Among all the recent headlines about LGBTQ athletes embracing their identities and being celebrated as role models, the latest story skips the usual rainbow flags and focuses on a surprisingly intimate moment.
In a video posted to YouTube on September 30, American ice dancer Karina Manta, 22, came out as bisexual by sitting cross-legged on a bed, reading a spoken-word poem from her phone. Her girlfriend, Aleena Gomez, sits next to her playing guitar and singing a cover of Vance Joy's "I'm With You."
"I've been with you for a whole year, and I wanted to say thank you — mostly thank you for being here even though I've made your love my shadow," Manta says.
Describing the act of coming out as shedding her skin and emerging from a cocoon, she says, "Up to this point it has been a hibernation. Today I am waking with the biggest yawn, stretching my limbs and saying, 'I'm Karina. It's nice to meet you after so long.'"
She made her announcement three weeks before a high point in her career, competing for the first time in Skate America, part of the 2018 ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating series, taking place Oct. 19-21 in Everett, Wash.
"It was [ice dance partner Joe Johnson] and my first Grand Prix, and it was a bigger stage than we had been on up to that point," Manta tells The Advocate. "I wanted to be able to do it as wholly myself."
This makes Manta the first openly queer, female figure skater to compete for Team U.S.A., and only the second out woman in the world to skate in high-level competition (Japan's three-time national champion Fumie Suguri, who won gold at the Grand Prix Final in 2003, came out as bisexual in 2014). Her partner Johnson is openly gay, meaning they took the ice at Skate America as the first ice dancing team on record with two queer athletes.
But while the figure skating world and LGBTQ media are now familiar with the coming out narratives of gay men like Adam Rippon (who cheered for Manta and Johnson via Twitter with "I love my gay parents" following their Skate America program), the story of a bisexual woman in figure skating is still new territory.
"It was sort of isolating, because there aren't really many other women, especially on a big stage, who are out," Manta says. "It was a little bit lonely, feeling like the only one who was experiencing the things that I was."
In her video, she talks about the painful experience of being closeted over the past year — referring to her girlfriend as "my best friend" around her family, being afraid to hold her hand in public, and not letting her cheer in the audience at skating competitions. "I have dragged you back into the closet with me, and we all know closet is much too kind a metaphor," she says. "Call it a prison cell; call it a lifelong panic attack; call it being buried alive. Call it the nightmares I still get sometimes, the ones where everyone who wouldn't approve suddenly shows up as I'm kissing you."
She tells The Advocate that while Gomez never pushed her to come out before she was ready, the secrecy was hard on both of them. "She wanted to be supportive of me and wanted to see me skate. That's what I'm doing with most of my time, and I was kind of keeping that world from her, because I was afraid about people's reactions."
Manta finally decided that if she and Johnson made it to Skate America, she wanted her girlfriend to share it with her. They filmed the video together as a way to face down their fears and come out as a couple to Manta's extended family before they met at the event.
"It took us a ton of takes because I was so nervous about it," she says. "I was very picky about how we executed it. We were probably driving each other nuts by the end of the day, trying to get it exactly right for the video."
Johnson tells The Advocate that he watched his partner struggle to pick just the right moment while they were training together. "She was like, 'I haven't found the time to film it, I'm not sure if that was the take we wanted,' and I was like, 'oh my god, just come out already!' But she really found that perfect timing for her, and created something that I think made a lot of us cry. She came out in a really meaningful way, and I was super proud of her."
Manta's coming out story is an interesting challenge for the world of figure skating, where athletes have been known to struggle with gender stereotypes in their efforts to appeal to judges and audiences. While men like Johnson have to contend with the idea that all male figure skaters are gay and effeminate, Manta has to navigate the complicated perceptions of bisexuality in a sport where women are expected to be tiny, delicate ice princesses.
"I was worried when I came out that people would think about me differently," she says. "Even though I'm a queer woman, I still feel very feminine and present very femininely. There are certain ideas tied up in that regarding, if you’re a woman who presents femininely, are you really [queer]? I was a little bit concerned with those stereotypes."
One of the ways she worked through that was getting more adventurous with her hair, chopping it into a pixie cut at the beginning of the year and later dyeing it platinum blonde. "I wanted to cut it for years but I never really was brave enough. Part of the process of coming out in different ways, to different groups of people, made me stop caring so much what other people thought. I was like, I want to do it, so I'm just going to cut my hair and I don’t really care what other people think about it."
Gender roles can get even more complex for two queer skaters competing in ice dancing, where casual viewers often assume the couples are portraying heterosexual romantic relationships (e.g. the sizzling performances of Canada's 2018 Olympic gold medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir).
"In a lot of ways, [being queer] does allow us to portray some different storylines," Manta says. "But at the same time, most teams on the ice aren't dating each other. They have other romantic partners, and their own lives totally outside of skating. With Joe and I, sometimes we have fun playing those kind of romantic roles with each other, even though we're not dating each other, obviously."
At the end of the day, however, it all came back to rising to the challenge of competition at Skate America, and the hard work and training Manta and Johnson put in to get there.
Johnson tells The Advocate that both of them being out allowed them to enjoy the moment in a way they hadn't before. "The less you have that you're keeping on the inside, the less you feel like you have to pretend to be someone else, the more fun you have. Being out there, having nothing to hide, being as close as we were going through that experience, it definitely had an effect. It felt different from previous competitions ... it was this really huge moment in both of our lives. To accomplish something like that, being ourselves while being there on that stage, was incredible."
Manta adds, "It was nice to be on this stage knowing that there might be younger skaters, younger girls watching, and seeing that maybe they don't have to fit certain stereotypes [with me] being there with my hair all short and my girlfriend in the audience."
As she puts it in her video, "A year ago I got to meet you. One year later, everyone else gets to meet me, too. From now on I'll walk into every room smiling, parting the crowd, making my way through. I'll make sure they know I'm here — I'll make sure they know I'm with you."