• ENGSO Youth

Interview with Johan Kenkhuis

Updated: Jul 21, 2020

“The Olympics are a great example of how all nationalities, ethnicities, genders, sexualities and religions can come together, celebrate and compete,”

June might be over but we are continuing with the "Pride Month" interviews. Luca Arfini, a young communications professional from Italy, is conducting a series of interviews with some LGBTI professional athletes to hear their coming-out stories on the occasion of this year’s Pride Month.

Today is the time of the Dutch swimmer Johan Kenkhuis, he won several medals in different international competitions and was one of the few openly gay athletes to participate in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.

1. What is the importance of sports in your life?

When I was a professional swimmer, sport was my educator. I’ve learned so much from competing at the highest level and from working in a professional and vying environment from a young age; how to be ambitious, how to create a plan, how to be resilient, how to collaborate. The ups but mostly the downs gave me life lessons that I cherish and use up to now. These days sport is my daily outlet to stay energized and healthy.

2. When and why did you decide to come out of the closet?

I came out after the Sydney 2000 Olympics because I didn’t want to live my life and follow my dreams with a big secret up my sleeve. I have done that for 4-5 years leading up to the Olympics, but I couldn’t really enjoy my sport to the fullest that way. Hiding my true self was energy sucking and I wanted to put that energy elsewhere, into my swimming career mostly. I’d rather deal with the consequences than live with a secret (which formed into lying to your loved ones and colleagues). Only right before Athens 2004 the media picked it up and wrote about it. The media have known about it since 2001 but didn’t really pay any attention to it at that time. I enjoyed my second Olympics (and second medal) as an openly gay athlete a lot more. It was by far the best moment of my professional career.

3. What are the main challenges that LGBTI professional athletes could face during their careers? It really depends where you live, I guess. In the Netherlands, I don’t think LGBTI athletes face any challenges, aside from the fact that you have to come out first (which is always a challenge). First and foremost, the biggest challenge is to accept yourself for who you are, take pride in that and then let the rest of the world deal with it. I’ve never considered it as a ‘problem’ and that’s the way I have always acted. I didn’t pay attention to it either, I didn’t think it mattered neither in life nor in sports. What I cared about was to do my part the best way I could, be a friend to others and achieve my goals truthfully.

Photo: Michiel Jelijs

4. Do you think the sports environment has become more inclusive for the LGBTI community over the years? Why?

I think so, it goes very slowly but that’s true for all big social issues in the world. LGTBI athletes begun to be more visible, through social media for example, and this helps to create an easier path for the next generations too. So, if you’re not coming out just for yourself, then consider doing it for others. Life is bigger than just yourself.

5. How can sport contribute to foster integration and equality in the younger generations?

Sport, in most cases, is very clear in its message. The Olympic values of fair play, respect, friendship and excellence are great values to teach young kids to help them to grow as human beings. In my opinion, the Olympics are a great example of how all nationalities, ethnicities, genders, sexualities and religions can come together, celebrate and compete under these values. This should be an example for the rest of society as well.

6. What would be your advice to the LGBTI youth (based on your experience)?

Reach out to anybody you trust and share your thoughts and fears if you still need to come out. Otherwise, contacting other LGBTI athletes via social media, knowing that they understand your situation and will always protect your identity. When you come out to the first person, the rest will be much easier. After you made that big step, focus on what’s really important in life; being happy, pursuing your goals and live your life in the best way as possible. Being gay doesn’t define who you are, it only shapes you and that’s a good thing. I became a better athlete and a stronger person after I came out and I would advise everyone to come out, once you accepted yourself.

7. According to you, what is the future of the new generations of LGBTI people in sport?

I see nothing but opportunities for LGTBI athletes, but these opportunities need to be fueled by different parts of society. From governments, educational systems, sports associations, coaches and most of all from parents. I truly feel that being LGBTI does not (and should not) play a part in whether you achieve your life goals or not.