Coming out in some flashy way never seemed important to Olympian Kim Meylemans. Her nation of Belgium was the second in the world to legalize same-sex marriage, in 2003. The sport of skeleton -- a winter sliding sport that utilizes a sled -- seems more foreign in the small European nation than homosexuality. "In Belgium it's normal," she says. "I have many gay friends. My uncles are gay. Nobody cares. It's absolutely OK."
So it caught her by surprise two years ago, the first time she faced homophobia after merely mentioning homosexuality. It happened in 2016 when British skeleton star Lizzy Yarnold announced she would boycott the World Championships scheduled in Sochi, Russia, in protest of Russian doping. Meylemans chimed in with support online, tossing a jab about the nation's antigay propaganda law as well, writing on Facebook, "I can't support state sponsored doping, cheating and homophobia as an athlete and as a person!"
"I would not compete in a country that says it's OK to dope but when you are homosexual you should go in prison," Meylemans tells The Advocate. "I did not have any idea what a big wave it would make. I got a lot of hate mail. Since then, I realized a bit more that I am still part of a still-small group in the sports world, at least for the out ones."
That's part of why Meylemans, as she attends her first Olympic games, wants to make sure people know she's out and proud. She may not face homophobia at home, but for anyone living in a nation where being gay remains unacceptable -- or even unlawful -- she feels her presence on the world stage offers hope. "If I can inspire other kids, especially gay kids, and make them stronger or feel normal, that's worth more than any medal to me."
Meylemans will leave PyeongChang without a medal this year. As the first skeleton slider, male or female, to represent Belgium in the Olympics, she ultimately finished in 14th place on Saturday; Yarnold won gold in women's skeleton for her second Olympics in a row. Incidentally, Meylemans made headlines earlier in the games raising concerns about whether British sliders had suits that gave an unfair competitive edge, but last week the Winter Olympic committee gave an OK, and Great Britain ended up winning gold and bronze in the women's event.
But Meylemans isn't upset, instead seeing it as a sign other nations need to get on the ball with technology. "We just failed in having the best material at this point," she says. "We were sleeping too long, and that cost us top six or a medal spot." She has no grudge against the athletes. And Meylemans hopes to return to the Olympics in four years and try again.
Winter sports, she says, still lack support in Belgium. The nation sent just 22 athletes total to PyeongChang this year. Incidentally, that number includes three out athletes, the same number the United States boasts in its much larger Olympic team. Jorik Kendrickx competed in men's figure skating last week after coming out to Belgian gay magazine ZiZo in January, and Sophie Vercruyssen competes in bobsled and on the first day of the games confirmed a five-year relationship with a woman through an Instagram post.
Meylemans says it was never a secret in the sport that any of the three were gay. She knows both other out athletes well and has been friends with Verycruyssen and her girlfriend for a number of years. "We hang out outside the sport," she says.
Her own sexuality, she says, has never faced homophobia at the track. "It's all internet trolls sitting behind their computers," she says. "In real life and definitely in the sports world, I don't know a single person who would ever do something like that on the track or in general. They are all competitors."
But she knows even in the United States it's a bolder move to come out. "It's cool that Gus Kenworthy and the other American [Adam Rippon] went so straight into the face of Mike Pence. That's pretty badass," she says. "And I also think the kiss of Gus and his boyfriend was so awesome. But I'm also sure they are dealing with a lot of messages at the moment."
And even at the games, where Russia was barred from competition because of a massive doping scandal at Sochi, Meylemans continues to be harassed by haters in the land of Putin. She shares a message posted online to her that reads, "Please don't come to Russia! Ever! We don't need either lesbians or people with the dirty mouths there!"
She knows not everyone in Russia feels this way. She has received at least one message from a Russian fan apologizing for the constant hate of his compatriots. "And of course there's gay people in Russia too," Meylemans says, "and I feel really sorry for them. It's shocking this is still normal, and they think posting stuff like this is normal too." And for that, she continues to slide.