I enjoy the outspokenness of British-born American freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy who made headlines during the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang when he saved a puppy (which he named “Beemo”) from a South Korean dog meat farm, and then again when Gus kissed his boyfriend on international television before Kenworthy’s qualifying run in the men’s slopestyle at PyeongChang.
I recently spent a bit of time with Gus when he was in Montreal to pick up his puppy Beemo at the Canadian offices of Humane Society International (HSI) which rescued 90 dogs – including Beemo – from a South Korean dog farm shut down during the Olympics. After being quarantined for two weeks in Montreal, the puppies were shipped to their new owners across North America. Gus and I talked about everything from saving puppies to his historic televised kiss with his boyfriend, American actor Matthew Wilkas. As usual, Gus didn’t shy away from speaking his truth.
How did you adopt Beemo?
I got Beemo thanks to HSI in Montreal. Coming into this Olympics they informed me about the dog meat trade – I knew little about it – and I immediately wanted to get involved. I wanted to make a point of visiting one of the dog-meat farms in South Korea. So HSI set it up, and we were able to see the conditions for ourselves. It was a heartbreaking experience. But I found Beemo and her family and fell in love with her, decided to adopt her and help out HSI. Montreal is the first time I’ve seen Beemo since South Korea. It was amazing to be reunited, she has a grown a lot and is cuter than ever.
You adopted five dogs when you attended the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Did that motivate you to do the same in PyeongChang?
I have always been a dog lover. The situation in Russia wasn’t premeditated or planned. My boyfriend at the time and I just fell in love with this family of dogs. I said, “We need to bring them home, we can’t just leave them here.”Coming into South Korea, I didn’t have plans to bring a dog back either, but I had done a PSA for HSI about the dog-meat trade and wanted to use my celebrity as a platform to help them fundraise and bring attention to the problem. But you don’t actually have to adopt a dog to help – you can also donate to HSI. No amount is too small.
As a gay man, what was the difference for you between the Sochi and PyeongChang Olympics?
In 2014 in Sochi I was totally in the closet, even though I had my boyfriend there. But Russia had enacted anti-LGBT legislation and said nobody would be exempt from the laws. It was a scary place to be. I wanted to be out but I was scared to be. I shared a room in Sochi with my best friend (American freestyle skier and fellow Olympian) Bobby (Brown). I so wanted to tell him I was gay, it was weighing on me, especially with the anti-LGBT laws. But I was concerned it might negatively impact Bobby and myself. So I came out to him after the games. Also, because we (Team America) had a (slopestyle skiing) sweep in Sochi, the media scrutiny was intense. Reporters would ask questions like, “What kind of girl do you like? Who is your celebrity crush? What’s your ideal date? Do you want a wife and kids?” The questions made me so uncomfortable and I felt I had lied by omission. I felt really shitty about myself and that was the catalyst for my coming out. PyeongChang was totally different: I was out of the closet, I got to be myself, and I was totally excited for any interview! I was ready to talk about celebrity crushes, dream dates or the types of guys I like – I was ready for it all. I was able to be free, to finally be the real me. I shared this with (out Olympians) Eric Radford and Adam Rippon. Then Adam and I also became really, really close friends and it was just amazing to be out.
Sounds like the atmosphere was so much more buoyant.
Buoyant! (Gus smiles)
Sochi motivated you to come out to ESPN The Magazine in October 2015.
Yeah. For the longest time I thought I would come out after my career. But after Sochi I realized I could not continue like this. It was killing me.
What was the reaction of your family?
I came out to them before the magazine was published. My immediate family was the first to know. But it was a shock – it was a big announcement for everybody. Each person I told individually, a weight was lifted off my shoulders. The first five people I told I think I cried. The morning the ESPN story was published, I was a wreck and overwhelmed. But I was happy. It was really liberating.
Were you worried about losing sponsorships?
Totally. Our entire income is based on sponsorships and endorsement deals which is all based on your image – and having a cool image. No one in action sports or freestyle skiing had come out, so I was worried my coming out would make me undesirable to sponsors. But it was totally the opposite. I didn’t lose any sponsors. They were all very supportive. In fact, I gained more sponsors – I was the most-endorsed athlete going into PyeongChang, which is pretty crazy as a gay guy! I mean, Head And Shoulders put a Rainbow flag in our commercial – the first time that had ever been done on U.S. national TV.
In Pyeongchang, Canada Olympic House hosted Pride House for the duration of the Olympics so that LGBTQ athletes, fans and allies had a place to congregate and call their own in the Olympic Village. What was that like?
That was where I met Eric Radford. Yeah, I feel like Canada does everything right. There were Canadian flags and Rainbow Pride flags everywhere! It was a place to feel safe.
Talk to me about the kiss.
It was the lamest kiss too! It was the most brief moment and I didn’t know we were being filmed. I didn’t know it was being broadcast. In hindsight, I’m so glad that it was broadcast because it became an amazing silent protest since it was beamed into TV sets around the world in countries where homosexuality is still illegal. As far as visibility and representation, it was great that it happened. But it was not planned. Had we known, we would have given a slightly better kiss!
I’m not sure I am going to go for Beijing in 2022, but I’m still competing next season at the X Games, the Dew Tour, US Grand Prix and World Championships. I’m taking it day by day.
Is this your first time in Montreal?
Second time! But it is my boyfriend’s first time here.
Because the gay male strip joints here are legendary!
We heard! (Smiles) We actually heard about them before we came to Montreal. But we had an early morning today. Otherwise we would have been there last night!
For more information about Humane SocietyInternational, visit hsi.org
Read Richard Burnett’s national queer-issuescolumn Three Dollar Bill online at bugsburnett.blogspot.com