Georgia Voice columnist Melissa Carter

Melissa Carter: Out Olympic athletes have come a long way

The spirit of the Olympics is in uniting otherwise divided people in a safe environment of friendly competition. Who would have known the recent Winter Games would also provide a bridge between the LGBTQ community and people we’ll never know?

This moment happened when a television camera operator covered Gus Kenworthy’s celebration leading up to his ski slopestyle qualifier. Like any athlete, he kissed a loved one for luck before his event, and it just so happened this loved one was another man.

A real gay kiss on live national television. It came and went and the world didn’t end, NBC didn’t have to apologize and scores of straight people were genuinely happy for them.

There were only 15 out athletes competing in Pyeongchang, including Americans Brittany Bowl, Adam Rippon and Gus Kenworthy. Johnny Weir added his style to coverage of figure skating, and Rippon became such a favorite that NBC tried to hire him after his Olympic competition was over.

What a far cry from my first gay athlete experience in Billie Jean King. The recent film “Battle of the Sexes” allows King to be a sympathetic character, an incredible athlete who showed great resolve in an impossible situation. But that’s not quite how she was seen when the events of her affair with Marilyn Barnett came to light.

I was in elementary school at the time and only remember brief clips of her press conference, her husband by her side. I remember an apology. I remember people being disgusted by the thought of her having sex with another woman. And I remember her being perceived as less attractive because of it.

Maybe that’s why when my own sexuality was becoming clear to me, I felt like hiding that inner struggle. I had a box beneath my bed that contained books written by or about lesbians. I forget the titles, but since I was mail-ordering books from the Barnes & Noble paper we got in the mail, I’m sure my parents were glad I was reading and trusted my choices in books without inspecting the boxes addressed to me.

Now I know there were young girls and boys who saw the Winter Games the past few weeks and drew inspiration from these out athletes, and will be made to understand when the time comes that they can be themselves without having to hide or apologize for who they are. I expect the number of these pro-LGBTQ images to grow as we watch the Games in Tokyo, Beijing, Paris and Los Angeles.

But these images cannot occur without you. Being an adult LGBTQ member and not allowing the world to know you exist keeps the next generation in the closet too. I respect why there are some who have no interest in being out and proud, but that decision does come at a cost. Not only to your personal self-worth, but also to the self-worth of that little girl who is crying herself to sleep with dread of a life without love and acceptance. Yet we know her life will be filled with an abundance of love and acceptance — it just takes people like those out athletes, that cameraman, executives at NBC and other friendly faces in her community to show her.