New Zealand Winter Olympian Blake Skjellerup came out this month in an interview with Australia's DNA magazine. The speed skater who first competed for his nation when he was just 12-years-old, made it to the quarter-finals at the Vancouver Games this year. He is the NZ Speed Skater of the Year and has also been named NZ Junior Maori Sportsman of the Year.
In this piece for GayNZ.com, the 24-year-old discusses his coming out journey, whether New Zealand is ready to accept a gay All Black, the 'stay in the closet' comments from AFL star Jason Akermanis and his advice for young gay Kiwis.
My choice to come out was not an easy one. I had already said no to DNA magazine once before and turned down two other opportunities before the Olympics to come out. I had to weigh up the impact coming out would have on me personally, my family and my sport. With a decision like this I knew not everyone would be accepting of my decision. The Olympics had been and gone, and I had time to reflect on my journey. The opportunity to speak to DNA about the Olympics resurfaced. I realised that the opportunity to share my story with other athletes and mums with gay sons and sports teams with a gay teammate, would help redefine the perception of being gay and being in sports.
My passage into being gay and accepting my sexuality took quite a long time. I had my first experience with another guy when I was 16. The eight years after that until I came out were full of highs and lows. I struggled with accepting how I could be gay, be successful and get everything I wanted out of life. In my teenage years there was no Gareth Thomas or Matthew Mitcham. Reading their stories and witnessing how comfortable and nonchalant Mitcham was about his sexuality at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 really opened my eyes.
I choose to share my story as the highs and lows of my teenage years did not define me, however those years could have been a lot easier for me. If I knew about Mitcham or Thomas when I was 16, I would have had a more memorable, happier, teenage life. I know there are people out there today struggling to accept being gay, and if reading my story makes that process a lot easier then I have no regrets about coming out.
In New Zealand organisations such as Rainbow Youth are doing great work to ensure teens have a place to get educated, talk to other gay teens and have a place where they can really be themselves. A safe place for them to go to and find solace is important, as that may not exist in the home or at school. However we need to change the minds of greater New Zealand. Homophobia exists due to ignorance and the fact that society finds it uncomfortable. I came out and am standing up for what I believe in as I am no less of a human that a heterosexual person.
New Zealand is a very proud country, a country defined primarily by its beauty and its rugby. My sporting career, like most young New Zealanders, started in rugby. If I were sitting here writing this story as an All Black, a large percentage of New Zealand's population would stereotype me. I have lived homophobia and I know I would be defined as a skirt-wearing pansy. I came out to break the stereotype of gay men and gay athletes. We can be anybody. We are anybody. My friends, family and team know me; they know I don't wear a skirt! I am no less of a man because I am gay, but in my opinion New Zealand does not see that.
I do not think we will see a gay All Black before this world cup or before the next. Society is changing but not at the rate in which it should. There is still very apparent discrimination against gay people. I was an angry teenager at some points. I never felt comfortable with telling anyone about being gay. From a young age and through high school I was that kid who got called faggot and homo. It was apparent to me that being different was not an option, but the one thing that got me through was that I knew, one day, I would be better than they were. I reminded myself that everyday. I know first hand that hiding something puts a tremendous pressure on a person. Hiding my sexuality is something I regret, as today, being an openly gay man and athlete, I feel much greater and more significant than ever before.
In one way I understand Jason Akermanis' comments about hiding your sexuality if you are gay and in a professional sports team. Gays were stereotyped to help heterosexual society deal with something that was defined as a little different. We are not seen as tough masculine males. For a high profile sports team to have a gay team member - it will hamper the team's bravado. That team will have to work a little harder to maintain their masculinity, but what that team will be doing for society, gay rights and young kids all over the world will be nothing short of a miracle. The team's acceptance of their teammate will single handedly be showing children and adults the world over that no matter who you are, where you're from, win or lose, you can be anything in this life.
Even with what I thought about being a gay athlete I still circumvented the obstacles life threw at me. I kept hold of my dreams, I was not going to be beaten and I did not let myself be pushed around. I know there are kids out there who will be dealing with what I went through. My advice to them is to never give up. I never gave up on my Olympic dream, being gay was not my dream, it's who I am. Do not be afraid to be who you really are. Live life like you're no different to anyone else, if anyone tells you any different, they're wrong.
- Blake Skjellerup