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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Olympic diving champ-turned-gay icon Greg Louganis: California's Prop 8 "Kind of Kills Me"

As the nation awaited the California Supreme Court’s ruling on the constitutionality of Proposition 8—which successfully moved to ban gay marriage in the state—Olympic diving champion Greg Louganis worried about the measure’s anti-gay fallout.

“(T)he thing that kind of kills me with Proposition 8 was that the big concern was teaching kids about gay marriage. So what?” the openly gay sports icon said in a recent interview for Muscle & Body magazine . “If you’re teaching kids about gay people, at least maybe you might be saving a life ... I tried committing suicide (as a teenager) because I felt I was a freak.”

During Louganis' youth, families were always defined as "man, woman and child." He says society's expectations, coupled with ignorance about sexual orientation, made him feel isolated growing up in in the '60s and '70s. "You're born gay; it's not a choice," he says. "Had I had a role model or something to look to (I could've realized), 'You know what, I'm not alone. I'm not the only one.'"

Louganis discusses his storied diving career and his role model status in a "Fitness Icon" feature in the June issue of Muscle & Body magazine. In a two-part series of interview "extras" (beginning today and concluding June 1), the 49-year-old diving legend reflects on his decision to come out in 1994, his post-Olympic careers and his impact since on the gay community.

The bestselling author and actor also shares about his recent role as "a real bastard of a swim coach" in the 2008 indie film Watercolors. The movie has played to strong reviews at film festivals in the U.S., Brazil and South Africa. Louganis is set to appear this Friday during a screening at the Film Out San Diego festival. Watercolors also screens this June at the Seoul LGBT Film Festival in South Korea—the same city where Louganis pulled off a double gold medal victory after hitting his head on a diving board at the 1988 Summer Olympics.

More from the Louganis interview:

Is being involved politically as a gay rights activist part of your mission now?
I've been trying to figure out how that fits into my life. Because I've never really been that politically active. I've always come from that whole mentality in diving (that dictates) that you live by example and to teach by living an honorable life. That's basically where I come from. But a lot of this with Prop 8 ... (it affects) some very good friends of mine. I just went to my first gay wedding. Straight or gay, it's about celebrating a life with someone. A lot of my friends want to be more politically active ... but I've been more focused on other things that take up a lot of energy.

(Louganis often tours the country sharing his story of overcoming adversity—including growing up with learning disabilities, struggling with chronic depression and living with AIDS. A longtime dog trainer and pet therapy advocate, he also recently launched a Positive Pets charity to help HIV-positive patients afford caring for a pet.)

Celebrities perceived as too political can be polarizing. Look at what happened to Ellen DeGeneres after she came out on her sitcom in 1997. I think she walks a fine line now of bringing people together while speaking her mind about Prop 8 and trying to affect change.

It's such an interesting double standard where if Ellen's talking about her relationship (with Portia de Rossi), she's "throwing it in everybody's face," but if Tom Cruise goes jumping up and down on couches on Oprah about his relationship, it's, "Oh, isn't that sweet?" Your life is your life. If I'm not allowed to talk about my partner, okay, then I don't want to hear about your kids.

Watercolors marks your return to the acting arena. What drew you to that film?
It's making the rounds at gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender film festivals. And it's doing quite well, from what I understand from the director-producer-writer, David Oliveras. It was great because I got to play a real bastard coach. (Laughs.) It's a very real film about a young kid coming to terms with his sexuality while dealing with a broken home, drugs—all that stuff. It's very realistic ... Also, I need to work! I've got to pay the bills! (Laughs.)

Many would assume that an Olympian of your stature would be financially set for life.
I got some endorsements, but there's still a stigma about being an out gay athlete. That's not real cool in corporate America. Even today.

For more of Louganis' exclusive interview, check this blog on Monday.

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