Olympic Pride House: Tewksbury talks gay athletes
Ever since Pride House opened its doors on February 8th, the big question has been: would any Olympic athletes actually stop by and out themselves as members of our ‘team’?
I decided to ask Mark Tewksbury what life is really like for gay Olympians and where a visit to Pride House might fall on their list of priorities.
Mark is an openly gay swimmer who won the gold medal in the men’s 100 meter backstroke at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. He also won a silver medal in Seoul as part of the Canadian relay team. Mark credits his gold medal swim to the empowerment he was feeling at the Barcelona Games-the result of having come out to his coach just months earlier and having received her support. He came out publicly at the end of 1998 and was most recently on the board of the 2006 Montreal Out Games. He has been in Vancouver all week, hosting events and doing media interviews in support of Pride House.
OutQ: All the Olympic athletes must know who you are and know that you’re gay. Have any Olympic athletes ever reached out to you and said, “Listen, I need to talk to you about what’s going on with me”?
Mark: Sure, on a very private, intimate level and not wanting to be talked about publicly. For sure, there’s been lots of people that have come out. And some surprising ones. I never would’ve thought that this person was a lesbian or this person was a gay man, and it’s been great. It’s been nice to have that and just to sort of empathize with them and feel their pain a little bit. Unfortunately, many of them still aren’t ready to make that public declaration and really integrate their life fully, and I respect people’s choice. I’m never one to push people past a point that they’re comfortable with. I think that to be a really good gay role model or lesbian role model, you have to be ready to do it, and no fair to put that banner on somebody that isn’t comfortable in their own skin yet.
Click the link below to read the rest of this interview and to read about the gay artist behind the Olympic medals.
OutQ: How do they feel in their own surroundings? Is there a sense that there is still a lot of homophobia in the sports that they’re competing in where they don’t feel like they can be out to their teammates and their coaches?
Mark: That would be, if you were to analyze it and articulate it, what they’re feeling. But it doesn’t get that far. It’s just, ‘We don’t talk about it. It’s not talked about here.’ The reasons why aren’t explored. It’s just kind of a given. Like ‘I’d rather not talk about it. I’m fine with that. I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing. I don’t want to change things.’ For the athlete to get to where they want to go and to try and change a system– it’s too much. That’s why I always say it’s not the athletes that are going to change. It’s the system that’s going to change for the athlete. That’s the positive of Pride House. It’s going to get some Olympic committee people, the mission staff that look after the teams, the physios, the team doctors, the people that you might think are on the periphery, but actually they’re in a place to make some change, to create an environment where it’s okay for someone to come out.
OutQ: Pride House may not be the best environment for an athlete coming out because of the amount of media that has been present there, but do you think that the amount of media attention that has come about is enough to get some of these coaches and straight athletes thinking about the environment they create?
Mark: You know, I can’t speculate because I’m not on the inside. I just think it’s good to be talked about.
I don’t know if the intention ever was for an athlete to come out here. An athlete’s here to compete. Most athletes, when you’re competing, your private life is parked. It’s the same for straight athletes. They’re not out there thinking about who they’re going to date. They’re out there getting ready to win a gold medal. And they often put their quote-unquote ‘real lives’ on hold until sport is done. So, in that sense, it makes the issue a bit more complicated, because sport itself asks [them] to sacrifice a lot.
I can tell you that the Olympic committee in Canada fully briefed their mission staff in LGBT issues, fully talked to 80 of the top athletes on some of these things, gave them the opportunity to become more aware. So that’s the kind of ripple that’s going to make–one day–the environment okay for people. Within that, each sport has their own silo. The Olympic team is one thing, but figure skating has its own federation. Skiing has its own federation. That’s where you start to run into the brick walls and the glass ceilings. It’s okay to talk about it generally as an Olympic committee. We only come together once to go to the Olympics, but it’s those sports federations, which is the next tier down–they really are the iron rulers of their own athletes, and that’s where the next level of change will have to come.
OutQ: When you say that the Olympic committee briefed the top 80 athletes on LGBT issues, how do you mean?
Mark: Well there’s an organization called AthletesCan, and basically a representative of each of the major sports goes there–one or two of them–and at that meeting, all of those athletes were given a session on homophobia in sport and sensitivity to LGBT issues–just some very practical, pragmatic, straight-forward discussion on what it means to be an LGBT person and [how] to be sensitive to the needs and concerns of those athletes.
OutQ: That sounds very promising.
Mark: Yeah, there’s lots of little ripple effects that are coming from this. For sure Pride House gives an umbrella banner for all these things to be happening.
OutQ: You said that people would be unlikely to come out at Pride House while they’re competing, but obviously some of the medal events happen fairly early on, and then people are free to do as they please. Do you think, if Pride House had existed when you were competing, once you were done your competition, you might have slipped in?
Mark: Maybe. You’ve got to remember the Olympics are really complicated. There’s really two Olympics. There’s the inside games and the outside games. The inside games, you have accreditation, you live in a bubble, you are transported from the athletes village–a secure zone–to another secure zone. Some people never leave that, and once their competition’s over they go home. The Pride House is on the outside. It’s for the general public. It’s for media. It’s for all sorts of different people, so a lot of the athletes might not even know that Pride House is here yet. It isn’t quite on the mainstream radar for athletes. But for sure, if you’re a gay or a lesbian athlete, you might hear that something’s going on and that might be enough to feel ‘okay, I’m not ready to go there myself, but cool that it’s happening.’”
Oh, and by the way, those Olympic medals? Those were designed by an out gay artist.
Over at Wayoutwest.TV, you can watch an interview with Corrine Hunt, the artist behind the Aboriginal art on the Olympic medals. The segment featuring Corrine follows the interview with Edmund Haakonson, creator of Pride House’s nude hockey sculpture Slapshotolus.
As Hunt explains to Way Out West, the medals are cut from a single large piece of art, making each medal unique. Hunt says this reflects the fact that each athlete is unique, while also sharing a connection with her/his fellow athletes.