The four-time gold medalist is the only man to win consecutive Olympic titles in springboard and platform diving. But when his athletic career came to an close, Greg Louganis dove into activism by announcing he was gay, revealing he was HIV-positive, and authoring a runaway bestselling autobiography. Twenty years later he’s a legally married man, and, in the aftermath of California’s Proposition 8, still demonstrating how true champions are in one way or other always Breaking the Surface.
Greg Louganis and Johnny Chaillot. Photograph: Greg Gorman
I was a sophomore at Brigham Young University when in 1988 ABC’s Wide World of Sports crowned Gold Medal Olympic Diving Champion—Greg Louganis—Athlete of the Year. When But when I was invited to interview him a month ago I felt, well, intimidated. His athletic achievements were translated into the picture of personal excellence, and by the power and magic of television he’d become a celebrity.
Thankfully, I’d grown up in Los Angeles California and had my fair share of run-ins with Hollywood’s elite. (Like the time Schwarzenegger pulled up next to me on Sunset with his Hummer and signature cigar. He lost me somewhere on PCH but I felt sure that we’d made a connection). From my earliest recollection I realized that there was an odd disconnect between those who lived inside the television set and the rest of the world who were content simply to adore them. The proverbial palace walls separate those who dare from those who stare and in the end are best served, I dare say, by this disconnect. For meeting a legend comes with a very special burden. Like that time I met Big Bird at the Ice Capades… Shh! Not so big.
The 12 miles between Center City Charlotte and me seemed longer than usual. The absence of traffic in the early Saturday morning hour breaks with my idea of routine. And while normally a welcome diversion, I wished for more time to prepare. Adrenalin coursed through my veins as I secretly hoped to unearth a little journalistic detail or jewel by which to distinguish our interview. The walk from the parking garage at Wachovia to Gateway Village enabled me not only to sort myself out, but for those last minute thoughts to congeal. RAIN’s Annual Aides Walk had commenced and its leaders returned as I reared the corner of the plaza and began to gooseneck for our designated meeting spot. A middle aged man, 50ish, and I see and identify one another almost immediately. The clever lines of an untucked shirt conceal a less than perfect body and his now silver hair dangles upon his signature broad shoulders. A leashed and muzzled dog leads him toward me and with his hand extended he says, simply enough, “I’m Greg.”
We’re escorted by an entourage into the wings of nearby office space. Two glass doors, a sophisticated alarm and a tiny keypad are all that separate us from the otherwise public affair, and I couldn’t help but feel like the proverbial Doggie in the Window. “So Greg,” I say, easing into the rental furnishings, “Charlatan Magazine is a culture-as-lifestyle publication whose intention is to show how cultural diversity is merging into mainstream society. In your service, you will appear on our July cover. The Red White and Revolution issue will take a look at how the government computes the rights of the gay community and also comment on how those decisions are commuting into society. The British Prime Minister recently told the Queen “this country isn’t governed by wisdom – but by talk. Gossip counts!” he said, indicating that popular opinions are what lead to laws and the moral imperative. So, let’s talk.”
Rightly or not, your being compared to Matthew Mitcham who, incidentally, was born during the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul and at a time when the world watched you hit your head on the springboard during the preliminary rounds, repeat the Reverse 2 ½ Pike during finals and ultimately win the gold medal. However, Matthew Mitcham announced that he was gay prior to competing in the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. While the political climate is more tolerant today than it was 20 years ago, do you think there’s a relationship between this and the fact that he’s not received a single major endorsement?
After the ‘88 games, I was in talks with Kellogg’s Cereal about doing the coveted Wheaties campaign. Ultimately, they decided that I didn’t have the right image. What’s interesting, though, is that in a subsequent interview with the Chicago Tribune one of their reporters actually referred to my relationship with Kellogg’s as a total lie! So, what’s worse? Being ignored or called a liar?
In early 2009, Michael Phelps was photographed smoking marijuana and admitted to “behavior that was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment.” Consequently, USA Swimming banned him from competing for 3 months and Kellogg’s announced that they would not renew his endorsement contract. However, Vanno, the company reputation index, announced that after dropping the single most decorated Olympic athlete of all time – that the Kellogg’s brand, reputation and sales were significantly hurt. In your opinion, is this country governed by wisdom or by talk?
Talk – everyday of the week and twice on Sunday! If there’s an emotional connection to an image then people will consume it. And whether those images are religious, cultural, social or political is simply incidental.
You waited 6 years after taking your final Olympic bow in which to make a public statement about your sexual orientation. And while you maintained your relationship with Speedo, you subsequently lost other endorsements. In fact, most people admit that some type of either private or public casualty came from their coming out stories. Do you think its possible that what people are really reacting to is not, in fact, the declaration itself, but rather the lie that’s perpetrated for so many years before it (As in the case of Senator Larry Craig or Governor James McGreevey)?
Yes. It’s the secrecy that turns being gay into a monster. In my case, though, I didn’t want to be known as the ‘gay athlete.’ As a competitor, I wanted to be on equal footing and not pigeonholed. When I came out in 94 I expected the public to feel betrayed by this omission. But what I discovered was that, well, nobody really even cared. Being truthful is not a disadvantage. In fact, it’s very empowering.
In Victorian England, young women were initiated into society through customs. “Coming out” as it was known, was an attempt to formally introduce a young woman to society generally at a grand ball or cotillion. It was here that her accomplishments were showcased, her character confirmed and her eligibility for marriage secured. In fact, these rights of passage exist for men, too, and almost everywhere in the religious world. Do you think that such a custom should exist for gay youth and in what setting would you envision them brought forth?
No. Each individual should be the architect of his or her own journey. Systems of classification can be destructive. Young people just want to fit in and their parents usually want them to be distinguished. So, what you see is a kind of disconnect between the generations. What’s important is self awareness and the subsequent journey toward self acceptance. And the most important thing in life is to be comfortable in your own skin.
You’re in the process of comporting your name and personal brand into popular politics with the Greg Louganis Positively Pet Foundation. Using your image for advocacy, here again, distinguishes you not only as a pioneer for openly gay spokespersons, but as a voice for the gay community and their concerns. Charlatan Magazine recently spoke with Barney Frank, the US Congressman from Massachusetts and Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. Generally, it is the observance of an injustice that leads to a role in politics. Have you ever considered the possibility that your extraordinary journey may, in fact, be preparing you for a larger role in politics?
I don’t actually need any help beating my own head against a wall. And to be truthful, I’ve not ever considered it. But if I could visualize being useful I’d love to. I’d absolutely love to!
We’re one month away from the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots and the defining moment of the Gay Rights Movement. At that time Peter Berlin, the German photographer/artist/clothing designer/model/and sex symbol, began creating the very first public images America would see of the modern gay male. He festooned him with skintight pants, leather boots and the infamous police hat. He sent the image cruising through dark alleys, loitering in bars and ultimately disenfranchised him from all good society. And when asked why he portrayed the gay male in this light he said, in his broken English, “Because there were no pictures from which to choose.” In closing, Mr. Louganis, may I say that the very simple picture your life has created to my mind is an extraordinary masterpiece of elegance, beauty, style and duty.
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