When Matthew Wilkas, the boyfriend of American slopestyle skier Gus Kenworthy, saw on Twitter a sceenshot of he and Kenworthy sharing a kiss before Kenworthy’s qualifying run on Sunday at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in South Korea, he didn’t think the moment was a very big deal. “That was like a peck,” Wilkas tells TIME with a laugh from the bottom of the slopestyle course at the Phoenix Snow Park. “We should have made out in front of people.”
But taking a moment to think about it, Wilkas realized that yes, he was probably part of something historic: a kiss between a gay athlete and his boyfriend at a mass audience spectacle like the Olympics, shown during network primetime television.
“It’s unusual, right?” says Wilkas, an actor. “It’s good that it’s televised because it normalizes it more. I would imagine it would be a huge moment for a young gay kid to see an awesome athlete so open and proud of himself and not caring what anyone thinks of his sexuality.”
Kenworthy has come under increased scrutiny over the past week of because of his public criticisms of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. “Broke my thumb yesterday in practice,” he wrote on Instagram this week. “It won’t stop me from competing (obvi) but it does prevent me from shaking Pence’s hand so… Silver linings!”
Wilkas says dealing with the pressure has been difficult for his boyfriend. “He’s definitely been stressing out a lot,” says Wilkas. “It’s hard. He wants to be the voice, one of the heroes for his community alongside Adam [Rippon]. But I think it just adds a lot of pressure to the moment. There are people on both sides. The gay community looks up to him, then the people who hate him for being who he is and can’t wait to see him fail. There’s a sense of wanting to prove them wrong.”
“He’s said things about Mike Pence and the White House that provokes people that are easily provoked, that are so open about their hate,” says Wilkas. “People are saying, ‘I hope you break a leg.’ Literally, things like that.”
As he prepared to watch Kenworthy in the finals, Wilkas understood he was part of something bigger than a sporting event. “Does it hit me?” he says. “I guess it does. I just want him to be happy. But I get it. I see that it’s important.”