Athletes have always held a special role within society. As ambassadors of their sport, their communities, and (if they’re the best) their countries, they take on an immense amount of pressure and responsibility to be role models of leadership through their pursuit of excellence. While many choose to focus on their performance, others understand that they have a platform—an opportunity—to also engage in dialogue on issues that go beyond the arena. Take Naomi Osaka’s commentary on mental health when she withdrew from the French Open, Colin Kaepernick’s protest of police brutality in the US, or Megan Rapinoe advocating for equal pay—all examples of athletes using their platforms to amplify important issues and further evidence that politics, culture, and sport have always been intertwined.
Olympian Paul Poirier is the latest athlete to add his voice to the conversation.
Featured on the GLORY June 2021 digital cover, the Canadian ice dancer laced up his first pair of skates when he was five years old. Since then, Poirier has competed at the highest level of his sport, traveling around the globe to face off against the world’s best athletes alongside his skating partner, Piper Gilles. With all that experience comes perspective, something that Poirier has been able to reflect on since the world came to a halt with the 2020 pandemic. As society reemerges and competitions begin to resume, he’s moving forward with new clarity on what kind of role he wants to play in his community, not just as an athlete but a queer activist with a platform—and something to say.
Fresh off of his win at the 2021 World Championships with Gilles (the duo earned a bronze medal in their first live competition in more than a year), Poirier sat down to talk about being a queer athlete, what kind of progress he’s seen in the skating community, and the advice he has to offer for the next generation of LGBTQ+ athletes.
GLORY: What has your experience been like as a gay athlete?
Paul Poirier: So far in my career, it hasn’t really been a focus. I have been focused on doing what I want to do athletically. We are in this unique position in our sport where I’m paired together with a partner. A lot of what we do in terms of building our identity, or our brand, revolves around the partnership itself and who we are as partners. We spent a lot of time developing that over the last few years and have really grown confident in who we are as partners. I think by having the time to reflect over the pandemic and being removed from skating because we haven’t had the opportunity to perform and compete, I’ve felt a desire in some way to translate that into sharing more about myself as a person.
[Being a gay athlete] hasn’t been something that I’ve really talked about very much, especially in a public setting. I’ve had this attitude that my private life is my private life and my life outside of skating is my life outside of skating. I haven’t necessarily allowed all of those things to bleed together. I think with the lead-up to the Olympic Games in the next year, I definitely see opportunities to share what we do and who we are to a much wider audience, and that opportunity is not lost on me.
This pride month is a really good opportunity to share a bit more about my story, how my sexuality has made me the person and the athlete that I am today, and also perhaps be a role model for so many young queer athletes who are growing up and not really sure how to navigate that as they go through the world of sport.
GLORY: Have you witnessed or experienced homophobia in your sport or community?
Paul Poirier: Within the skating community, being queer is probably a little bit more accepted than it might be in other sports but I just base that off an outsider’s impression because I’m not in those worlds necessarily. That being said, there has sort of been this really long delay of a general acceptance within the sport, and that translates to how it is portrayed to the outside world. It wasn’t even until after the games in Sochi in 2014 that we had an openly gay athlete competing in our sport, which I think, especially given the stereotypes that exist around figure skating, is quite significant. A lot of that is perhaps a result (especially here in the Western world) of stereotypes of figure skating being a sport for girls, being a sport that is gay, being a sport that is very feminine or effeminate, or that the grace that’s required to be a figure skater makes you weak or feminine. Coming from the perspective of a man, a lot of the teasing that comes with that, especially at a young age, forces us to build walls around ourselves. [It] creates a challenging environment to compete openly as a queer athlete because we feel like we’ve succumbed to the stereotypes. There is a lot of pressure, whether it’s subconscious or not, that we feel because of that.
There is a lot of progress that needs to be made still, and I think coming from the world of ice dancing where we’re always one man with one woman, the rules are built to promote and maintain these very heteronormative norms within our sport. There’s a lot of things we can still push in order to create equality for the LGBTQ+ community within our sport, but also to promote gender equality within our sport.
GLORY: How much does something like international competition factor into an athlete’s willingness or decision to come out? Especially considering that athletes have to travel to countries that are not as socially progressive, or compete against athletes with perspectives that may not always be welcoming to the queer community?
Paul Poirier: That’s a really challenging question, and definitely one that athletes face. Whether it’s their sexual identity or just their politics or beliefs, sometimes we’re forced to travel to these places where we might not feel a hundred percent comfortable. I can’t say I’ve personally ever felt unsafe anywhere that I’ve been, though. When we are in the competition bubble, there’s an official hotel that’s pretty much occupied by skaters, coaches, and people involved within the event. When we do travel for sport, we exist in this small kind of bubble. We just show up and practice for a few days, compete, and then go straight home. For me, that hasn’t necessarily been a challenge but I can’t speak to the experiences of other skaters and whether they felt pressure with regards to this or not.
GLORY: It’s interesting because for something like the Olympics, or maybe especially the Olympics, it’s supposed to be this great equalizer where everyone’s able to compete on even ground but it has historically been very political for various different reasons. There’s a big track record of political ideologies intersecting with the culture and spirit of what the Olympics is supposed to represent, and how athletes are (or aren’t) able to use their voice.
Paul Poirier: I think, too, there’s the additional challenge—and this has come up a lot and there’s a lot of debate in the sporting world right now—surrounding Rule 50, which is the rule in the Olympics that does not allow athletes to use it as a political platform. We’ve had athletes that have been stripped of medals because they violated that rule. There is an ongoing discussion and a push from a lot of athlete commissions that are really putting into question why this rule exists, and why athletes cannot also act as political agents and cannot be people outside of the athlete. I think there is some pushback that is happening on that front, but there are some challenges because of the rules that are in place.
It’s so interesting to see how the Olympic movement is, on the one side, as you said, supposed to be this equalizer. In doing so, that’s sort of the basis behind Rule 50. At the same time, we know that the political machinery that exists behind the Olympic machine is enormous and the financial repercussions of the games are huge. It is really difficult to completely divorce sport from the economy and also from politics.
GLORY: Growing up and progressing throughout your career, did you ever have anyone that set an example of leadership within the queer or athletic community? Was there anyone that you could see yourself in or see yourself represented through?
Paul Poirier: Not Really. As I said, I think that’s because the skating community can be quite open. A lot of athletes feel very open to share with other people in the skating community but that doesn’t get translated to the public side of things. Being a young kid, when you’re not really deep into the skating world, there definitely isn’t the same visibility that exists for queer athletes. This is definitely true growing up in the nineties like I did but I think in the last 10 years we’ve had a lot more athletes that have come out. Hopefully, that has led to more young people from the LGBTQ+ community feeling that they do have a place in the world of sport, especially in the world of Olympic sport at the highest level, and that they can be part of that world. For me, that wasn’t necessarily something that I saw growing up or that I felt I could see myself represented in. That being said (and perhaps this is just my attitude and may also come from a place of being privileged in so many other ways based on socioeconomic status, where I’ve grown up, and the color of my skin) I never felt like I had any strong barriers to being successful in my sport besides how hard I worked. I always had the attitude that if I worked hard enough, I knew I could get to where I wanted to. There are so many different intersectionalities that play into that, not just my sexual orientation.
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GLORY: As people who occupy such public platforms and have the potential and ability to create such engaged communities, do you think it’s the responsibility of an athlete to speak out about representation? About being an LGBTQ+ athlete?
Paul Poirier: That’s a tricky question. I don’t want to be prescriptive and tell people that this is how you should go about your athletic career. For me, just based on my very introverted nature, it’s definitely been a challenge to open up about all the facets of my life within the sporting community versus my private life at home, or even at my training rink where I’m very comfortable because there are people that I know and can really feel like myself. That said, as a society, we invest a lot of money into sport, and part of that is because it makes people healthier, it helps so much with people’s mental health. There’s a reason that everyone tunes into the Olympics every two years, and people get so invested. There’s a reason that so much money from our government is poured into Olympic sport. I think it’s because we, as athletes, have this opportunity and ability to be role models within society and inspire people to know that they can push beyond themselves and what they thought they were capable of. The power of sport is that it’s such a great vehicle for storytelling and that’s really why we watch sport and enjoy it. In a lot of ways, because of the way that society invests in us, I think as athletes we do have a responsibility to give back to society. That might be in a variety of ways, whether it’s just encouraging healthy living and sport. But, I really do think there is a responsibility as queer athletes [to be an] inspiration for the next generation of young LGBTQ+ athletes. That’s something I still feel like I’m growing into and learning about, and I don’t think I’ve arrived in any sort of sense. As much as I say this, I think this is also me pushing myself to be more comfortable and bolder in my own activism.
GLORY: Speaking of the next generation, what kind of advice would you give to a young queer athlete that aspires to Olympic greatness or even just being the top athlete in their sport? What kind of advice would you give to a young Paul?
Paul Poirier: Most importantly, I want to reiterate the message that you belong, and that should always be the case. For me, skating has been such an incredible vehicle for me to express myself when perhaps in other areas of my life, I didn’t feel like I had the same voice that I have when I’m on the ice. I can really perform, put on a character, and put out the emotion. Being different in any way, no matter what that difference is, in this case, sexual orientation, doesn’t preclude you from belonging to whatever community of sport that you’re a part of. That’s really important and if I speak of my own experiences, I’ve put that into question so many times whether I belonged where I was, or whether I could be the complete version of myself when I’m in the skating world. What I’ve grown to learn is that, as I’ve brought more of myself to my skating and to the skating world, I’ve enjoyed my sport more and gotten the results that I’ve wanted. That comes from bringing a hundred percent of myself to the work that I’m doing every day.
There’s obviously comfort and safety in mind. As a queer person, there are internal processes that you have to go through and that self negotiation that you wrestle with as you figure things out. But the more of yourself that you can bring to what you’re doing, the more you’re going to get out of that, enjoy it, and build community with others that are participating in the same sport as you. Sport is really an opportunity for us to come together as a society, and really it should be about that. It should be about all of us coming together as who we are.
GLORY: How do you think the skating community, or the overall sports community, can be more inclusive of queer athletes?
Paul Poirier: I have two answers for this. I think at a low level, and this is especially true when we think about young children that are getting into sports for the first time, we really need to stray away from this narrative that certain sports are for boys and certain sports are for girls. That’s problematic for so many reasons, and I experienced this so much growing up as a figure skater when most boys my age would be playing hockey or soccer, or typical boys sports. That really leads us to this place where it’s very confusing for a lot of young athletes that might want to pursue a passion, but then feel conflicted because they feel like it’s tied into their identity. There are a lot of problems that come with these narratives that exist in the wider society of what sports are and for which gender. That’s something we really need to start steering clear of. This is not just true of sports, it’s also true of interests, hobbies, toys, and colour.
From within my own sport, I think the biggest challenge still comes from the artistic dimension that our sport has, and the sorts of themes that are chosen, the costuming that is chosen, the music that is chosen, and the different ways that a body can move. Those are all things that are very prescriptive in saying, “this is a move that a female skater should do” or if a male skater does it, it’s very effeminate. All of those narratives, when it comes right down to it, create this atmosphere of shame for LGBTQ+ athletes who are simply trying to exist in the skating world and express themselves in the way that they want to. For myself, a lot of the obstacles have come from internalizing these narratives and then turning them in on myself. That’s what leads to any sort of mental health struggle that LGBTQ+ athletes might have in sport as they ask themselves, “ Who am I? How does this tie into what I do? How do I express myself? How do I exist in this space? Can I exist in this space the way that I want to and the way that I am?” There are mental health repercussions that come with this territory but the more athletes we see are genuinely and authentically part of the skating community, the more the next generation is going to see that they can authentically be themselves as well. So now, we’re creating this positive feedback effect, where it’s inspiring the next generation and just creating more space for people to be open and to be themselves.
GLORY: How have you seen progress manifest in your community?
Paul Poirier: It’s so tricky and I think in a lot of ways for a long time in my career, I was an ostrich with my head in the sand. I was very business-minded and told myself, “I’m going to show up, I’m going to escape, I’m going to work really hard to get my results, and then the rest of my life is the rest of my life.” For me, it’s taken a really long time to put the pieces together and really understand the human element of sport, and allow myself to be a human in sport. That’s been the challenge. I didn’t want to bring a hundred percent of myself to my skating so I didn’t really view my whole skating world as having this human element.
I definitely think there has been improvement in our sport, and I say this especially if I think of the figure skating landscape in Canada. I’m not a hundred percent sure how much of that has come from the skating room changing so much as simply the world changing. If we even think about gay rights over the last 20 years and how much they’ve changed in Canada and how much more representation and visibility there is now compared to 20 years ago, I think we’re seeing that reflected in the sporting world. I wouldn’t say the sporting world has moved ahead of the rest of the world, it’s just kind of kept pace.
GLORY: At the risk of being left behind, too.
Paul Poirier: Yes, exactly. There are some initiatives going through figure skating in Canada to correct these things as much as possible, but it is slow-moving. As a skating community, especially at this high level, there’s the work that is done in Canada but we’re also tied to an international governing body that has members in lots of different countries and when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights, have very different views. So while there might be certain real changes or things that could happen in Canada or in the US in order to promote equality for LGBTQ+ folks, that won’t necessarily be reflected in the international skating community. There are so many more moving pieces. We, as Canadians, actually have the opportunity to lead by example in the international skating community and that’s something that we can still improve.
GLORY: How do you think straight athletes can be better allies? What can they do to support the queer community and help cultivate a more inclusive environment?
Paul Poirier: I can think of the things that I’ve really appreciated from my teammates throughout the years, and I honestly think that the biggest thing is just to listen, to be willing to listen, and to be willing to learn. In my experience, I’ve been in such a supportive environment for the entirety of my career. I’ve been at the same training center now for over 20 years and so I’m very lucky to have had that. I think what I’ve always appreciated most has been people’s willingness to listen, and to learn about my experiences or the experience of other queer folks. That’s really the biggest thing. Otherwise, it’s debunking this dichotomy between men’s skating and women’s skating, and I don’t mean those as disciplines. The more we can keep challenging that, the better off we will be as an entire sporting community.
GLORY: What does pride mean to you?
Paul Poirier: I think that’s something I’m working through. As I said, I feel as if I’m finally opening up a little bit more about my personal life and I think for me, what it really boils down to is to be able to bring a hundred percent of yourself to every space that you occupy. That’s something that some people might take for granted. In a lot of ways, I, myself, have been able to do that in a lot of spaces. For me, pride is really about being able to live that way in all of the spaces that we occupy, whether it’s sport, our jobs, within our family, within our public lives, within relationships, with friends, or intimate relationships—that’s really what the objective should be. It’s something that, for me, has been challenging, but it’s a place I feel I’m being able to come to finally.