Olympic Mom Kelly Rippon Shares Tips on How To Support Your LGBTQIA+ Child in Competitive Sports

Olympic parent Kelly Rippon watched her son Adam Rippon win a medal in figure skating at the 2018 Winter Olympics. Here, she shares ideas for parents to build a support network for their LGBTQIA+ children involved in competitive sports.

Adam and Kelly Rippon
Photo: Illustration by Francesca Spatola; Photo Courtesy of Kelly Rippon

When our kids express a strong desire to participate in competitive sports it's common for warning bells to sound. We're parents and are wired to protect our children. Some of the worries we feel as parents of competitive athletes are those of physical injuries, a dip in confidence from disappointing results, or added stress from time management issues. However, the parents of LGBTQIA+ kids have additional worries, especially as their kids move toward disclosure of their sexual orientation or gender identity to a wider circle of people.

When my son, Adam Rippon, a figure skater, decided to come out publicly in 2015 it was a substantial risk. I had concerns that his lifelong dream and professional goals would no longer be possible after he came out on such a public stage. Adam discussed his plans with me prior to his decision. For more than fifteen years, I thought my main responsibility was to facilitate the best opportunities for him to reach his Olympic dream. But through our conversation, I understood that without him feeling comfortable in his own skin, that dream could not be fully realized.

A little over two years later, Adam would become the first openly gay athlete to medal at the Winter Olympics—a dream come true. His Olympic medal would prove to be just the beginning, and his personal journey of coming out in his own voice, on his own terms, in his own time gave him the confidence to create an authentic life beyond his wildest dreams. Likewise, as a parent, witnessing your child's self-acceptance creates a prouder celebratory moment than any medal or award ever could.

Let Kids Own Their Story

The best gift you can give your LGBTQIA+ child is the space to tell their own story. But it's natural to have fears. The world is not always kind to or a safe place for queer folks. You may lose sleep or sit on the sidelines worrying about one or all of these potential realities:

  • Will they be subjected to teasing or harassment—or worse?
  • Will they be discriminated against or lose the opportunity for sponsorship?
  • Will they be rejected by their teammates, coaches, and supporters?

But we can protect our LGBTQIA+ children without undermining their confidence or controlling the way they manage their coming out story. It will take diligence and patience.

Coming out can often feel like a confession even though it's actually an invitation to celebrate a person's self-acceptance. But, for many athletes in competitive sports, it can often be one of the most difficult invitations to write. While some LGBTQIA+ kids may disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity to a parent or small circle of family members or friends, they may wait to give their teachers, coaches, school, and teammates an invitation.

Coming Out Is a Process

For many people, coming out is a process and managing that process should be kept in our children's hands, shared on their own terms, and in their own time.

This means that parents must protect their athlete's privacy. Their disclosures are not our disclosures to share. When parents encourage their LGBTQIA+ kids to hold control of their own story and protect their privacy, they empower them.

It can be challenging at times to keep your child's story private, but it's necessary to maintain a loving and trusting relationship. I know this firsthand as the mother of a gay athlete who climbed to the highest competitive stage in the sports world—the Olympics.

I understand the awkward questions from gossipy parents as well as the pressure from others seeking confirmation for their assumptions. I've experienced officials and various sports authorities attempt to use my influence to discourage my son from behaviors that they felt opposed the macho image they believed better represented the sport. It was hurtful as well as disappointing.

Regardless of the rejection by others, one thing is very clear: Every child wants to feel unconditionally accepted by their parents. If we suggest to our LGBTQIA+ kids that they should act differently under the premise of wanting them to be more widely accepted, we are suggesting that they are not good enough.

Find Support for Yourself So You Can Be Your Child's Best Ally

The main reason I was able to resist the pressures of certain officials was because of the support network I built. It's important to surround yourself with people from the start who care more about the kids than the results of their kid's performance. Find a positive training environment with professional, inclusive coaches that can offer the best opportunity to your young athlete. This can make a significant difference in finding a training environment where your athlete can thrive.

Adam and Kelly Rippon in front of Pink Wall
Kelly Rippon

Please educate yourself. I have been a LGBTQIA+ ally since my college days. I learned early on that the best teachers are people who are objective and not close friends or family. Don't rely on your LGBTQIA+ child to be your teacher. Seek out trusted organizations that connect parents with educational resources and support networks. In addition to providing support, these agencies offer information and tools that you can use to promote a more inclusive community. More great resources for parents can be found at OutSports.

Parents should offer their children a trusting relationship that respects their privacy; with that, the athlete's autonomy and confidence will grow. While it's not always easy to watch your queer athlete compete, the unconditional love and support you give will make the playing field easier and safer for them.

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