Amber Glenn: America's pansexual skating star on coming out and breaking through

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May 8, 2002
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Since coming out as pansexual, the US national silver medalist has delivered a series of career-best performances and thrust herself into the conversation for next year’s Olympics Amber Glenn is believed to be the first ever out woman to actively compete on the international senior circuit. Photograph: Étienne Laurent/EPA “What is your sexuality?” Amber Glenn looked up from the questionnaire at her therapist sitting across from her in a brown leather chair, immersed in her legal pad. Glenn thought back to all the times she and the other figure skaters had huddled together at one end of the rink, chattering about the boys they saw gliding past. Glenn wondered why she thought some of the girls that passed were just as beautiful? Why did her stomach flip-flop when certain girls were around? Was it OK to feel this way? Glenn took a deep breath and scribbled something down that she hadn’t revealed to anyone in her life – not even her mother. “I think I’m bisexual,” the 15-year-old Glenn wrote. “What do I do?” The therapist’s eyes darted down the paper until she paused on one line, her lips pursing as if someone had just held a lemon wedge to them. “You have enough to deal with right now,” she said, scarcely looking up. “It doesn’t matter.” Glenn went numb. For years, she had been struggling to act as delicate and feminine as the other skaters, both on and off the ice. She’d even pretended to be quiet and shy to fit into the box expected of her in a conservative sport, though everyone told her she had the personality of a golden retriever. She wanted answers, but all she felt was embarrassment. “I felt like I’d been shut down,” she told the Guardian. “I had thought this was my chance to get someone to explain it to me. I didn’t bring it up again for a long time.” Luckily, Glenn had the mind to know that what she felt did matter, not only with her health and happiness, but with her skating career. When she took silver at US nationals last month in Las Vegas, the 21-year-old Glenn became the first out LGBTQ woman to reach the podium in the competition’s 107-year history. And now that she has the vaunted triple axel jump in her arsenal, Glenn has something that seemed unobtainable six years ago – a serious chance to making the US team for the 2022 Winter Olympics. Amber Glenn stole the show with a stunning free skate at US nationals in January. A lot of youngsters from Plano, Texas – the Dallas suburb where Glenn was born and still lives today – dream of skating in the Olympics. The Dallas Stars chain has six rinks in the area alone, not to mention the spattering of privately owned facilities run by world-class coaches. Glenn first took to the ice at age five, when she was taken with her younger sister and three cousins to the local mall’s rink for lessons. Glenn was an exceptionally fast skater out of the gate. “You wanna race?” a precocious nine-year-old Glenn asked the hockey players, blonde ponytail bobbing in motion. At 10, Glenn stayed up past her bedtime twice a week and danced to the High School Musical soundtrack under flashing colored lights and a shimmering disco ball, basking in the attention she got from the other skaters that stopped to watch her. She felt like she was flying. As a competitor, Glenn was a force of nature, a perfect balance of upbeat showmanship and strong jumping skills. “I was out there in full-on pageant make-up, complete with this blue glitter eyeliner that my mother applied thick and this wide, bug-gets-in-my-teeth smile,” Glenn said. “I was as outrageous and extra as a nine-year-old could be.” The decision was made early on to home-school Glenn, so she could train multiple times a day. Glenn saw her peers at the rink, but their priorities were much different than hers. While other girls competed for the boys’ attention, Glenn perfected her double axel. As her peers navigated their first crushes, Glenn was gunning for junior nationals. Glenn won the America’s most prestigious junior title in 2014, two years before her first kiss at age 16 – with a male skater she admired more for his on-ice ability than anything else. Despite what her therapist said, Glenn knew she was also attracted to women. The teenager turned to online searches, and settled on the term “bisexual”. At age 17, Glenn kissed a girl for the first time and felt just as dizzy as if it had been a boy. That’s when she knew for sure. “Did you kiss her?” Glenn’s sister asked in the kitchen one night when she returned from another date, not knowing their mother was in earshot. Glenn’s mother was surprised – not that her daughter was dating women, but that an Olympic hopeful’s packed schedule allowed time for dating at all. 2017 was also a pivotal year for Glenn’s skating career, marked by a change in coaches and rinks. There she met Tim LeDuc, an openly gay pairs skater and future 2019 national champion, who became Glenn’s confidant and mentor. LeDuc came out as queer in January 2019 after years of holding up a façade himself. Amber Glenn performs at the 2017 Cup of China in Beijing. Photograph: AFP Contributor/AFP/Getty Images “There’s a level of authenticity that you’re always grappling with when you can’t be everything that you are on a competition stage,” said LeDuc, who pairs with Ashley Cain, another close ally of Glenn. “It takes a certain amount of energy to check and adjust yourself to make sure you’re fitting into whatever hetero-normative or hetero-patriarchal framework that you’re entering into in an athletic or competitive space. It takes a lot of courage to break from that.” Though it wasn’t planned, Glenn came out as pansexual, which is how she describes her sexuality now, in an interview with the Dallas Voice in December 2019. That month, Glenn also introduced a girlfriend to her family for the first time. Buoyed by newfound confidence, Glenn placed fifth at US nationals in January 2020, her best finish to that point. Glenn’s revelation has raised curiosity among fans more than anything else, particularly because she came out as pansexual. “‘Bisexual’ is the go-to term that everyone understands and is comfortable with,” Glenn said. “But someone can be born a female and identify as a male or the other way around. I’m attracted to the person [first]; not what’s underneath their clothes. Pansexuals are gender-blind.” Despite a global pandemic that limited training time and led to a truncated competitive season, Glenn arrived at 2021 nationals in January on a full head of momentum. Having not tried a new jump in years, she attempted the triple axel in the short program – but her hands touched the ice upon landing and her score was deducted, placing her in fifth place after night one. The following night, Glenn came ready for battle. Her eyeliner was drawn into a sharp cat’s eye, like war paint. Her armor was a vibrant ombre-blue costume. Glenn hadn’t scheduled the triple axel in her free skate, but she didn’t need to. Her jumps were clean and her step sequences were passionate and purposeful. When the score that guaranteed her first senior national medal flashed onto the screen, her hands rose to to cover her mouth in astonishment. Glenn was named an alternate to the world team to compete in Stockholm in March, another first, where the results will determine the number of skaters the US will be sending to next year’s Winter Olympics in Beijing. To make that cut, Glenn is depending on landing the triple axel with some sort of regularity next season to gain the needed scores and the federation’s confidence. She plans to add the difficult jump, which only four Americans and 15 women overall have landed in competition, to both her short and long programs. “She’s honed that last piece of the puzzle, which is bringing, under pressure, to the ice that skater that we get to see every day in practice: that brilliant, light, charismatic skater,” LeDuc said. “She’s more in tune with herself. She’s more confident and she’s just really able to bring all that she is to the competition stage now, which is so fun to watch.”

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