I grew up in Balmertown, a small community in Northern Ontario that’s home to about 1,000 people. I was the only male figure skater in a hockey town, which led to me being bullied quite a bit. I never could figure out exactly why the other kids would make fun of me for choosing a certain sport.
But I also loved to skate.
Four years ago, at the Olympic Games in Sochi, I won a silver medal with my pairs partner, Meagan Duhamel, in the team event. But the road from Balmertown to Russia was a windy one: There was success and there was failure along the way. There were people who didn’t believe we could go as far as we believed we could. We never let that stand in our way.
What does it mean to be Olympic? To me it’s about courage. It’s about grace and excellence in the face of judgment. We’re all judged by others from the time we’re young: for how we look, how we talk, what we do. Our success is determined by how we decide to respond to it. We can let it bring us down — or we can find the courage to believe in ourselves and to follow our dreams.
In December 2014, I decided to come out publicly as a gay athlete in Outsports magazine. I had never felt compelled to talk about my sexuality before because I believed it was a non-issue.
But I put myself in the position of a young kid, who might be afraid to follow their own dream. Or maybe they just want to get out of their own small town and do something in the world. If that young kid was able to see someone on TV — someone similar to myself, who was openly gay and winning medals — then maybe that would give them the confidence to feel it was truly possible for them.
It could help anyone. It doesn’t have to be sexuality — it can just be about being or feeling different in general.
I realized that by speaking out, I could make a difference. No other gay figure skater had come out at the height of his career. I realized that the only way to normalize it was to speak out. To me, being Olympic is about being your best both on and off the ice — for yourself and for others. I was at the point in my life and in my career where it made sense. I was surrounded by amazing people and friends. My fear of coming out wasn’t as strong as my desire to get my story out there.
That doesn’t mean it was easy. The day the interview came out I was filled with insecurity and I was second-guessing my decision. What if this affects opportunities in the future? What if I lose a sponsorship because I decided to come out? What if this affects the way judges see me at competitions? People can be ruthless and they can create their own idea of you as a person, based on an article. I was worried that it might not unfold the way I had wanted it to in my head.
But I also knew that having someone like that to look up to when I was young — especially an Olympian — would have made a huge difference.
As an adult, I can look back on my childhood and see these kids were bullying me because they really didn’t know any better. It came down to a lack of education. People are afraid of things they don’t know much about. I also have an appreciation for what I went through. It made me stronger and it helped me realize what was really important to me: family, friends and never giving up.
I moved away from home when I was 13 and I had the opportunity to re-create myself. I became more self-aware, I forced myself to lose a lisp that I had when I was younger and I learned to control my mannerisms. I didn’t want my sexuality to define me. I ended up moving for training every year of high school, from Kenora to Winnipeg to Montreal to Toronto.
Paul Wirtz becoming my coach when I was 15 was a pivotal moment, not only in my skating career but also in my life as a teenager. He was the first gay person I ever met in “real life.” He made me realize it wasn’t something to be afraid of. I ended up working with Paul until I was 21. He was like my third parent. He was really, really funny and really charismatic. He gave me all my technical background and also kind of molded me and shaped me and guided me into the style of skater that I am.
He passed away from cancer in April 2006 and it flipped my whole world upside down. The night before he passed away, I got to visit him and say goodbye and thank you. His memory inspired me to write a song for him, and Meagan and I eventually used it for our short program at both the Olympics and Worlds in 2014. It was called “Tribute.”
The support I received after I came out was phenomenal. People around the world have read my story and related to it. It makes it all worthwhile.
A couple of weeks after the interview was published, I was in Barcelona for the Grand Prix Final and had many fans come up to me and say, “I’m so proud of you for coming out.” During our free skate there was a rainbow flag in the audience when we finished. I was really touched by that. And then I was in Korea, and someone came up to me and told me, “You’ve inspired us. You’re so brave.”
I think for any gay person, when they’re about to come out to somebody, there’s anxiety, there’s fear, because you don’t know how the person is going to react. It’s the unknown. And being in the public eye, that is just multiplied.
I had thought about coming out before the Sochi Olympics and had even discussed it with GLAAD, a U.S. organization focused on LGBTQ awareness and acceptance. They said it would be an incredible opportunity to send a message of strength, particularly given all the media attention on Russia’s anti-gay legislation prior to those Games.
But I didn’t want to do something I wasn’t comfortable doing, and I was under enough pressure as it was just to make it there. It had been my life’s dream since I was eight, and I wasn’t going to let anything stand in my way. It was my first Olympics. I’d put my entire life into that moment, and I didn’t want to have any distractions.
I was going to the Sochi Olympic Games to do my best as an athlete and as a figure skater. That was my priority and I didn’t want my story at that time to be about my sexuality. I wanted my story to be about my achievements and my perseverance and reaching my goals.
There are also so many things happening at the Olympics that I felt my coming-out story would have gotten lost in the news cycle. I think that coming out when I did, later in the 2014–15 season, was much more effective.
I do feel lucky and I do think it’s been a bit easier for me to come out, being in figure skating, because there are a lot of stereotypes about it already. It’s also just Meagan and me. She knows who I am, she’s comfortable with who I am, we’re best friends. Basically everybody in the skating community already knew what my sexuality was and it was not an issue. That’s also a small part of the reason why I didn’t think I had to talk about it publicly because I really felt like everybody already knew. It’s just the way it is. I feel so fortunate for that, for having so many amazing friends and people in the skating world who only want what’s best for me.
I know it’s not like that for everybody or for every sport. I can empathize with the difficulties of being a gay athlete in a professional sport. I can imagine having more anxiety if I had to worry about what all my teammates might think about my sexuality. There’s always the unknown of how somebody might react and dealing with that fear on a large scale like that could be very difficult.
My hope is eventually it won’t matter for anyone — that questions about an athlete’s sexuality won’t be big news, and athletes will feel comfortable talking about their significant other, whether it’s a boy or a girl. We should all be able to talk about our lives freely. It should be a non-issue. Athletes should be judged by their performance on the field of play, not by whom they love.
While we can aim for no judgment off the ice, we will always be judged for our performance on the ice.
In figure skating, there can be many subjective opinions. And what I’ve learned over the years is that I have to take some of those opinions with a grain of salt. It can be difficult not to read the comments sections on YouTube videos or articles written about Meagan and me. Sometimes I’d ask myself why people put so much energy into being negative — but I try to rise above it and let it fuel me, make me do better.
The only opinions that matter belong to the judges: They’ve been trained to do what they do; they’ve watched skating for years.
I did worry, slightly, about how my coming out might affect us in competition. Our marks rely somewhat on how the judges perceive Meagan and me as a couple. But their main job is to mark our skating. They are taught how to judge us and how to be as unbiased as possible. It doesn’t always happen, but I couldn’t let it bother me. We can’t control what the judges are going to do, what they’re going to take into consideration.
We’ll probably never find out if it has affected our scoring, but I really don’t think they consider anything other than how we skate. If anything, we’ve had our best results and have received our best scores since I came out, so there hasn’t really been any sign of that. We’ve won two world titles.
All we can do is go out and focus on what we do best.
After the Olympics in Sochi, Meagan and I decided to push ourselves and add a throw quad Salchow to our repertoire. It was an element that hadn’t been done consistently by any team before. While we pushed ourselves technically, we worked really hard to develop the other side, the artistic side of our skating. It has been a challenge to find a meeting point of our two different styles, but I believe we’ve grown a lot in this aspect.
It’s about having the courage to try. To be Olympic. To strive for excellence in the face of judgment. I’ve also tried to do that with my music.
I’m a musician and my compositions have been used in figure skating competitions. In addition to Meagan and I skating to “Tribute” in Sochi, World and Canadian champion Patrick Chan has also performed to my music. It made me nervous, even though I thought it all came together really well.
Releasing my music for the public to hear also created a lot of insecurities for me. My compositions are a deep part of who I am. They’re part of my soul and I was putting that out there to be critiqued. But at the same time to have a skater like Patrick, who is one of the best skaters of all time, take that piece of me and make it come alive in a totally different way is something I was so excited to see.
My last year in Balmertown before I moved away was very difficult. But the support of my town as I’ve made my way through this amazing career has been incredible. I’ll never forget where I come from and I always try to say hello to my hometown when I’m in the kiss-and-cry on TV.
I was asked once what I would say to my 13-year-old self, and it’s the same thing I’d say to anyone else who is going through something like what I went through.
Be yourself. Don’t listen to what anybody else says. Don’t let anybody convince you that what you’re doing is wrong. If you’re a male figure skater, don’t let anyone tell you it’s a girls’ sport. Whatever it is you’re doing, don’t let anyone try to diminish your dreams or make you feel stupid for wanting to be a certain way. What you’re attracted to in life — creativity, music, even a colour — it’s all inside of you, you can’t control it, so don’t feel bad for feeling that way. Have confidence in your own dreams and have confidence in yourself. And if you really want to achieve your dreams, look at the examples around you, surround yourself with people who believe in you, and you really will be able to achieve them.
Have courage. Be resilient. Be Olympic.
My life is better now than I ever dreamed it would be. In June, I got engaged to my boyfriend, Luis Fenero, who’s a Spanish ice dancer. Quite honestly, I never imagined I could be in a relationship with another skater. I always thought I had enough skating in my life. But it’s the opposite. We both understand and accept the rhythm of the life we lead.
I’m an athlete with the Canadian Olympic Committee’s One Team! program, which is one of the things that inspired me to come out in the first place. The program brings Olympians to schools across Canada to talk about mental fitness and equality in sports. Programs like this help to create dialogue and conversations that promote acceptance of everyone in sport.
Meagan and I have qualified for our second Olympics, and it will be our last. We want to leave Pyeongchang with a great performance and a sense of accomplishment, and we know that if we have that feeling, we will also have that medal in our hands.
Once I’m finished competing, I’d like to start coaching and choreographing at my own skating school. I’ll keep writing music and hopefully release an album of my own compositions. Maybe I’ll write a book on adversity and blasting through stereotypes.
I feel lucky that my success in skating has given me a voice, so that even people who don’t know me will listen to what I have to say. I hope I entertain people with my skating, inspire them with my music, and support them and maybe help them with my story.
We can all be Olympic, no matter who we are or who we love.
The Interview: Virtue & Moir on their career, Canada at the Olympics
Olympic flag bearers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir talk about putting down their beers, returning to competition, and Canada's chances at the Pyeongchang Games.