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    The Power of Being Extraordinarily Ordinary

    By John Lewis–

    On my first day of law school 35 years ago, each member of my small group section of twenty students was asked as part of an ice-breaker exercise to share something interesting about themselves. The first person to speak, a young man named Mark, replied in the most friendly, matter-of-fact, and unselfconscious manner: “I’m a gay rights advocate.”

    Mark’s saying those words changed my life. I had not yet come to relate to my own sexuality in an authentic way, but I remember thinking to myself: “I want to get to know him.” I now realize that what I was really thinking was: “I want to get to know myself.”

    Mark was the first gay person I met who articulated his experience openly. He offered himself to his classmates as a way to get to know a gay person as a peer in a welcoming way—something that was not that common 35 years ago.

    We soon became close friends, as we remain to this day, and Mark was the first person to whom I came out. Mark’s quiet confidence and willingness to take a risk—indeed, the very ordinariness with which he presented himself and his activism—made all the difference to me.

    Ironically, as I watched new gay superstars Adam Rippon and Gus Kenworthy take the world by storm at the Olympics, I found myself thinking about what Mark did 35 years ago. Amidst the wild media frenzy and their extraordinary athletic performances, and even Rippon’s oversized personality, what struck me most about Rippon and Kenworthy was how ordinary—and quintessentially fabulous—they were as gay men.

    Rippon and Kenworthy seem like people I could imagine hanging out or sassing it up with at a bar or at a party. In addition to Kenworthy’s wonderful, televised kiss with his boyfriend at the end of his ski competition, Kenworthy and Rippon did not shy away from hugging each other and physically demonstrating their affection for each other as gay friends. They didn’t try to control their gestures, intonation, playful joking, or choice of words. In a Washington Post interview, Kenworthy responded to something Rippon had just said, “Aw, good, the Whitney’s on!” invoking gay icon Whitney Houston, assuming (and seemingly not caring) whether the non-gay component of the audience would get the joke.

    I loved how Rippon quipped to reporters that he didn’t want to be just “America’s gay sweetheart,” but “America’s sweetheart,” pure and simple. Rippon’s performance on the ice was gender bending as well with his signature “layback spin,” the most recognizable image of women’s figure skating.

    The first time I heard Rippon interviewed shortly before the Olympics, I remember saying to Stuart, “Wow—he’s the real thing.  He’s not trying to fake it or pretend at all.” On NBC’s Today show, Rippon explained, “I came here being authentically myself and sharing my story and being gay is part of that.”
    But Rippon and Kenworthy didn’t just joke around in their interviews. They articulated the struggles they faced as a result of being gay. In particular, Kenworthy described how, four years ago at the Sochi Olympics, “I was very much in the closet and very much ashamed of who I was, and I actually didn’t get to appreciate the medal that I won because of that.”

    Both men spoke of the pressure they felt to be at their very best when they came out, perhaps reflecting the enduring relevance of the “Best Little Boy in the World” hypothesis, which posits that some gay men compete to achieve extremely high external success in response to their lacking healthy internal self-worth because of societal homophobia. 

    Kenworthy told The Washington Post: “When I came out, I felt like I needed to be the best, because that was what I thought it would take to be accepted. No one can talk s— on you if you’re the No. 1 ranked in the world … so I made sure that the season before I came out, I was the No. 1-ranked guy in the world.” Rippon continued, “I actually feel exactly the same, where I made sure that when I came out, I was skating very well, so that I would be taken seriously.” Both men talked about the psychological pain, stress, and exhaustion of being in the closet and the power, joy, and ease they have felt now that they are out.

    Perhaps most importantly, Rippon articulated on the Today show what I perceive both he and Kenworthy embody: “It’s important that if you are given the platform, to speak up for those who don’t have a voice.” As young, accomplished, attractive, charming, clever, and articulate white men, they have more of a voice than many others—and they appear to want to use it for everyone. Rippon was fearless when he told the Today show: “I feel that Mike Pence does not stand for anything I was taught when I grew up.”

    Kenworthy, speaking of racial, gender, and all other types of diversity, told The Washington Post of his optimistic vision of an Olympics, twenty years from now, where “anyone can be exactly who they want to be … like a complete rainbow.” Rippon told reporters, “I want to inspire other young kids, no matter what their background is or where they’re from or anything like that.”

    In coming out and unapologetically being themselves for their own well-being and the betterment of others, Rippon and Kenworthy are partaking of the LGBTIQ movement at its best. I was the beneficiary of such ordinary activism 35 years ago. I am confident that many others will be beneficiaries of Rippon and Kenwothy’s extraordinary ordinariness.

    John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, together for over three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. Their leadership in the grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA contributed in 2015 to making same-sex marriage legal nationwide.