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Olympic Skier Gus Kenworthy on Being Gay in the Age of Trump: ‘We Definitely Have a Ways to Go’

12 minute read

The influence of Olympic freeskier Gus Kenworthy, who won a slopestyle silver medal at the Sochi Olympics, reaches far beyond the mountain. On June 25, the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT rights advocacy group, honored Kenworthy with its Visibility Award at a gala in Salt Lake City. Kenworthy publicly came out in an ESPN The Magazine cover story released in October 2015, and since then he said he’s been overwhelmed by the largely positive response he’s received from fans, fellow skiers and sponsors. “Isn’t that ironic?” Kenworthy said during his acceptance speech. “How much of my life, how many agonizing years I spent worried about what my life would be like if people knew the real me, and how much better it has actually become since I did let them know.”

Kenworthy is also featured in this year’s ESPN The Magazine Body Issue, which debuts on ESPN.com on July 5, and hits newsstands July 7. With the 2018 Winter Olympics, in Pyeongchang, South Korea, approaching, TIME spoke with Kenworthy about the reactions to his decision to come out, his mentality going into Pyeongchang, and representing Team USA in the Donald Trump era. Excerpts from the conversation, edited for length and clarity, are below.

What was is like being photographed for the Body Issue?

It was probably one of the more awkward things I’ve done. The shoot was on Mammoth Mountain [in California]. So it was six hours being naked outside in the wind and the snow. Freezing. My jaw was chattering, fingers shaking. I was in pain because it was so cold. And the camera’s up, you like pose for your two seconds, and then just go back to shivering.

I did a bunch of portrait stuff. I hit a jump, hit a rail, did some tricks naked. Which they hadn’t done before. I hadn’t done that before either.

What part of coming out has exceeded your expectations?

Definitely, people’s reactions exceeded my expectations. For the longest time I thought I’d come out after skiing. I would finish everything and just be able to tell my friends and live my life and never have to face the music from my sponsors, the ski audience or anything like that. And then I got to the point where I decided I wanted to do it publicly, and try to make an impact and help people in the same position. I was just nervous. I thought I was going to lose friends, and I thought people were going to hate me for it. You don’t feel trusting. I thought people wouldn’t want to share rooms with me at events. I was worried sponsors would drop me. I had all the fears.

But everyone was so supportive. Within the industry my sponsors were really supportive. I got a lot of encouragement from other skiers and athletes. And I felt really loved and supported. I did get some negative pushback. But it was so outweighed by the positive response. It was really amazing.

Have you received feedback about how you’ve inspired certain people?

I get messages everyday on Instagram. I’ll bump into people, and they’ll come up and let me know, ‘Hey, I’m gay too. Just thank you so much, because just seeing you be proud of who you are, it has helped me, or given me the courage to tell my parents, or helped my brother understand my situation more because it put it into context.’ That’s been the highlight of the whole thing. I feel like I was able to help a lot of people. It makes me feel like I did the right thing, and makes me proud of making that decision.

You mentioned how the positive reactions have far outweighed the negative ones. But what kind of negative things have you heard?

I have turned it off on Instgram, so certain keywords won’t come up. Fag and faggot and all sorts of stuff like that, has just been turned off. I would get it all the time.

Mostly from anonymous people. Sometimes their profiles were public. I would go to them, and they were like skier kids from the Midwest. And it would kind of suck to see if from that audience. It’s a young kid. I get that they’re trying to get a rise. Maybe they have their own insecurities or whatever. Maybe they are even going through the exact same thing.

But it also sucks because I would have hoped that those young kids would have been the ones new enough in that generation that it wouldn’t have mattered to them. I would get messages, ‘you should kill yourself, you’re a piece of shit. I don’t care what your story is.’ Or ‘no one cared about you before you came out.’ All these different things. There’s definitely pushback.

Did you expect that? Or when it happens, does it still sort of sting?

It still stings. Of the hundred comments on a photo, the two negative ones, you feel them more than the positive ones. Which is lame. That’s probably something psychological. But you can read through all these comments that love you. And it’s ‘oh, thanks.’ But then you have one that kind of cuts deep. You do feel those. The impact is real.

Where is America, as a country, when it comes to LGBT acceptance? Have we progressed? Do we still have a ways do go?

I think we definitely have a ways to go. In our country and in the world, it always feels like it’s two steps forward, one step back. I think it’s steady progress.

Has there been one step back in the last year or so?

I think we had been two steps forward with Obama. And it’s a step back with the Trump administration.

You compete and train overseas. What are people saying about the President?

I do think it’s negative. It’s hard because you know that once you tell people that you’re American, they’re going to ask you about Trump. You’re like, ‘I’m American, but just really quick, let me just clarify, that I am actually not in agreement with anything that’s happening right now.’ I feel like I have to preface it. Because I don’t want anyone to think that I’m in support of that.

The lack of LGBT rights in Russia was a very big storyline going into the Sochi Olympics. What do you remember from that time?

I remember people then talking about painting their nails a rainbow color. Doing little things. The team was really clear. Don’t do any of that stuff. Because no one has immunity. No one will be safe. You guys are here for sports. If you get asked in an interview, try to avoid that question.

I was like, ‘well, I don’t know.’ I actually made a big fuss about it at one point. ‘That’s not really fair at all. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinions. I don’t think we should have to dodge questions if we feel strongly about something.’ I kind of went off on this whole thing during our media training. One of my best friends, who I came out to a little after that, was looking at me. I think that was the moment it really clicked for him. I told him right after Sochi. Him and his girlfriend. He was like, ‘we’ve been waiting for you to tell us.’ He recounted that incident. I was like, ‘yeah, I probably wasn’t so discreet.’

You adopted five of Sochi’s stray dogs after the Olympics. How are they doing?

The dogs came back. My ex, he stayed behind in Sochi, and kind of was the unsung hero. Because I was still in the closet. I hadn’t told my mom I was gay. And so I never said, ‘my boyfriend’s here with me, he’s staying with the dogs.’ It just fell under the radar and no one really pushed that part of it. It created a lot of animosity with us. A lot of tension. Because he felt like he was staying behind and doing this thing, and he was just like living in the shadows, and I was living in the light for him. I didn’t want to be heralded for it. Every time I got asked about it, I got a sinking feeling. Because I know it meant further creating this problem between us.

But he was there for about five weeks after the Games, he stayed through the Paralympics. And he came back with five dogs. One of them passed away after the flight to New York, which was just awful. And I have her ashes in a box in my house in Denver. And then two of them lived with me and my ex-boyfriend in Denver; he is from Vancouver, he had to go back to Vancouver as my season was starting. He took the two dogs with him because I was going to be traveling. Then we ended up breaking up. So they have stayed there with him. My mom has one of the dogs in Colorado. They’re like two peas in a pod. The other dog went to a woman from the Humane Society International.

If you qualify for the American freeskiing team in Pyeongchang, you’d be the first openly gay man to compete in a Winter Olympics. Does the weight of history add any pressure?

I totally embrace it. I chose a public platform to come out. I wanted to have an impact with it. I knew that I would always be the out person at an event, so it made it scary. But I’m not upset about that. It’s great. I was so stressed in the closet. In an interview, I was scared they were going to ask me about a crush, or the type of girl I liked, or whatever it was. And I was going to have to lie by omission. It was always in the back of my mind. Now, just getting to be me, it makes me feel so much more comfortable.

Did you ever have to lie about a crush?

At the Olympics, my event was on February 13. We swept the podium. We were three young guys, all single. I had a boyfriend but was in the closet about it. They next day it’s Valentine’s Day. NBC goes ‘you guys just swept the podium, you’re Olympians, who are your valentines?’ And I remember being like, ‘sh-t, do I say Zac Efron? Or Jake Gyllenhaal?’ And then act like I’m joking when I’m not? I didn’t know what to do. So I was like, ‘Miley Cyrus.’

NBC tweeted it out. Miley Cyrus followed me, tweeted at me, we started messaging, we traded numbers, she’s become like a friend. She’s super supportive of me being gay. It’s really amazing. But it was so terrifying in that moment.

So who is your celebrity crush?

It’s always been Jake Gyllenhaal. I mean, this list can go on. I love Henry Cavill too. I went to lunch the other day with reps from Polo Ralph Lauren, and Jake Gyllenhaal was two tables over. I took a photo of him from a distance. I zoomed in, shaky hand.

What is your message to President Trump?

So many times in the past, he’s said that he support the LGBT community. But everything he says has to be taken with a grain of salt. Because he doesn’t mean any of it. He’ll go back on his words. He’ll change things. He’ll say he didn’t say things that he’s on tape saying.

I would just tell him how in shambles our county is at the moment. How unprotected so many people in the country feel. I was in Austria when he got elected. I woke up to the news, in tears. I came back to the U.S., there are swastikas that are being graffitied on buildings. There’s nooses being hung at African-American museums. It’s a scary place right now.

I don’t think he’s taking the steps to be like, ‘you know what, this is actually not OK. This isn’t what our country’s about. This just can’t happen.’ He’s just allowing it to kind of wreak its havoc.

If you are invited to the White House after the Olympics, would you attend?

I won’t go. Yeah, I have no interest in going and faking support. I’m proud to be competing for the U.S. I’m proud to be an American. But I don’t want to show any support for that cabinet. I don’t want to go shake his hand.

What can fans expect from the Pyeongchang Olympics?

It will be a good Olympics. After a lot of the division people have felt in the U.S, it will be be an opportunity to feel inclusive again. To come together for the greater good of sports.

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com