Fit for Print: Rippon and Pence, a missed opportunity

By : Steve Blanchard
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The Olympics are coming to an end, and although politics are supposed to be set aside for the international games, they still manage to float up to the top and make headlines.

So it was no surprise when two openly gay United States athletes, figure skater Adam Rippon and skier Gus Kenworthy, made headlines right at the start of the games with an Instagram photo of them embracing at the opening ceremonies with a caption that included, “Eat your heart out, Pence.”

The post immediately started conversations about Vice President Mike Pence’s long history of anti-gay views. As governor of Indiana, Pence supported a religious freedom bill that allowed businesses to deny services to LGBT customers. That was eventually amended to prevent discrimination based on sexuality, but the damage was done and Indiana’s economy suffered.

It even reignited Pence’s rumored support of gay conversion therapy—a practice deemed unethical and dangerous by the American Psychological Association—as far back as 2000. Pence’s team denies those claims. And it’s also important to remember that Pence was an outspoken opponent to same-sex marriage before it was legalized in 2015.

On the right, discussions about an unappreciative Rippon lit up the comment sections on newspaper sites and the “we get it, you’re gay” statements showed frustration with the subject of sexuality getting injected into sports. It’s nothing really new. We’ve seen this before.

But a more important conversation is developing, thanks to Rippon. It’s whether or not a gay celebrity—or anyone with a voice in the LGBTQ community—should address discrimination with those who directly impose it.

According to a report in USA Today, Pence reached out to Rippon’s team and asked to meet the Olympian, supposedly to discuss the skaters concerns about LGBTQ issues and discrimination. Rippon was quick to share that he was uninterested in meeting the vice president. In turn, Pence’s team fought back and said an invitation was never issued in the first place.

Whomever you believe or however the conversation (or lack of a conversation) played out, it bears discussing the importance of open dialogue when anyone finds themselves in a disagreement. For the sake of argument, let’s say that Pence did extend an invitation to Rippon. Should Rippon seize the opportunity to share his feelings in person?

Yes. I think he should.

Timing is everything and discussing the issue may not be appropriate at the Winter Olympic Games. Rippon has plenty to focus on as he chases a gold medal. But declining an offer to discuss LGBTQ issues with the second highest-ranking politician in the country is a misstep, even if you have very little in common politically.

Imagine an out Olympian returning home after a (hopefully) successful appearance at the games to an adoring public and a meeting with the vice president to discuss equality. It would show an ability to put hostilities and political bias aside to discuss a broader, more important issue. It would also encourage a conversation across the country because, let’s face it, we live in a reality television reality where drama and disagreement drive the national conversation.

Personally, meeting Vice President Pence in person would be difficult for me. It’s hard to imagine spending time with someone who I know has actively tried to oppress my community. However, I would also see it as an opportunity to share my point of view with someone in power who may need to hear a personal story or two about how actions—and laws—can directly impact someone in a negative way.

Great responsibility, as they say, comes with great power. And in the age of social media, you have to be willing to back up your tough talk with action. If someone is willing to talk about the things that are important to you after you repeatedly post about them on social media, you have to be willing to follow up. Otherwise, you’re just complaining about inaction while being inactive yourself.

Hypothetically, let’s imagine that Rippon and Pence meet after the games and discuss LGBTQ issues in the United States. And, in this hypothetical situation, we’ll say that no progress is made and Pence says he is not for equality. Rippon can then move forward knowing that he shared his point of view in a very public way and Pence’s hypothetical anti-gay views get played in the media.

But imagine if the conversation is successful and Rippon managed to get Pence to not only see his point of view, but to actually address them? Isn’t that victory worth an uncomfortable conversation?

Rippon is only 28. He’s focused on the Olympics and the amazing fact that he is one of the first out Americans to compete in the Winter Games. His focus is where it should be.

But in four years or eight years, he’ll be looking at retirement and I’d hate for him to look back and think that he missed an opportunity to potentially help his community in a very big and very public way.

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