Homophobic Bias Has No Place in Skating Judging

By Lois Elfman

Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc. (Photo: U.S. Figure Skating).

Last fall, comments made about French ice dancer Guillaume Cizeron brought to light that anti-LGBTQ bias still exists in the sport of figure skating. The president of the French skating federation, Nathalie Péchalat, strongly urged the International Skating Union (ISU) to delve into whether Cizeron and partner Gabriella Papadakis would be unfairly judged due to Cizeron being openly gay.

Papadakis and Cizeron, four-time World Champions and the reigning Olympic silver medalists, have long been praised for their emotional free dances and deep connections. In a 2015 interview with Icenetwork, dancer Paul Karmiryan said of the duo’s free dance, “Their chemistry together and the connection that they displayed was completely genuine. From their posture to their sensitivity to their presence, they were completely in the performance.” In 2017, former Dancing with the Stars pro Tony Dovolani told Icenetwork, “You could tell the connection these two have with one another is based on trust. … You can’t take your eyes off of them.”

Yet, in an interview following Papadakis and Cizeron’s win at Finlandia Trophy, Russian judge and coach Alexander Vedenin, who did not judge at the competition, told a Russian TV network that he found the French team “was cold” because Cizeron does not have a “traditional orientation.” The ISU condemned homophobia and noted that Vedenin is not an ISU official.

Cizeron compared such disparaging remarks to people saying a gay actor cannot convincingly play a straight character. 

“Just because we have a sport that has defined historically who we are and what we look like and how we need to act doesn’t mean that’s all of who we are,” said two-time Olympic ice dancer Kaitlyn Weaver, who came out as queer in June 2021. “It matters who we are.”

A three-time Canadian Ice Dance Champion and three-time World medalist with partner Andrew Poje, Weaver said it’s scary to see members of the skating community subjected to this kind of hatred as they’re about to compete in the biggest event of their careers. 

Weaver described public comments such as those made about Cizeron as damaging. Judges who may have such biases decide the fate of the athletes. Despite considerable improvements thanks to the International Judging System, figure skating/ice dancing is still a subjective sport.

“One of the things that kept me from even considering coming out earlier was the fact that I was afraid people would think that my connection with Andrew was inauthentic,” said Weaver. “We have such a deep love and caring for each other and we have a natural chemistry regardless of whether we were dating or not.”

At this Olympics, pairs skater Vanessa James will be representing Canada, the country in which she was born. James began skating in Northern Virginia, where her family still resides. Skating has taken her around the world, and she represented France at the 2010, 2014 and 2018 Winter Olympics. For several years, Papadakis and Cizeron were her teammates. Also, James’ current partner, Eric Radford, is an openly gay man who will celebrate his third anniversary with husband Luis Fenero this summer.

Vanessa James and Eric Radford. (Photo: Skate Canada).

“It’s a shame that we still have to deal with stereotypical nonsense,” said James. “Eric, like Guillaume, are so beautiful on the ice, so expressive. Relationships come in all forms. A relationship is how you feel about someone, what you give to that person, how you treat that person. It’s a respect. It can be love. It can be friendship. Gabby and Guillaume, myself and Eric showcase that so well on the ice. 

“We’re going to keep showing that…and we have to keep breaking down those barriers for people to be able to express themselves, be open and live their truths,” she added. “I’m very proud to be skating with Eric. What we show in a relationship is love and it’s beautiful, and we will continue to do that on ice.”

The U.S. figure skating team competing at the Olympic Winter Games includes two-time U.S. Pairs Champions Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, who identifies as nonbinary. When asked about his thoughts on the first openly non-binary figure skater to compete at the Olympics, Russian ice dance coach and two-time Olympic medalist Alexander Zhulin said, “I don’t want to comment on these freaks.”

U.S. Figure Skating issued the following statement: “U.S. Figure Skating stands with our LGBTQ+ members and denounces hate speech against any member of our community. We are proud of Timothy LeDuc’s groundbreaking role as Team USA’s first openly nonbinary athlete and recognize the positive influence they will have as a member of the U.S. Olympic Team.”

Weaver said until there is greater diversity in sexual and gender identities in the judging and officiating ranks, this conversation will keep repeating. She hopes that no skaters allow such negativity to impact their Olympic performances. Rather, they should know they have support and people cheering them on. 

“I think the best performances are the ones where the skaters can stand fully in their authentic selves,” she said. “That’s the magic zone of performance for me.”