Blake Skjellerup first came to the world's attention as a speed skater for New Zealand in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. In the four years since then, Blake has undergone a number of life changes, including coming out as openly gay and taking on the role of international LGBT advocate.
Last week, Blake stopped by GLAAD's New York office and spoke honestly and with great insight on what it was like to grow up gay in sports, how he's moved by the LGBT youth with whom he works, his vision for Russia's LGBT community. And more:
GLAAD: What was it like for you in 2010 to come out as an athlete?
Blake: For me, it was coming full circle in a way. I had come out to my family and friends 6 months before the Olympics and that was something that helped me be a new person, a more focused person. I attribute that for qualifying for the Olympics because I was a new me and I wasn't hiding anything anymore. And then, come the Olympics, I had discussed with my boyfriend at the time, what do I do here if someone asks? Do I say something? I decided if I was asked, I would say something, but I wasn't going to bring it up. I wasn't going to go out of my way because I didn't feel quite ready. But being at the Olympics and being a part of that environment helped me bridge that gap to be ready. I went and visited Pride House, which is a great establishment--groundbreaking. Unfortunately, in the last few years, it has been knocked back for specific reasons, and it's a sad thing for me to see that it hasn't grown, because it's a fantastic way to give the athletes—not just athletes, but all people—the support they need to bridge the gap like I did. Through that, I decided I wanted to share my story. I want people to know what it was like for me and how I managed to get where I am today… High school wasn't easy for me. High school basically taught me that being gay was wrong, my sport was wrong, and I definitely couldn't be gay and be in sports. Seeing stuff like [Pride House] made me realize that was wrong.
GLAAD: I take it that the reception from those around you was positive?
Blake: Completely positive, even from people I went to high school with, they said "this is great." Some people even went to the extent to say "sorry for the things I called you in high school." That's a great thing for people to get educated on and be like, "wow, the language I was using, I didn't think about it, I didn't know it was hurtful, but it was," and that's an important thing for people to see—to be inclusive, to be tolerant. No, you don't have to like them, but tolerance is key.
GLAAD: Were there any other athletes who were LGBT in Vancouver?
Blake: I did meet other gay athletes, who were guys. Friends I have today, which was great. It was fantastic to be in that environment… [Someone I met there], we didn't actually end up talking face to face, but we went back, found each other on Twitter, and started talking that way. He still isn't out publicly—he's out to his family and friends, which is great—but hasn't gotten to that point where they see the value of being an out athlete. There's a huge value in it. This is something that is still very undiscovered. You can probably count on your fingers and your toes how many out athletes there are, and then you can probably count on one hand how many of those are professional and are still competing. Most people wait until retirement, and that is a sad thing because, in some ways, I think you're hiding a part of you that is great and something that should be celebrated from your fans. But, I can understand from the point of view that people don't wish to talk about it, because it does become a subject and it does detract from [other's focus on] your competing, but in order for your sexuality to not be an issue, it needs to become so common that it's not a question anymore. It's, "you are who you are, and I don't care who you date and who you're in love with."
GLAAD: Do you think the Olympics being hosted in Sochi will further discourage athletes from coming out?
Blake: Most definitely. I think the situation there is the most damaging in so many ways. First of all, the Olympics Games is a movement that was established on the grounds of diversity, peace, friendship, excellence, and education. The environment in Russia aligns with none of those, and that is a sad thing, for the Olympics to be there and to be disturbed and inhibited from being carried out in the way that they were founded. On the other hand, it's great that the Olympics are there and that they can use whatever way they can that's possible under the constraints they have to highlight all parts of humanity, the diverse parts of who we are as people from different countries, different races, different religions, and different sexualities.
GLAAD: How do you think this is all going to play out after Sochi?
Blake: The IOC should definitely be taking situations like this into account. I can understand that these laws were introduced well after the Olympic Games were awarded to Sochi. On the other hand, when you look at the Olympic Charter and Principle 6, it refers to me as "otherwise." I am not "otherwise." I am proud of who I am and at no point in my life should I be referred to as "otherwise." So first of all, change needs to happen within the Olympic Charter that explicitly identifies sexuality as something you cannot be discriminated against because these Olympics in Russia, it's something you can be discriminated against because of your sexuality. The people who need this most--anybody under the age of 18—is being inhibited from learning about something they will be feeling, something they won't understand, and something they need the education on.
GLAAD: Can you talk about some of the advocacy work you've done since coming out?
Blake: The most important part for me is the youth and people like myself who were bullied or people who were, I guess, confused and not understanding what they're feeling, and people who have to struggle on a daily basis to become the person they want to be. I struggled with that, not only with my sexuality, but in my sporting career. It's something I'm very, very passionate about because your youth is something you never get back. It should be one of the most exciting times of your life, when you're developing and becoming who you are. It's sad to see there are kids out there who have such a low sense of worth that they become depressed, they commit suicide. It's the saddest, most heartbreaking thing to think that someone was at that point in their life that they're taking their lives because they feel alone. Having been someone who has suffered, in both ways, from depression and having lost someone due to a mental illness, [youth advocacy] is something I want to do more of. I can't stress enough that life is worth living, and that, if you believe in yourself, that you find something you can focus on that you love doing, then that will be your shining light. That will get you through. That will help you become the person you want to be and the life you want to lead.
GLAAD: Do you think the environment since you came out is changing for young people in sports communities?
Blake: The last four years have been huge in terms of people coming out, policy change, equality, and I think one of the things that has contributed to that is the internet. The world is connected now in ways—smartphones, everything's there at your fingertips—that has definitely helped people communicate and get together to talk about these issues. My country, New Zealand, for a few years there, we were content with civil unions. It just took one person in the government, who was a lesbian, Louisa Wall, to say, "I don't think that's fair. Why should we be second class citizens? Why should we have different rights compared to heterosexual couples or our friends?" Through that, we saw change. It's happening daily, monthly, on a great basis throughout the world but it's not something that you can just think is going to happen by itself. You have to keep on top of things. And if you apply that to the Russian situation, we can sit here and we can talk about it until we're blue in the face, but the change isn't going to come from us. It's going to come from inside that country, from the people of that country who can make that difference. They need to rally, they need to get together, and they need to stand up. At the moment, 93% of Russia believes in these laws, so I guess what that says is that 93% of Russia doesn't think there are any gay people in their country, but there are. People are just too afraid to be themselves. I met with exiled Russian teenagers recently, and it was the hardest thing to hear that these kids, as soon as they were legally allowed to leave the country, left their family and friends because they were being discriminated, they were being bullied, they were being physically threatened on a daily basis because somebody thought they were gay. Yes, they were gay, but that isn't something they ever said out loud or would say out loud inside Russia. So, they came here to America. Now they're living a life that is free, safe, and where they can be themselves.
GLAAD: You mentioned change would come from inside Russia. Do you think the athletes have a responsibility to speak out while they're in Russia?
Blake: I definitely believe that the athletes do have a responsibility, but I can understand that first comes competing. That is very important. That is what, since the first day you put on a pair of ice skates or slid down a bobsled track, that's what you were dreaming of. I didn't dream of going to Russia and having to be an advocate for the people of Russia. I'm more than happy to do it, because there was no way I was going to go to those Olympics and go back in the closet, and that's what Vladimir Putin and in a way what the IOC was asking me to do…I can understand why athletes don't speak up, but the competing doesn't last the entire length of the Olympic Games. This is an issue that everyone should believe in, and you have seen a lot of athletes speak up already, which is fantastic. [With] the Olympics, the world is watching. Every media outlet in the world is there, and Vladimir Putin is going to be there. World leaders are going to be there. If one person can say "this is wrong," or make some sign of solidarity, that is going to be the best thing…It's going to be very easy to get caught up in the spirit of the Olympic Games. It's exciting, it's a great thing to watch and be a part of. But when you have people who are living in a country who are being oppressed and persecuted on a daily basis, you can't forget that. The Olympics isn't going to be in Russia forever. What happens when they leave?
GLAAD: What advice would you give to a young athlete who is struggling with coming to terms with being LGBT?
Blake: The way I advise people is off of how it was for me. The most important thing for me, for anybody, is security and safety. It's unfortunate that people are still, in 2014, in an environment that isn't safe or isn't inclusive…You can look at things in hindsight. When I did come out, there was nothing; nobody cared, no one discriminated against me because I was gay. It was just, "so what?" But for a lot of people, it's a mess of unknown. It was an unknown for me and I sort of dove into it hoping for the best and I got the best. But for a kid or someone who is young, it's that developmental part, where you have to accept yourself first, and you have to be confident in yourself. My advice would be to find that one person who you know is going to love you no matter what and talk to them and go from there. It's like, Rome wasn't built in a day, but I don't really like saying that, because this shouldn't have to be an issue. You should just have to be like, "hey, mum and dad, here's my boyfriend or here's my girlfriend." It's not a big deal. With the more people that come out, the less of a big deal it's going to become. So you have to be a little brave. The great thing is that the internet is there, GLAAD is there, and, if something bad does happen, they're going to be the ones supporting you.
GLAAD: Why do you think there is still so much underrepresentation of the LGBT community in sports in general? More people are coming out, you among them, but there's still never been an openly gay male athlete at the Olympics. Why do you think that's still the case if your experience was so positive?
Blake: I think nobody wants to be the first. I wasn't out publicly at the Olympics, but I would have been this time around, and it wouldn't have been any different. Yes, the media probably would have wanted a lot of my attention, but I would have wanted to focus on my sport to the best of my ability. That would have come first, always… I can only assume why people don't come out is they're afraid of losing their position in their sport. The basics of it is that you need to have that system in place, and it's great that you're starting to see organizations like You Can Play make sure that the NFL, the NHL, MLB, all of those sports, have the policies and systems in place to make sure they're inclusive environments and, if somebody does chose to come out, they're still going to be able to hit that ball, skate on the ice, whatever, and they're not going to lose their position, and that they will be supported by their organization.
GLAAD: What is your ideal vision for the winter Olympics in Sochi, in terms of how the LGBT community, athletes, and attendees will be treated and represented?
Blake: Fairly and honestly, would be a great start. Having Vladimir Putin sit there and all but call us perverts is disgusting. The IOC knows what he's saying. We know what he's saying. For a man that has that much power to lead a country into a sporting event that is supposed to be a celebration of humanity and diversity, is upsetting. What I would like to see is the athletes and the countries to take the initiatives themselves to say, "how very dare you take this event that we believe in as something peaceful and full of diversity and friendship, and ruin it. These Olympics are ours, they are not yours." It would be great to see those countries come together and make a statement collectively because that is what the Olympics are about.
(Editor's note: This post originally appeared on SDGLN media partner GLAAD.)