Thank You, Adam Rippon, For Introducing Us to John Curry

The gay British figure skater, whose sexuality was ignored by his sport, died poverty-stricken of AIDS in 1994.

British figure skater John Curry died of AIDS on April 15th of 1994. In 1976, Curry became Olympic and World Champion, skating a gracefully artistic, yet technically ambitious, program to music from the ballet production of Don Quixote. After winning Olympic gold in Innsbruck, Austria, Curry faced a media firestorm when he was outed by American journalist John Vinocur of the Associated Press to whom he had given an interview prior to the competition. The media conversation quickly shifted from Curry’s victory, which many saw as reinvigorating and revolutionizing the sport, to focus on his sexuality. Curry’s distinctive style of skating was recast in a salacious light as the press routinely described his “effeminacy,” linking his sexual orientation to his performance on the ice.

After 1976, however, Curry, and his sexuality, were largely ignored by the media and the figure skating establishment. He was diagnosed with HIV in 1987 and AIDS in 1991. Curry spent the last years of his life being cared for by his mother, Rita, though the two rarely discussed his personal life or illness. He resurfaced in the media in 1994 when he knew his death from AIDS was imminent and invited the Mail on Sunday to his mother’s Warwickshire home to photograph his frail and disease-ravaged body. Ever the outlier, Curry again made a statement when other athletes and celebrities were hiding their sexuality and distancing themselves from anything having to do with AIDS.

“I am talking about this [AIDS] because I think the more open people are, the easier it gets for everyone else because it demystifies it,” Curry said, in his interview with the Mail on Sunday. “I don’t want others to be frightened like I was… After all, no one is immune” (The AIDS Memorial).

He died destitute at the age of 44. The figure skating establishment acknowledged neither Curry’s sexuality nor the cause of his death.

Two years later, in 1996, openly gay Mexican-American figure skater Rudy Galindo won the U.S. National Championship, held in his hometown of San Jose, California. Skating an inspired performance to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake for his free program, Galindo took the national title. Beneath his effervescent performance, Galindo was motivated by great personal tragedy. His first coach, Jim Hulick, died of AIDS-related causes in 1989. His second coach, Rick Inglesi, died of AIDS in 1995, as did his brother, George, in 1994. Galindo went on to win a bronze medal at the 1996 World Championships, and during the gala exhibition skate, where he performed to Ave Maria, he wore a black costume prominently adorned with a red AIDS ribbon in memory of his coaches and brother.

The sport, however, was not ready to fully embrace an openly gay athlete, and Galindo battled fiercely with the establishment in order to maintain his authenticity. “I was told by the authorities within my sport to skate in a certain masculine way,” he said. “My sometimes controversial costumes were hyper-analyzed by authorities in the sport. Because I was openly gay at a time when it was most definitely not politically correct, I felt as if I was constantly under the microscope. As the power brokers within my sport tried to contain me, I was equally steadfast in attempting to break through the barriers and show the world who Rudy Galindo truly was, and is to this day. It seemed like an eternity. I felt like an island in an open sea” (The Guardian).

Curry, in his day, was also constrained by the powers that be within his sport. In addition to coming out, he also spoke to John Vinocur about the relentless desire of the skating establishment to change him because he was too flamboyant, too effeminate, too theatrical — all coded language for being queer without naming it outright. His first coach literally beat him for not skating in a typically masculine way and sent him to a doctor to “treat” his so-called effeminacy (The Guardian).

The pressure to be properly masculine and thus “straight passing” had a grave impact on gay skaters, whether they were out or not, as it forced them to suffer in silence and without support. Surely Curry was not the only figure skater of his time who was gay and HIV-positive. Imagine the cultural shift that could have occurred had the figure skating world chosen to embrace its gay athletes and bring attention and awareness to the AIDS crisis. Galindo, like Curry, announced in 2000 that he was HIV-positive. Being of a younger generation, his status was not a death sentence due to the lifesaving antiretroviral drug cocktails that were introduced in the mid 1990s.

Despite the openness of gay skaters Adam Rippon and Canada’s Eric Radford, the sport of figure skating retains a masculine and heterosexual bias. Jacob Ogles, writing in The Advocate, described Rippon as “[choosing] artistry over athletic insanity” in his three flawless Olympic performances. Ogles meant that, like Curry and Galindo before him, Rippon’s skating shines through its authenticity, flair, and finesse over executing multiple quadruple jumps.

The scoring system of contemporary figure skating favors this masculine style of performance, as it awards competitors higher technical scores for poorly executed quadruple jumps over cleanly executed triples. Indeed, perhaps the highest honor bestowed upon contemporary male figure skaters is that of “quad king,” a title given to those who can land multiple quads in a single performance. There is no equivalent title for women. When Mirai Nagasu, for example, became the first American woman, and third woman in the world, to successfully complete a triple axel in Olympic competition, she was not given the title of “triple axel queen.” In women’s skating, technical and artistic ability appears to be valued more equitably, at least to lay viewers.

Although less publicized than his tangle with Mike Pence over the Vice President’s LGBTQ rights record, Rippon also spoke out about his struggles with body image, a prevalent issue in both the figure skating and queer male communities. In 2016, Rippon sought to cultivate a leaner physique to aesthetically please the judges and to better compete with rivals whose stick-thin frames assist them in executing the sport’s prized quadruple jumps. For years, his diet consisted of three slices of bread a day topped with the margarine product I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter (New York Times).

Body image struggles represent yet another way male skaters — and perhaps men in general — are stifled by norms of masculinity. Caring about one’s appearance is cast as a feminine issue, and seeking mental healthcare, in particular, is seen at odds with notions of masculine strength. Gay men are particularly susceptible to body image issues and disordered eating. According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), gay men disproportionately struggle with eating disorders, accounting for 42 percent of men who report disordered eating. Studies also show a direct correlation between gay men who are bullied or shamed for gender nonconformity (i.e., being inappropriately feminine) during childhood and the development of body image concerns as adults (Watson and Dispenza).

Skaters like Rippon challenge the “insanity” of unrealistic sexual and gender expectations that deny our natural diversity. But a change has arrived, at least as audiences are concerned. After all three of Rippon’s Olympic performances, his name was a trending term on Twitter. Rippon’s challenge to gender norms and his embodiment of personal empowerment and truth is wildly needed at this moment. Oppressive leaders like Donald Trump and Mike Pence fear and detest LGBTQ rights because truth — and there is perhaps no truth more fundamental than asserting exactly who one is in a world that says they should not exist — destroys the uniform reality they wish to create.

In shunning its past gay athletes, the figure skating community missed an opportunity to bring compassion and awareness to the AIDS epidemic and other pertinent social issues. As Rippon has shown, figure skating is not solely about winning the gold, silver, or bronze, but the power of art and expression to uplift and empower others. No longer are those who are “different” like islands floating unmoored in the open sea.

John Curry was an icon forty years ahead of his time. Today, Adam Rippon is exactly the icon we need.

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QHFTP aims to make LGBTQ history and culture available, and accessible, to all. We cannot work effectively for change unless we know where we've been and the history of those made invisible by mainstream narratives.

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Jeffry J. Iovannone

Jeffry J. Iovannone

Historian, writer, and educator with a PhD in American Studies. I specialize in gender and LGBTQ history of the U.S. Email: jeffry.iovannone@gmail.com

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