In 2015, Gus Kenworthy came out as gay, an announcement proclaimed on the cover of ESPN The Magazine. He is the first openly gay professional freeskier and one of just a few LGBTQ professional skiers in history. The few others’ stories might not be as familiar: Swedish alpine skier Anja Paerson, who came out as a lesbian in 2012 shortly after retiring from her racing career; and transgender and intersex downhill skier Erik Schinegger, whose professional career ended when he transitioned to live as a man.
In the long and lauded history of downhill skiing, we know of just three professional LGBTQ athletes. Why?
Kenworthy, who won a silver medal in slopestyle at the 2014 Olympics, received a generally positive response from the ski community, professional women skiers continue to gain respect and momentum in a male-dominated industry, and skiing presents itself as welcoming and open. But there’s still a clear expectation of how men and women are supposed to act, and this heavily gendered, often sexist culture inhibits the involvement and advancement of everyone but straight men.
The sport will be a lot more radical when people aren’t afraid to bring their whole self—queer, femme, trans, masculine, bi, lesbian, gay, or straight—to the mountain.
“Many LGBTQ people fear that certain opportunities aren’t available to us because the culture won’t accept us. And skiing and snowboarding, particularly at the upper level, really does have this presumed heterosexuality,” says Chris French, the founder of Ski Bums, the largest LGBTQ ski club.
The majority of ski narratives—plots in ski movies, articles in magazines, even the public personas of ski professionals—are told by, about, and for straight men. That’s why ski movies underrepresent female skiers’ accomplishments and brands disproportionately sponsor men on their teams. (Armada, for instance, has one woman for their 15 men.) It’s why Sean Pettit puts casual hookups with attractive women in the title sequence of his reality show. It’s also why professional skier Sierra Quitiquit subtly derides the stereotypical “high maintenance” girl with her Instagram hashtag #HighVibesLowMaintenance, separating herself from the proverbial pack of un-chill girls and proving that she can hang with the boys (and still look good, too). Jackson Hole’s Assistant Director of Ski Patrol Jen Calder notes that her female coworkers often adopt masculinity as a “survival mechanism” in a male-dominated workforce.
In short, the message is that women won’t get attention, respect, or authority within the industry unless they’re willing to play by the boys’ rules. That is, women must ascribe to the narrow gender roles set forth by mainstream ski culture, either playing into their sex appeal to gain traction or separating themselves from their femininity to earn credibility. And while women are given very little space to exist within skiing, LGBTQ people—who often, by nature, exist outside traditional expectations of masculinity and femininity—fit into ski culture even less.
“There were so many skiers that I looked up to, for their skiing or even their personality when I got to know them. But it was hard as a kid—I didn’t have someone that was into sports and all these things that I was, and was also openly gay,” says Kenworthy. “I’m not going to lie. I feel like I was completely stepping out alone.”
Kenworthy, 25, has been very open about the difficult and daunting process of coming out. He grew up in a tightly knit circle of boys in Telluride, Colorado, and moved into the professional park skiing circuit when he was 16, where he trained and competed with primarily young men. Kenworthy points to small things like the incessant use of “gay” as a pejorative that persists within heavily male social circles and subtly indicates a lack of approval for anything outside their heterosexual norm. The imbalance between men and women, which is particularly stark in park skiing, compounds the issue.
“The onus is really on the industry to say, ‘We are going to choose our representation more wisely. We are going to intentionally request diversity in our marketing, in the messages that we put out. We are going to do outreach within our marketing departments to specific communities.’” —Chris French
If he had some form of a role model, Kenworthy says, coming out would have happened when he was younger, and been easier. “I would have just felt more secure with who I was,” says Kenworthy. “I think my last relationship would have certainly flourished, especially in particular moments and instances when I was really quite ashamed. I think it would have saved a lot of tears.” Messages come into Kenworthy’s Instagram regularly from young queer people, sharing how his story has helped them grow more comfortable with themselves and even encouraged some of them to come out to friends or family.
Kenworthy is quick to point out that he thinks skiing has the potential to be an open, accepting community, citing the (mostly) positive response to his coming out. French echoes that sentiment with stories of how ski areas around the world have gone out of their way to make sure he and his group feel safe and welcome. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy for LGBTQ people to feel at home or connect with other people like them within skiing. The realm where change isn’t happening just yet (and where it needs to be) is higher up, in the companies that shape skiing’s image.
“The onus is really on the industry,” says French, “to say, ‘We are going to choose our representation more wisely. We are going to intentionally request diversity in our marketing, in the messages that we put out. We are going to do outreach within our marketing departments to specific communities.’”
It’s why Kenworthy’s position as a role model is so important: Queer kids—or at least, young, gay men—can recognize themselves in him and feel welcome in the ski world. It’s also why spaces that carve out community for LGBTQ people, like Ski Bums, are necessary. All-women’s camps, avalanche courses, and films let women connect with each other and redefine what it means to be a female skier on their own terms. Groups like Ski Bums can do the same for queer people, by empowering them to build a community of skiers in which they feel at home.
The ski community is primarily an uplifting and accepting one. Sometimes it’s easier to write off things like sexism and exclusivity; pretend they don’t exist, or only exist for people who are looking for a reason to complain. But in reality, skiing has a lot of room for growth. The sport will be a lot more radical when people aren’t afraid to bring their whole self—queer, femme, trans, masculine, bi, lesbian, gay, or straight—to the mountain.
Abigail Barronian is a correspondent for Powder. She grew up skiing White Pass, Washington, and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.