Inspired by the sight of guys holding hands in Vancouver, New Zealand’s Olympic short track speed skater recently announced publicly that he is gay.
“I looked at my boyfriend and said ‘If they can do it, why can’t we?’” says Blake Skjellerup, on the phone from his home in Calgary where he trains.
Skjellerup visited Whistler’s Pride House during the Olympics and says the gay space for athletes and fans partially inspired him to go public with his sexuality.
“It opened my eyes to how it is for a lot of athletes to come out,” says the 24-year-old, who qualified for the quarterfinals in the 10,000-metre short track speed skate.
When the opportunity arose to publicly come out to an Australian gay men’s magazine after the Olympics, Skjellerup took it.
“If I was asked during any of my 20-something interviews at the Olympics whether I had a boyfriend or a girlfriend — in the same sentence — I would have replied honestly, but I may have replied hesitantly,” Skjellerup confided to Australia’s DNA magazine, as reported on Outsports.com.
Skjellerup tells Xtra he debated coming out earlier in his career but decided it wasn’t an option. He was afraid of losing potential sponsorship, not to mention his spot on New Zealand’s Olympic team, he explains.
Now, he says, he needn’t have worried. His spot on the New Zealand team is secure for now, and there have been no ramifications to date for coming out.
Still, Skjellerup’s fears were not unfounded. Though some gay and lesbian athletes have come out while still competing, most wait until retirement before they publicly share their sexuality — if they ever do at all. When asked why they hesitated, they cite fear of losing coaches, teammates, sponsors and support.
Skjellerup says he knew of other gay athletes competing at the 2010 Games, but none of them came out publicly either.
“More athletes need to come out,” he believes now.
“As time goes on and more people come out, the younger athletes will have an easier time accepting their sexuality.”
Despite his own silence at the 2010 Games, Skjellerup says many of his teammates already knew he was gay — and occasionally harassed him for it.
“There was the odd occasion that I would be the brunt of the joke,” he says. “But even when it’s a joke it’s still not a joke.”
The slurs didn’t stop with teammates, Skjellerup notes, as other athletes’ coaches would occasionally make homophobic comments in his direction as well.
For Skjellerup, homophobia in sport is definitely still an issue, and the professional sports arena will continue to be a homophobic space until attitudes change regarding homosexuality.
“It is a lot to do with people being naïve,” he says.
People are “unaware of how they can make others feel,” he explains, adding that homophobic slurs are still expressed too freely and easily in society overall.
Asked why he thinks professional athletes keep their sexuality a secret while competing, Skjellerup points to a lack of acceptance.
“Straight people don’t have to come out in their sexuality or relationships,” he points out. “But for us, we are still struggling with sexuality in a lot of countries. For a lot of countries it is still seen as a very taboo thing.
“And when some [athletes] come out it supports gay rights all over the world,” he adds.
“Young struggling [gay] athletes shouldn’t be afraid of who they are,” he says. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
It takes courage to come out while competing, he acknowledges, but living honestly is worth it.