As a young queer femboy, I always felt as if I was walking on thin ice; always fearing that my queerness would be too heavy and somehow send me splashing in freezing cold waters. No one explicitly told me to be “careful;” it was just something I learned by the way adults looked at me when I would reenact Debi Thomas’ 1988 Olympic exhibition performance to George Michael’s “One More Try” in my pink roller skates. No one had a problem with me skating but they certainly struggled with watching a little femboy do pretty moves that were reserved for young girls.
While I loved figure skating, I never much enjoyed the men’s competition. While some of the skaters were brilliant in their artistry, like Brian Boitano, there was always this unspoken rule that they, too, were skating on thin ice. While no one explicitly stated, “Don’t be pretty, you’re a boy!”, I heard this message in the way commentators would use coded language such as “interesting costume choice” or “unusual spin combinations.”
My love for Rudy Galindo started in 1990. My aunt Janet, who loved figure skating, invited me to watch the U.S. National Championships. Galindo was competing in the pairs competition with then-partner Kristi Yamaguchi. I remember this night vividly because I was amazed that Yamaguchi was competing in both the pairs and singles competition. I also remember Galindo being interviewed after their performance and thinking, “Wow,” after hearing him speak. I saw a brown and femme-sounding boy who actually living out my fantasies.
Admittedly, I forgot all about Rudy Galindo. I would later discover that I was not the only one. While he was not “officially out” during the early years of his solo career, it was no secret in the skating world. This went against the “All-American” wholesome image figure skaters were expected to project. This impacted the level of support, which was close to none, and media exposure, Rudy received.
As Yamaguchi’s star rose as a solo competitor, Galindo’s career was quite the opposite.
This wasn’t entirely because he didn’t have the ability to land jumps; he proved that he could. The world would later discover that Galindo was trying to cope with great losses off the ice. He lost two of his coaches and his older brother George to complications of HIV. He lost his father to a heart attack. His mother, whom he adored, suffered from mental illness. Galindo also survived extreme poverty, and his family, especially his sister Laura, gave up everything to support his dream.
It wasn’t until the 1996 U.S. National Championships that I rediscovered Rudy Galindo. After taking eight months off from skating, he decided to compete at Nationals because it was taking place in his hometown of San Jose, California. He had nothing to lose; no one in the skating expected much from him. At this time, he felt he had nothing to lose when he officially came out as a gay man in Christine Brennan’s book Inside Edge: A Revealing Journey Into the Secret World of Figure Skating earlier that year. Of course, this was to the dismay of the skating establishment, but when you have nothing to lose, you have nothing to lose.
I instantly remembered who he was. And because I love drama, as soon as I realized he was the underdog, I was rooting for him. As he stepped out on the ice, my aunt said, “Ahh, Rudy. Hope he does well.” He skated to “Swan Lake” in a beautiful black suit. I watched with bated breath, hoping that he’d land every jump. And he did. His performance was brilliant. It wasn’t until the cameras showed his sister crying that I began to cry, too. I became a fan that night. Looking back, I suddenly realize that my aunt Janet wanted the gay skater to win. Makes sense because she always wanted me to win.
Galindo became the first Mexican-American to win a U.S. National Figure Skating Championship. He was also the first openly gay skater to do so. This was huge in 1996 because it was a time when professional athletes were still in the closet. For his performance, he skated to “Ave Maria” in a black catsuit, the AIDS ribbon wrapped around his neck and cascading down his chest. The performance was significant because AIDS was still the leading cause of death for all Americans ages 25-44.
As Rudy continued to heal and mourn the loss of his two coaches and brother George to HIV, on April 6, 2000, Rudy disclosed in a USA Today interview that he was living with HIV. He stated, “HIV/AIDS is not a death sentence. you can go out there and do what you want.” He especially wanted Black and Brown gay men to hear that message. He has since become an inspiration to people living with HIV.
I continue to follow Rudy’s life on and off the ice. His groundbreaking performances still leave me in complete awe. His most memorable for me is when he skated to “Over the Rainbow” while holding the Pride Flag during the 1998 U.S. Pro Classic. It was the first time in the sport’s history that a skater so proudly declared their queerness.
Galindo has since retired from figure and now coaches up-and-coming skaters. He recently celebrated a win as a coach when one of his students made it to the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in the Novice Men category. Off of the ice, Galindo is an award-winning HIV activist and continues to speak around the country promoting the importance of health and wellness in queer communities. He was even declared a National Treasure by Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi in a ceremony in March of 2000. This has largely gone unknown because as a culture, we are generally just taught about the history of Olympic Champions and not the champions who made history.
Mainstream news and sports media outlets still struggle with lifting the narratives of LGBTQ people in a way that is affirming. Queer erasure is insidious, and we must be diligent in keeping the legacies of our queer icons alive. It is especially important that we do so while they are alive and for all the young queer boys soaring through the streets with pink skates.
While Galindo may have never competed in the Olympics, he is a Latinx queer pioneer and visionary that has forever changed the sport of figure skating. Let us all shine light on the beautiful legacy of an unsung hero and National Treasure that is Rudy Galindo.