Arts & Culture » Television

Gay heroism on & off the ice

by Victoria A. Brownworth

Adam Rippon figure-skated his way into our hearts at the Winter Olympics. Photo: ABC
Adam Rippon figure-skated his way into our hearts at the Winter Olympics. Photo: ABC  

We forget from the vantage point of 2018 what 1995 was like. We forget how hard it was to be gay and out. We took our eyes off the Olympics briefly this week to watch the latest episode of "American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace," and the counterpoint of what Ryan Murphy is doing with this deeply incendiary and political series to the extraordinary presence of Adam Rippon and Johnny Weir at the Olympics. (We haven't forgotten you, Gus Kenworthy, you just aren't flaming for us like they are.) Murphy took us back to 1995. To Don't Ask, Don't Tell. To the simmering violence always just below the surface, waiting to erupt against us.

In 1995, Adam Rippon was six years old. Johnny Weir was 11. Jeff Trail was 28. Gianni Versace was 48. In 1995, no one was imagining an out gay star at the Olympics or even the end to DADT, which itself was a net-positive to what had come before. In 1995, when Andrew Cunanan met his first victim, Jeff Trail, and Gianni Versace came out on the pages of The Advocate, the fight for our rights was still a nascent movement despite a quarter-century since Stonewall, despite the impact of the AIDS pandemic, despite the work we had done collectively to get Bill Clinton elected and how visible David Mixner was.

Murphy, who was just 29 in 1995, does a masterful job of positioning Andrew Cunanan at the epicenter of the fear of coming out for gay men who had survived the AIDS crisis. When Andrew meets naval officer Jeff Trail on his first time in a gay bar, Trail's just come off saving the life of a fellow sailor who was nearly beaten to death by other sailors. His career in the Navy is threatened, but his own desire to be in the company of other men propels him into that bar and into a relationship with the then-fabulist, soon-to-be serial killer.

There are so many things happening in this series that we expect thesis papers will be written about it in the future. Each scene has its own trajectory, and the non-linear telling of the tale makes it all the more disturbing to watch. The foreshadowing has been removed: we already know the outcome beforehand. Yet that seems to make the impending tragedy in these men's lives all the more real.

The most chilling juxtaposition for us was between Trail speaking to CBS "48 Hours" reporter Richard Schlesinger about his experience as a gay naval officer, and Versace talking with The Advocate.

The "48 Hours" interview was real. In late 1993 DADT is about to become law, and Trail decides to speak out about his own experience as a gay man in the military. The episode of "ACS: Versace" begins with an out-take from that episode in which a group of Navy men talk about what they would do if a gay sailor were onboard with them. It foreshadows the violent beatings we see later.

In "ACS: Versace," the back-and-forth between the two scenes (both Trail and Versace were being interviewed in hotel rooms, where no one else would see them) borders on being heavy-handed, yet overcomes that because each new reveal elevates this from easy comparison to heartbreaking reality.

As Trail relates what he's going to do to Cunanan as they sit in the bar together, Cunanan warns him against doing it. He says Trail is being hidden in silhouette, like a criminal, while the real criminals, the Navy men who are beating fellow sailors within an inch of their lives, are being shown without masking, because the world still views gay men as criminals, and those who would kill them if given the chance as normal. It's stark, because we know that soon Cunanan will kill Trail.

Prior to doing The Advocate interview, Versace has a conversation with his sister, Donatella. She is horrified that he's contemplating this option. She reminds him that when designer Perry Ellis, who was then dying of AIDS, did his final show just weeks before his death, he had to be supported by two assistants on the runway. Versace tells her that was Ellis' greatest show, and she says no one bought his clothes after that. But he explains to her, "I was sick, and I did not die. And I have been asking myself, what have I done to deserve it?" So he's doing this: he's coming out. He's hoping to make a difference.

One of the most heartbreaking elements of "ACS: Versace" is, we love Versace from the outset. He's a kind and generous man, a caring lover, a great designer, a humble visionary. Even as we know Cunanan will murder him because we've seen the killing in the first episode, we hope somehow he will survive.

We feel equally for Trail, who risks everything to save another Navy man's life and to tell the story of how hard it is to live under DADT. We're heartbroken for his family that as his sister is giving birth, he is already dead, his body in a rolled-up rug, bludgeoned to death by Cunanan.

Cut from "ACS: Versace" to the Olympics and the flaming grandeur that has been Johnny Weir's commentating and Adam Rippon's presence in PyeongChang, and all that has happened in America for gay people between 1995 and now is shown in bold relief. As we watched the men's beautiful free skate on Feb. 16, we could not help but be reminded of the decades we have been watching the Olympics and wondering what it would have been like for us if, as a gay teen, we had seen an Adam Rippon or a Johnny Weir. Versace was right. Donatella was wrong.

We could write reams about Adam Rippon at the Olympics. Many Olympians, particularly figure skaters, become beloved sports icons. But Rippon is in a class all his own. He is such a delightful man, such a fine athlete, such a team player, such a good sport that we would love him even if he weren't gay. But he is, Blanche, he is gay, and that has made all the difference. The import of Rippon's willingness to be openly gay in a venue that has suppressed gay athletes forever cannot be overstated. He has proven that one can be out and proud and still succeed. He is the first openly gay U.S. male athlete to win a medal (bronze) at the Winter Olympics.

Rippon's natural insouciance brought him before the camera often, even though his teammate Nathan Chen was the favorite to win, and at only 17 has techniques Rippon does not, and made history when he delivered six quads on Feb. 16.

Rippon made himself available for everything-from taking on Vice Pres. Pence to being called out by Donald J. Trump, Jr. He was willing to be slapped around by the right to promote our community and our right to be ourselves, whether on the ice at the Olympics or walking down the streets of the Mission District.

As Rippon noted last week in an interview, "I don't want my Olympic experience to be about Mike Pence. I want it to be about my amazing skating and being America's sweetheart."

America's sweetheart he is. He posted a video on Twitter of himself explaining figure skating with Legos. He's posed with everyone, from other athletes to fans. Rippon has become a darling of not just the media, but people who don't really like gay people. He's like Ellen DeGeneres: his brash humor and openness have made gayness accessible to people who hate us. Just as no one hates puppies or Ellen, no one (except perhaps the Trumps, who appear to hate everything good and decent) hates Rippon.

In his pinned tweet on Twitter, Rippon notes, "I was recently asked in an interview what its like to be a gay athlete in sports. I said that it's exactly like being a straight athlete. Lots of hard work, but usually done with better eyebrows."

When Rippon's performance ended Friday night, Johnny Weir situated him in history. Yes, Rippon had given three flawless performances, and when he held his hands up to the crowd at the end, the applause was wild. But Rippon also stood on the ice in his gorgeous teal outfit as an iconic figure, the only out gay male figure skater in Winter Olympics history.

There were only three openly gay men and five open lesbians in PyeongChang. Out of hundreds of contestants. It remains so hard to be out in so many places in the world, and the world of sports is one of those places. Rippon opened that global closet door just a bit with his refusal to stay on the margins.

Also making history is Johnny Weir. Every night his commentating is a statement. He's flamboyantly in-your-face gay. As we noted on Twitter, "Find someone who loves you as elaborately and declaratively as Johnny Weir loves his hair and sequins."

On Twitter, Weir wrote, "Eight years ago, after I finished my free program at the Olympics, I had to hold a press conference to defend myself against people questioning my gender. Now, watching the world accept a vibrant and powerful hero in Adam Rippon, I am so proud & thankful to those whose came before us." Pure gold.

Off the slopes

Our devotion to the Olympics is such we have barely watched anything else. Most networks have held all their new programming until Feb. 25, when the world collectively exhales after 18 days of brilliance on the slopes and on the ice.

But not everyone. HBO wasn't thinking clearly when it scheduled the debut of its new series "Here and Now" to debut in the middle of the Olympics, so you can be forgiven if you missed it. But do catch up, because it's fabulous. Starring Oscar winners Holly Hunter and Tim Robbins, it is about gayness, life in a multi-racial family, and learning to be in the world when the world is constantly changing.

Hunter is one of the great under-sung actresses in America. She's thin and wiry, she's not aging well because she hasn't had her face re-crafted, and she always feels like the real-est person in the series. She anchors this "Here and Now" as the lawyer mother of four children: three non-white adopted now-adult kids, and one biological daughter who's in high school.

Created by out gay Oscar- and Emmy-winner Alan Ball ("Six Feet Under"), this is real-life gay men, real-life gay sex and real-life racial conflict. These characters could not be more compelling, and the gay son Ramon (the gorgeous Daniel Zovatto) is a focal point, not an adjunct to the story.

Another new series you want to watch is "Seven Seconds," which begins streaming on Netflix Feb. 23. Emmy nominee Veena Sud ("The Killing") created this new thriller starring Emmy winner Regina King, whom we would watch in anything, anytime.

Also debuting on Netflix Feb. 23 is "Ugly Delicious," an new docu-series featuring best-selling cookbook author and restaurateur David Chang. In the eight-episode series, Chang travels to different countries where he uses food to confront cultural barriers and misconceptions. The series features an array of writers, chefs, comedians and activists, including San Francisco comedian Ali Wong, Jimmy Kimmel, Nick Kroll and others. Intriguing and compelling.

On Feb. 26 BBC launches "McMafia," which melds Russian mafia, London and great performances. Also on Feb. 26, NBC debuts "Good Girls," a strong new comedy featuring Christina Hendricks, Retta and Mae Whitman as a trio of moms who rob a grocery store.

On Feb. 28 Hulu debuts "The Looming Tower," a chilling 10-episode series about the events leading up to the 9/11 attacks. Hulu describes the series as focusing on the "rising threat of Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda in the late 1990s, and how the rivalry between the FBI and CIA during that time may have inadvertently set the path for the tragedy of 9/11. "The Looming Tower" follows members of the I-49 Squad in New York and Alec Station in Washington, D.C., the counterterrorism divisions of the FBI and CIA, respectively, as they travel the world fighting for ownership of information while working toward the same goal: trying to prevent an imminent attack on U.S. soil."

Unsettling in many ways, particularly as the Mueller investigation reveals more about what happens in the shadows in America. Based on the 2006 book by Lawrence Wright and starring Peter Sarsgaard, Jeff Daniels, Wrenn Schmidt and Tahar Rahiim.

Finally, the roll call of our most recent dead: Alyssa Alhadeff, Martin Duque Anguiano, Scott Beigel, Nicholas Dworet, Aaron Feis, Jaime Guttenberg, Christopher Hixon, Luke Hoyer, Cara Loughran, Gina Montalto, Joaquin Oliver, Alaina Petty, Meadow Pollack, Helena Ramsay, Alex Schachter, Carmen Schentrup and Peter Wang.

We don't know if any of the 14-to-17-year-olds murdered in Parkland, FL on Valentine's Day were or would have come out as LGBT. We do know that many of their surviving classmates have rainbow flags in their social media accounts. We also know that those same survivors have been outspoken, putting themselves in front of TV news cameras with in-your-face activism.

These brave young voices are refusing silence, the mayhem of guns and assault weapons, or to accept that the only answer to conflict is killing. They are standing up to Trump, the GOP, the NRA. They are all over TV from ABC to CNN, and their voices remind us that activism is the bedrock of this nation.

Rippon tweeted, "I got asked if competing at the Olympics was the most important day in my life and the answer is no, every day is important and shouldn't be taken for granted. These shootings have to stop. Sending love to those families hurting today."

So for the feats of athleticism and bravery at the Olympics, the dramas of our recent past, the profound tragedy of our present, and for all the ways TV links us to our world in the real-est of time, you know you must stay tuned.

Adam Rippon figure-skated his way into our hearts at the Winter Olympics. Photo: ABC

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