American freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy had yet to come out when he won his silver medal at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. The then-23-year-old athlete was very aware that he was competing in Games colored by Russia’s newly enacted anti-LGBTQ propaganda law that made it virtually illegal for queer people to even express their identities openly. Many LGBTQ athletes, including Kenworthy, chose to keep their protests silent for the sake of competing — and their own personal safety. But a year later, he’d had enough of the closet.
Kenworthy came out publicly as gay in a 2015 interview with ESPN the Magazine, becoming the first action-sports star at the Olympic level to do so. Response from the sporting world was immediate and positive, and the subsequent years proved to be a groundbreaking time in the athlete’s life.
Above: Kenworthy slaying on the slopes at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
Russia’s antigay stance sparked a dialogue about LGBTQ rights and the safety of being out in sports. The positive response to Kenworthy’s coming out lent credence to the idea that homophobia in the sports world was actually waning. Athletes like Kenworthy, Jason Collins, and Robbie Rogers kept these conversations going all the way to the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea where Kenworthy and figure skating champion Adam Rippon became bona fide gay superheroes for being out, proud, and competing on an international scale.
Kenworthy made history at the 2018 games when he locked lips with his boyfriend, Matt Wilkas, on live TV, before completing his qualifying run in the men’s slopestyle. The kiss was lauded as a significant moment in visibility for LGBTQ athletes.
Above: Kenworthy with Charo and Mikey (the dog) onstage at the 8th annual Streamy Awards.
Today, Kenworthy continues to share with his 1.7 million social media followers affirming messages about coming out, love, and self-expression. What’s more, he’s now using his fame to combat HIV and the stigma that remains around the virus.
Part of the reason why young people (ages 13 to 24) make up nearly a quarter of all new HIV diagnoses, Kenworthy says, is because “there is a lack of education and stigma that still exists around HIV.”
Above: Dragging it up at Heidi Klum’s Halloween bash last year.
To help change that, Kenworthy recently announced his planned participation in AIDS/LifeCycle 2019, pledging to raise $1 million to fight HIV. This June 2–9, the Olympian will join over 2,000 cyclists on a seven-day, 545-mile trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
He’ll be cycling at a time when most (81 percent) of the youth newly diagnosed with HIV are gay and bisexual. “I think the younger generation was spared from experiencing a time when a diagnosis meant a death sentence, but we still have a long way to go,” he says. “We need to continue to speak up for the cause and teach young people how to protect themselves — that’s part of the reason I am doing the AIDS/LifeCycle ride.”
Above: Cohosting The Trevor Project’s Trevor LIVE NYC with fellow Olympian Adam Rippon.
Tracy Evans, ride director for AIDS/LifeCycle, couldn’t be more thrilled to have Kenworthy involved this year.
“We’re elated about Gus participating in the ride this year,” says Evans. “He has set an incredible goal of raising $1 million, and if he achieves this landmark goal, he’ll be the first person in the ride’s history to do it.”
Evans is optimistic that Kenworthy can not only reach that goal but help educate youth about the risks — and resources — around HIV. The ride’s beneficiaries, the Los Angeles LGBT Center and San Francisco AIDS Foundation both provide health care, testing, and social programming for those who are at greater risk of contracting HIV, Evans says, adding, “Together, we can end AIDS.”
“As a longtime endurance cyclist and a member of the LGBT community, I’m thrilled to be able to give back to my community in such a meaningful way and to honor my friends and colleagues who are no longer with us,” Evans, who’s been ride director for the past two years, says. “Plus, I want to be part of the journey to getting down to zero: zero new infections, zero deaths, and zero stigma.”
Above: Kenworthy straddling a Cannondale bike. The company is proudly sponsoring the 2019 AIDS/LifeCycle.
Above: Kenworthy at an Keith Haring exhibition that was part of the 2018 Life Ball, in Vienna, Austria. The annual charity event raises money for HIV & AIDS.
The ride is always a sentimental moment for Evans. “Throughout the year, I get to know so many people, and to cheer them across the finish line — knowing how much hard work and dedication they invested to get there — is beyond satisfying. It’s wonderful to witness people achieve incredible things: They raise insane amounts of money benefiting two worthy organizations, they cycle 545 miles, they take a week of vacation to volunteer for a seven-day event. They truly are heroes.”
Above: Kenworthy and boyfriend Matthew Wilkas attend US Weekly’s Most Stylish New Yorkers event in September 2018.
Now Evans is looking forward to cheering on Kenworthy, who will also have the support of Cannondale, the ride’s official bike sponsor since 2003. “Our relationship with the company has deepened into something beyond sponsorship,” Evans says. “They provide a team of mechanics along the route who will work night and day to get everyone’s bike up and running again, ensuring that no one misses a mile of the ride because of a mechanical issue. Throughout the year, Cannondale generously supports our cyclists through demos and bike giveaways. We are proud and honored to have Cannondale as our friend.”
Kenworthy mirrors Evans’s respect for Cannondale, which built two custom Synapses painted with the LGBTQ flag, one of which Kenworthy will be riding for the duration of the bikeathon. Its twin will be auctioned off, with all proceeds going to AIDS/LifeCycle.
Kenworthy’s prominence in athletics and in the LGBTQ community (not to mention his huge social media following) means that his participation in AIDS/LifeCycle will have a significant impact and help reiterate the importance and continued relevance of the ride — and the lifesaving work it funds.
When the famous skier made his groundbreaking pledge to raise more money than any single participant has ever raised, he says he “did so with the thought that if each of my social media followers donated $1, then we would easily meet that goal.”
Above: Kenworthy and Wilkas (center) attend the 25th annual Life Ball in Vienna, Austria.
“With a large audience, I have an opportunity to make a big impact and help a lot of people living with HIV today. Some of my sponsors through skiing and the Olympics have also kindly pledged to donate and host events to support the cause.”
For example, Samsung has already donated $25,000 to Kenworthy’s campaign, a great sign of the donations yet to come as he cycles toward the finish line — and the end of AIDS.
Above: Kenworthy couldn’t resist a photo op with the gorgeous queens of RuPaul’s Drag Race season 10.