Adam Rippon is back in the news, this time from rumors that he is producing a reality show with talk show host Ellen DeGeneres. The news is likely to ruffle some feathers, as Rippon has become a polarizing figure — perhaps unfairly.
Rippon, 28, is a 2018 Winter Olympics athlete and medalist. He received significant attention for being one of the first openly gay athletes to represent Team USA at a Winter Olympics and the first openly gay male athlete to win a medal in a Winter Olympics.
But throughout the Olympics, it seemed as though Rippon made headlines just as much for his politics as for his performance, after he and Vice President Mike Pence engaged in some back and forth. A summarized timeline:
January 17 – Rippon publicly criticized Pence:
“You mean Mike Pence, the same Mike Pence that funded gay conversion therapy? I’m not buying it.”
“If it were before my event, I would absolutely not go out of my way to meet somebody who I felt has gone out of their way to not only show that they aren’t a friend of a gay person but that they think that they’re sick…”
“If I had the chance to meet him afterwards, after I’m finished competing, there might be a possibility to have an open conversation. He seems more mild-mannered than Donald Trump… But I don’t think the current administration represents the values that I was taught growing up. Mike Pence doesn’t stand for anything that I really believe in.”
“I don’t think he has a real concept of reality. To stand by some of the things that Donald Trump has said and for Mike Pence to say he’s a devout Christian man is completely contradictory. If he’s okay with what’s being said about people and Americans and foreigners and about different countries that are being called ‘s—holes,’ I think he should really go to church.”
“No, I’m a U.S. athlete representing my country. I will continue to share my story, but I will participate in no form of protest. I’m representing myself and my country on the world stage. I have a lot of respect for this opportunity…”
Later January 17 – Pence’s press secretary Alyssa Farah issued a response:
“The vice president is proud to lead the U.S. delegation to the Olympics and support America’s incredible athletes. This accusation is totally false and has no basis in fact. Despite these misinformed claims, the vice president will be enthusiastically supporting all the U.S. athletes competing next month in Pyeongchang.”
- The “totally false” “accusation” with “no basis in fact” most likely referred to the claim Pence funded gay conversion therapy, which is the practice of attempting to change sexual orientation using aversion therapy, including electric shocks.
I will let the VP’s words speak for themselves. You can very easily find these quotes and more online. His position and intentions are clear. pic.twitter.com/XmH0v9pqua
— Adam Rippon (@AdamRippon) January 20, 2018
- People argue the final sentence refers to gay conversion therapy. Pence spokesman Marc Lotter told the New York Times in 2016 the statement had been misinterpreted.
Later January 20 – Farah issued a clarification:
“The text pointed to as evidence of the vice president’s alleged support is referring to the Ryan White Act, a policy supporting AIDS prevention in Africa through promoting safe sex practices. The vice president supported the legislation and it was signed into law.”
The legislation encourages safe sex as to avoid the spread of AIDs. This isn't complicated unless you deliberately misread the legislative text..
— Alyssa Farah (@Alyssafarah) January 20, 2018
February 8 – the official vice presidential Twitter account tweeted out good wishes for Adam and his teammates:
[email protected] I want you to know we are FOR YOU. Don’t let fake news distract you. I am proud of you and ALL OF OUR GREAT athletes and my only hope for you and all of #TeamUSA is to bring home the gold. Go get ‘em!
— Vice President Mike Pence (@VP) February 8, 2018
February 23 – Rippon followed through on his initial statement to wait until after the Olympics concluded, telling the “Today” show he would now be “totally” willing to accept a phone call with Pence: “I was offered a phone call with the vice president that I decided not to take before the games…because I needed to focus on the competition.”
Many who follow sports and politics have understandably expressed fatigue with Rippon’s seemingly constant presence. They question why Rippon continues to bring up Pence, call him attention-seeking, and claim his 15 minutes are up.
Perhaps. But I’d like to offer a different perspective.
The need to fill 24 hours in a day with news is detrimental and causes misperceptions.
Filling airtime and generating clicks through constant promotion can create a false impression that people are constantly talking about something. Furthermore, tweets and headlines are often intentionally written to be as antagonistic and dramatic as possible: “Adam Rippon DESTROYS Pence.”
However, many times Rippon was simply either responding to questions interviewers had asked or providing reactions to new developments.
This isn’t a new problem. In 1997, DeGeneres experienced something similar after her Time magazine cover and specials with Diane Sawyer and Oprah: “Because there was so much talk about [my sexual orientation], everyone was just sick of it… Everybody assumed I was just nonstop talking about it.” That is, sadly, the way our media works.
Unfortunately, this means that the focus was often disproportionately on the fact that Rippon wouldn’t meet Pence during the Olympics — it was not highlighted nearly as much that Rippon was willing after or that Rippon was uninterested in participating in protest during the Olympics — because those weren’t as sensational.
Reflexive outrage makes us miss the bigger picture.
Rippon’s responses should be evaluated in proper context to determine if they actually merit outrage.
Adam Rippon is homosexual and was bullied in his youth. It is not outrageous he would dislike some of Pence’s earlier statements and actions. It is not shocking he would disapprove of comments Donald Trump has made and therefore the administration of which Pence is a part.
Isn’t it praiseworthy, or at least exemplary, that Rippon was willing to “have an open conversation” with Pence — just after the Olympics concluded?
This is more than just politics or partisanship.
A gay athlete — his presence, his success, and his resistance — is more significant than we Americans may realize at first.
It was not even fifty years ago that social discrimination and constant police harassment of gay people caused rioting and protests at the Stonewall Inn.
Significant change has only occurred in the last two decades:
- 1996 – the Supreme Court struck down a state law banning protected class status based upon homosexuality or bisexuality.
- 2003 – the Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws nationwide.
- 2013 – the Supreme Court struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act.
- 2015 – the Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal nationwide, and the Equal Employment Opportunity commission determined the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not allow sexual orientation discrimination in employment because it is a form of sex discrimination.
Yet even three years ago, when two gay people wanted to get married, they had to deal with a government clerk telling them “no.” Even after the Supreme Court had ruled in their favor, the clerk did not treat them like a heterosexual couple. And politicians cheered her on.
(I do want to make a few Obergefell observations. Liberals should try to understand many conservatives criticize Obergefell because they believe the Supreme Court should not have ruled on the issue at all; they want Congress, not 9 unelected people, to enact this kind of sweeping policy change, and some conservatives further prefer individual states, not Congress, handle marriage as a state issue rather than a federal issue. And, as conservatives like to point out, the states had started to handle it one by one — slowly.
Conservatives should try to understand that while the states were slowly changing, people’s lives were at stake. People wanted the right to make medical decisions for loved ones a heterosexual spouse could have made. People wanted tax benefits a heterosexual couple would receive. And people wanted the ability to get married, celebrate their love, start a family, and live their lives, just the way heterosexual people did.
I am not proposing conservatives suddenly stop caring that the proper process to enact policy is followed — that is an incredibly dangerous precedent. We have three branches of government for a reason, and we should not suddenly dismiss or ignore the separation of powers simply because we happen to like or approve of the policy. But I am saying conservatives should be more sensitive to how people were affected in real time. This will help us to govern more effectively.)
It is easy to forget how quickly American public opinion regarding same-sex marriage changed in a short time. In just 16 years, Americans went from opposing same-sex marriage 57% to 35% (2001) to supporting it 62% to 32% (2017). Because public opinion changed so drastically, it’s possible to forget just how recent and new these developments really are and to undervalue the concerns that gay people still have today.
And we underestimate the impact on the rest of the world.
Rippon has said he shared his story to “make it easier for others” and to “be the role model” he looked for in his youth.
Imagine how a gay teenager in other parts of the world might feel after seeing a gay athlete celebrated, admired, and supported by his or her nation. Imagine how inspiring and empowering an LGBTQ teenager may find it just to see an athlete who is unabashedly gay. Imagine the effect it might have on an LGBTQ youth who may be afraid, ashamed, or self-loathing.
Though these were the first Winter Olympics to feature two openly gay athletes, Rippon has noted future gay athletes won’t be marked as “gay Olympians,” they’ll just be Olympians, because he helped normalize it.
DeGeneres recently opened up about the struggles and loneliness she herself experienced in 1997 after coming out. But Ellen DeGeneres undoubtedly paved the way for Adam Rippon, who will in turn pave the way for others.
Around the world,
- Homosexual activity is illegal in 73 countries.
- Homosexuality is punishable by death in multiple countries.
- Same-sex marriage is illegal in 74 countries.
- Homosexual men are arrested, jailed, lashed, beaten, thrown off buildings, and/or stoned.
We cannot forget Americans are advantaged in many ways.
We here in the United States have the freedom to forget what a significant global moment this is, because we have the luxury of being able to put it out of our minds how unacceptable homosexuality is in other parts of the world.
And we forget how glorious it is that in the United States, a gay man is publicly allowed to criticize one of the leaders of his country without fear of retribution or punishment. He is free to exercise his First Amendment rights — just as Bob Kuechenberg, Manny Fernandez, Jim Langer, Matt Birk, or Tim Thomas exercised their First Amendment rights when they chose not to visit Barack Obama’s White House due to political differences (though their “snubs” were covered differently, depending on the outlet; the same outlets now cheering Rippon criticized these decisions, and vice versa).
We should recognize the power of that and the image that is being sent to the rest of the world. That is the beauty and joy of being an American.
And though it is true the gay population in general has it better in the U.S. than in other parts of the world, that does not mean gay people do not have legitimate critiques or should accept, or be satisfied with, the status quo.
This is not to say that criticism of, or disagreement with, gay people are not permitted. People have the right to express an opinion, not the right to be immune from pushback for that opinion.
But surely we can understand why it is not necessarily preposterous gay people could be fearful of losing their rights or could be resentful towards those whom they deem hostile, when they have not had those rights for long and when so many around the world are still mistreated.
We do not need to rush to take sides when an American criticizes an elected official.
And we should strive to continue to set an example for the rest of the world and to encourage hope and pride for those who may be lacking it in themselves.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent those of any other individual or entity. Follow Sarah on Twitter: @sarahmquinlan.