, and yet you often manage to respond to it in a way that is fierce, witty, and humorous. How have you managed to stay so resilient?
I’ve learned that strength comes in different shapes and sizes. It looks very different on different people. Strength isn’t someone who is seven feet tall and holds a sledgehammer all the time. True strength is really what you believe that you can do.
“It’s important for someone like me to speak up and try to help those who are being discriminated against.”
I think that for the most part, when people antagonize you online, it’s just to be mean. There’s no basis for it. I honestly feel bad for the people who write to me on a daily basis to tell me that they don’t like me, because they don’t know me. I always try to remember that for every negative remark I get, there are 10 to 20 positive ones. The only time I ever respond to anything negative is when it’s completely stupid.
What does it mean to be a high profile gay athlete at a time when the U.S. government is so chaotic and society is so divided?
Since the election we have seen so many young people step forward and try to take control, because it feels like we are a little out of control. A lot of people felt very hopeless when Trump was elected president, because it was a campaign run by scary people. It was a campaign headed up by someone who makes fun of others, talks down to people, and continues to talk down to people. He disregards journalists and will only listen to people who compliment him. It’s dangerous. It’s wrong.
There are a lot of people now who realize that if they want change, they can’t just sit back and assume things are going to go the way they think that they should. I think there’s a lot of young people becoming activists. For me specifically, I have this really amazing platform since the Olympics, and I want to utilize it to make a change. If you don’t try to make the world a better place or try to help somebody, you’re not doing much to help contribute to society.
How would you describe the Trump administration’s impact on the LGBTQ community so far?
I think within the LGBTQ community, transgender people have been affected the most. Trump has said that they won’t be allowed to serve in the military and that they won’t be able to use bathrooms corresponding to their sexual identity. [Mississippi also] passed a religious freedom bill, which allows businesses to discriminate against anyone who is gay, bisexual, or transgender. I feel very lucky that my life hasn’t been affected by any of the legislation that is being pushed, but it’s important for someone like me to speak up and try to help those who are being discriminated against.
Is there a politician that you see as a leading light in the struggle against Trumpian values?
Where I live in California, we have a representative called Maxine Waters. She opposes the majority of what Trump stands for. I don’t think she’ll run for president, but she’s somebody who I see as a leading light. Young people have gravitated towards her because she is so vocal and charismatic. She makes people feel like they could be friends with her. That was something that [Barack] Obama had.
One of my favourite younger Democrats is Joe Kennedy. He’s incredibly personable. He’s young and he’s fresh. I think that there are a lot of young people getting involved in politics. We are looking for someone to be the face of that especially as we move towards the next presidential election.
You’ve been vocal about the tremendous pressure on athletes competing at the highest level, and recently opened up about your own experiences with food in an interview with The New York Times. As a figure skater and activist, why was it important to you to raise awareness of disordered eating in men’s figure skating?
I don’t think I’m a poster child for eating disorders. My eating issues were never rooted in body image. I think mine stemmed from trying to make myself the best possible athlete. In my mind, I thought I would achieve that when I was the tiniest I could be. There are athletes that have true eating disorders, but I think that often disordered eating comes from just trying to be the best athletic version of yourself, but without the real knowledge of how to get there.
When you’re an athlete, you have to be really confident in yourself, and sometimes that confidence leads you to believe that you’re an expert in things when you’re simply not. We’ll do too much in the gym. We won’t do enough in the gym. We’ll make up our own diets based on what we think is correct. Some athletes, and I include myself in this, we get into a headspace where we’re out there competing and we feel like no one is there for us. We need to be there for ourselves. We need to do it on our own. Yes, you need to trust yourself, but you forget that it’s important to trust others. Within the human experience as a whole, sometimes it’s really hard to ask for help, but you have to.
You told The New York Times that the 2018 Winter Games was your “first and last Olympic experience as an athlete.” What’s next for you? Is politics or advocacy a route you may want to explore?
Politics would be a really interesting avenue to explore, but right now I’m still young. I’m 28! Right now I have a cool opportunity to [support important causes]. I’m working with GLAAD to empower young [LGBTQ] people to become activists. People my age can do a lot within their own communities that sets the tone for what goes on nationally. It’s easy to look at what’s going on in the country and think what can I do? I’m just one person, but actually one person can make a big difference.