National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: Johnny Slams To the Ice

So what if he’s never publicly called himself gay. He’s called himself a princess more than once. That should be good enough, and probably more precise.

More than a year in the making, a slow, secretive, subtle form of bashing against one of the planet’s most prominent role models for being different and proud of it culminated in Spokane last Saturday night when figure skater Johnny Weir landed wrong and slammed to the ice.

Admittedly, Weir’s bid for a fourth straight U.S. figure skating title was dashed by his own error, a critical fall in a sport that is mercilessly unforgiving on such matters. He’d been forced to play “catch up,” following on a flawless performance from his rival and now U.S. champ Evan Lysacek, and the pressure proved too much. But it was a pressure that had been building for many months.

Weir, who flaunts an unapologetic effeminate panache that would make Liberace proud, would be the last one to blame anyone but himself. That’s because he’s been tough enough to fight through an unrelenting blizzard of criticism and hate, especially since he confounded the “powers that be” to edge out Lysacek for his third national title in January 2006. He’s by and large come through it by focusing on being one of the most gifted, fluid and graceful athletes ever. In contrast to the jock who defeated him Saturday night, he is liquid poetry in motion.

He was hounded horribly and vilified relentlessly by the press and sports enthusiasts for not bringing the U.S. a medal at the Winter Olympics last March. He finished fifth, and that was somehow deemed an awful failure. Halfway through a three-month tour over the summer with the Champions on Ice exhibition, he confessed he’d received death threats amid the countless items of hate mail that came his way.

When I took my brother, his wife and son to their first-ever figure skating event in Los Angeles last August, I was saddened to find that everyone entering the massive Staples Center had to go through a metal detector. None of the 50,000 fans we’d joined at Dodger Stadium the day before to see $100s of millions-worth of professional talent had to do that. But they did for the amateur Champions on Ice show, only because Weir had been singled out by what authorities felt were credible death threats.

Johnny’s enemies and detractors were not only red necks with guns, but from within the figure skating establishment, itself, an institution notorious for a closet even bigger than Hollywood’s.

Weir made them uncomfortable, perhaps because many feared he was blowing everyone’s cover just by being himself. He was hurting gate receipts, they insisted, even though Weir has one of the most fiercely loyal global fan bases of anyone. And while all the closet queens were nervous, their patrons from the very straight world of male-dominant America were angry.

Sadly, some of Weir’s harshest critics came from the openly-gay world, as well, assailing him for not explicitly “coming out” to their satisfaction. It was not enough for them that Weir exercised his personal freedom in a way that was terribly gay-affirming.

Hollywood weighed in, putting a Will Ferrell comedy into production centering on a vicious “step `n fetch it” parody of a Weir-type character.

Pressured from all sides, all this was not lost on Weir. Preparing for the fall competitions, over the summer he developed a program based on the original music of Maxime Rodriguez called, “Child of Nazareth.” Whether intuitively or consciously, he knew he was to become a sacrifice.

This was no mimic of Madonna’s brilliant critique of religious hypocrisy that outraged stuffed shirt clerics during her summer concert tour. It was Weir’s personal statement. He wasn’t assuming he was Christ with the five-minute routine, he insisted, just telling his story.

It was the flip side of Weir’s tour-de-force rendition developed last season to Frank Sinatra’s haunting vocal, “My Way.” That was a defiant statement for him, and when he did it during the exhibition at the conclusion of the Olympics, after the cascade of hate had begun, he fought off tears to carry it off.

Last Saturday at the National Championships, Weir’s costume for his “Child of Nazareth” performance resembled sack cloth wrapped tightly by rope. There was a frightful irony when he fell midway through, almost like it was part of the story.

Victory insured, the new champion Lysacek winked and hammed it up for live TV cameras, as they time and again cut away to his girl friend – yes, for the love of God, a girl friend! – grinning from the grandstand.