Hume: Let’s look at why we love Adam Rippon

Jack Hume, Columnist

The media can’t take its eyes off of Adam Rippon, the American Olympic figure skater from the U.S. delegation at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. Rippon’s face has adorned news outlets for the last two weeks: A piece in The New York Times offers to reveal the secret to Rippon’s “Olympic abs,” outlining his daily gym routine and favorite exercises. Britain’s The Guardian claims Rippon’s “witty remarks and defiant politics” are reason enough to give him a medal, and Time Magazine has even labeled him “America’s New Winter Olympics Star.” He’s the center of attention — America loves the self-proclaimed “glamazon b—- ready for the runway.”

He’s not just an Olympian — Adam Rippon is gay. And Adam Rippon is exactly what the U.S. loves in a gay man: He is a figure-skating Ken doll. His political beliefs are gay; his coiffed hair and white teeth and chiseled body are gay; his sport is gay. What more could you ask for? He is the portrait of “gay” the world is comfortable with, someone bedazzled and perfect and domesticated to the ice rink, seen only behind the safety of a television screen.

Now break for a moment and keep this in mind. Think back to October, when sexual assault allegations against Kevin Spacey were just beginning to surface. Spacey’s case stood out from others — his accusers were men. As such, his written statement stands out from those of others accused of assault.  In the first half, Spacey acknowledges the allegations brought against him.  In the latter half, he comes out as a gay man, claiming the incident has caused him to “address other things” about his life.

This was an interesting choice, a gamble whose dividends likely wouldn’t pay off in immunity, but one that, it was hoped, could place Spacey in the group of the Adam Rippons of the world: the foreign others, the intriguing museum exhibits, the circus troupe. Whether he was successful in doing that is beside the point.

Adam Rippon and Kevin Spacey are two different people, and both have been in the spotlight for radically different reasons. Nevertheless, the two reflect how deceptive today’s “acceptance” of gay people is in the United States. At first, it’s hard to understand why the obsession with Adam Rippon is flawed. Rippon is a celebrated figure — people are fascinated by him. He’s a gay man in the Olympics. And if everyone loves it, isn’t that acceptance?  

In reality, the obsession with Rippon only reveals how deeply uncomfortable Americans are with gayness, and how the concept of being gay is marred by absurd stereotype. We have yet to learn the obvious lesson as it pertains to gay men that’s beginning to be understood with women: that humans aren’t Barbie dolls. Gay people don’t have to be clear-skinned, white figure skaters, and there’s no necessity for them to live up to that image in order to be treated like human beings.

Again, it’s easy to view Rippon’s situation with optimism.  Celebrating a gay figure skater is obviously better than silencing gay athletes or banning them altogether. But if we let the cement harden around the growing understanding that gay people are human ice fairies, we risk creating a world where gay people are exoticized and fetishized if they’re pretty enough, but silenced if they’re not. If that becomes the standard by which we “accept” gay people, we will strip them of their humanity.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with Adam Rippon being celebrated. On the contrary, it is the implications of confusing acceptance with exoticization that has so many negative repercussions.  Look no further than Kevin Spacey for an example of how that happens, and why it’s something to be avoided. Spacey’s coming out was pathetic and cowardly and wrong — somewhere in his subconscious, he hoped coming out as gay would absolve him of some of the responsibility a straight Kevin Spacey would’ve faced for sexual assault.  

And that’s scary — it means the society we’re creating, one that claims to embrace gay people with open arms, is propping up and reinforcing the understanding that gay people are too different to be human. While the cameras are at the Olympics on Adam Rippon’s shining visage, today’s gay acceptance is an easy thing to celebrate. Elsewhere, it’s something to mourn.

Jack Hume is a Weinberg freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.