Gay Olympian Kenworthy promotes mental health at SF event

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Thursday May 2, 2024
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Former Olympian Gus Kenworthy, left, talked about mental health with California's first partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom at a dinner held by the Child Mind Institute in San Francisco April 29. Photo: Stephanie Meyers Photography
Former Olympian Gus Kenworthy, left, talked about mental health with California's first partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom at a dinner held by the Child Mind Institute in San Francisco April 29. Photo: Stephanie Meyers Photography

In Washington, D.C. for this year's White House Correspondents' Dinner in late April, gay former Olympian Gus Kenworthy was invited to tour the White House with first lady Jill Biden, Ph.D. Yet, when he arrived, he learned she was unable to attend and that President Joe Biden would be greeting him in the Oval Office.

He posted a photo of the two to his Instagram account, only to see a flood of comments from people upset with Biden's handling of Israel's war in Gaza, which has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians, and calling him "Genocide Joe." Kenworthy was also criticized for posing with Biden and peppered with questions on if he had asked him about the Israeli bombing of the Palestinian territory in response to the deadly attack by Hamas last fall that killed more than 1,200 people and hundreds more held hostage by the terrorist group.

The vitriolic response surprised Kenworthy, who had first visited the White House at the invitation of former President Barack Obama in 2014 following his winning silver in men's slopestyle at that year's Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Kenworthy skipped going to the White House after the 2018 Winter Olympics due to Donald Trump being president. With Trump and Biden running against each other again this year for the presidency, Kenworthy is supporting Biden, who has championed LGBTQ rights during his first term.

"The alternative is President Trump. It doesn't seem up to debate," said Kenworthy.

It was why he didn't think twice about posting on his social media what he felt was a "little selfie" with Biden.

"I absolutely support Joe. I will vote for him and push for him to win in November," said Kenworthy.

Seeing the negativity expressed about Biden in the comments on his photo does have him "nervous for the election," said Kenworthy. And the reaction is illustrative of why he is not more active than he is on social media platforms.

"I post as much as I have to to keep myself relevant," he explained.

The Bay Area Reporter caught up with Kenworthy while he was in San Francisco as the featured speaker during the dinner portion of the SoFi Child Mind Institute Golf Invitational held April 29 at the private Olympic Club's clubhouse and golf course near Ocean Beach. Invited to discuss his own mental health issues, Kenworthy was in conversation with filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom, who has championed mental health services, particularly for youth, in her capacity as first partner to her husband, California Governor Gavin Newsom.

The impact of social media on Kenworthy's mental wellbeing came up during their talk. "Social media stresses me out," he acknowledged. His phone's constant pinging him with notifications is "anxiety inducing," he told Siebel Newsom.

"Most of my mental health issues come from my phone and social media," said Kenworthy, 32, who lives in the Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles. "I will leave it alone and feel better."

He tries to meditate daily for five to 10 minutes in order to ground himself and feel more present. Another technique he uses is breath work, something he picked up as an athlete, to lower his heart rate and anxiety.

"Your breath is the center of everything," Kenworthy said during his talk.

Another way Kenworthy likes to unwind and decompress is to go for long walks with his dog Birdie, a 6-year-old Korean Jindo mix and "the light of his life," he told the B.A.R.

He rescued Birdie from a Korean dog meat farm while competing in the 2018 Olympic Games in PyeongChang. They were recently featured on the WeRateDogs YouTube channel.

Today, "she is doing more than OK," Kenworthy told the B.A.R.

Coming out

Almost a decade ago Kenworthy came out on the cover of ESPN The Magazine, becoming the first athlete to do so in an action sport. Already a decorated skier, it catapulted him into being a global LGBTQ role model.

He told the B.A.R. he takes being a public figure "with a great deal of responsibility." Over the years he has gotten more used to being in such a position, though it is taxing at times and his fear of saying the wrong thing can take a toll.

"I want to do right by this community. I love this community," said Kenworthy.

Former Olympian Gus Kenworthy, left, joined Child Mind Institute President Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz at a dinner in San Francisco April 29. Photo: Stephanie Meyers Photography  

His being open about his own mental health struggles and taking antidepressants is why Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz, president of the Child Mind Institute, wanted to feature Kenworthy at this year's golf fundraiser, which raised $545,000 for the New York-based nonprofit that operates a clinic in San Mateo.

Young boys, especially, need to hear from other young men who have struggled with mental health issues, Koplewicz told the B.A.R. The nonprofit had featured a video in 2022 of Kenworthy discussing his living with depression.

"He is actually one of my heroes," said Koplewicz, who pointed out that not only is there "so much stigma around mental health, there is even more stigma around taking medications for it."

Kenworthy told the B.A.R. he hopes by speaking up that he can break down the stigma so other people dealing with mental health issues "feel a little bit better about themselves."

After all, said Kenworthy, "We all face mental health issues in different ways."

Parent, kids project
The institute partnered with Newsom's administration and the California Department of Health Care Services to launch the Positive Parenting, Thriving Kids Project. It is the second child mental health campaign funded by the state in partnership with the nonprofit service provider.

After conferring with experts and hundreds of parents on what issues they needed help with in addressing with their children, the project created a series of 20 videos on various topics it uploaded online in late March. One about sexual orientation and gender identity features a transgender youth talking about their own gender expression.

Others address bullying, coping with stress, and building positive friendships. One explains how to talk to kids about sex, while another zeroes in on social media and how children can use technology in a healthy manner.

"These are five-minute videos coupled with additional articles and resources," said Koplewicz.

Free for anyone with an internet connection to access, the hope is the online materials will be a useful resource for families far beyond the borders of California.

"I know we are having an impact and making a difference, not just in California but across the U.S. and the entire world," said Siebel Newsom, who noted during her remarks at the dinner that, "talking about mental health is so important."

Aiming for an acting career
Two years ago Kenworthy created his own 501(c)3 charity called The Worthy Foundation. It is a way for him to raise money via his speaking engagements for LGBTQ causes and other issues he cares about, explained Kenworthy. One is animal adoption and rescue.

"Animals don't have a voice," he said. "We need to be a voice for them."

He recently held a fundraiser at his home for the Rainbow Book Bus, a nonprofit endeavor created by friends of his to bring banned LGBTQ books to queer communities in the South and other parts of the U.S. where such titles have come under attack by conservatives. The event netted $15,000.

"I think it is a great cause. Obviously, I stand against book bans," said Kenworthy.

Professionally, Kenworthy is figuring out what his career path will be. After retiring as an athlete post the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, his plan was to pursue acting full time. It was partly behind why he had moved to Los Angeles years ago.

In 2019, he played Chet Clancy in the "American Horror Story" TV series and appeared in last year's "80 for Brady" movie. Most recently, Kenworthy played the character Bruce in the remake of "Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter is Dead" released in April.

But last year's strike by writers and actors interrupted his career plans. With the industry largely on pause for most of 2023, he enrolled in acting classes to improve his skills and chances of landing more roles.

"It is a tough, competitive career to break into," said Kenworthy, who performed in theater as a kid in Telluride, Colorado, where his family had moved to from Great Britain when he was 2 years old.

His former boyfriend Matthew Wilkas is a professional actor whom Kenworthy assisted in his auditioning for parts and ran lines with. As he enjoyed doing it, it sparked his interest in also becoming an actor, especially with his sports career having "an obvious expiration date," said Kenworthy.

"Like with skiing, acting is all about your performance," he noted.

For the Olympic Summer Games held in Tokyo in 2021, delayed a year due to the COVID pandemic, NBC Sports hired Kenworthy as one of its Olympic reporters. As much as he would love to attend this summer's games in Paris, he hasn't been contracted again by the news broadcaster to cover them.

"I would like to do it again, but at the moment, I don't have a plan locked in," said Kenworthy.

With the Biden administration considering new guidance for schools on the issue of banning transgender students from participating on youth sports teams, and having just visited the White House, the B.A.R. asked Kenworthy where he stood on the issue. Since he hasn't been following the rulemaking process closely, he didn't feel he was educated enough to comment on it.

Speaking about the topic generally, Kenworthy pointed out that a main aspect of youth sports is "team building," something any student should be able to experience. He was critical of those on the right who tend "to weaponize this issue and use it as a wedge issue."

As for rules governing transgender adult athletes at the elite level, Kenworthy said it is a "tricky" and "tough" issue that is better addressed by those with more expertise on the subject than he has. He did say he believes sports officials are "trying to do the best they can to be inclusive and fair."

With regulations and safeguards in place, he said he doesn't see a reason for why trans athletes shouldn't be allowed to compete.

"I am all for inclusivity and for transgender people to be given the same opportunities as their cisgender counterparts are given," said Kenworthy.

In 2019, Kenworthy participated in the AIDS/LifeCycle fundraiser for the Los Angeles LGBT Center and San Francisco AIDS Foundation held annually in early June. He raised $250,000 doing the seven-day bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles, becoming its highest fundraiser.

"I enjoyed the ride from a physical and mental standpoint," he recalled.

One of the enjoyable aspects of it was not feeling pressure to be the first one over the finish line, he said, the polar opposite of his thinking when competing on the ski slope.

"I took it leisurely. My competitive nature didn't come out," said Kenworthy.

The year prior he had made a donation for a friend doing the ride and went to greet them at the finish line. That day, he signed himself up as a participant of the next ride.

"I foolishly didn't train. I assumed I would be fine, as I am a professional athlete," Kenworthy admitted, saying his advice to anyone doing the ride is to get in some training ahead of it and do some test rides to get comfortable with their bike.

Kenworthy told the B.A.R. he would like to participate in the ride again but can't this year because close friends are getting married.

"Maybe next year, I hope, if I have no conflicts," he said.

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