Movember Keiron Berndt Pride Hig Roberts
Hig RobertsImage by: Keiron Berndt
Movember Keiron Berndt Pride Hig Roberts
28 June 2021

Hig Roberts On Navigating Mental Health and Masculinity

11 minutes read time

In December 2020, now-retired professional alpine skier Hig Roberts came out publicly as gay, making him the first man within his profession to do so. Having grown up within the competitive confines of professional sport, Hig experienced firsthand the struggles of defining ‘masculinity’ within athletic spaces. Hig takes a seat in the barber chair and speaks with us on why he chose to come out when he did, how being a professional athlete played a role in his journey and the struggles that have made him into a more confident, happier version of himself.

As one of the first pro men’s alpine skiers to publicly come out, what was your experience sharing that you are part of the LGBTQ+ community? How did that experience impact your mental health?

The story I shared last December and the journey that I am now on are experiences I never expected I would have. Not because I was never going to embrace who I was, but because I felt I might never have the confidence to speak about it publicly in a way that could help advance the LGBTQ+ community, specifically in the sports arena.

Following my retirement from professional skiing and consequent stint in investment banking, my mental health was in a dilapidated state at best. Amidst confronting my sexuality, I had been broken down entirely. Surviving in the worlds that I found myself in, whether that be the hyper-masculine space of sports or the space of finance, required a tremendous amount of performative behaviour that I practiced on a quotidian basis. So, while I was ready to share my story, there was a very surreal feeling embedded within it.

When speaking to reporters, friends, or family I was simultaneously having to eradicate years of mental conditioning that had compelled me to resist the very same expressions for so many years. But I immediately knew it was the right thing to do. I finally felt heroic and with each breath I could feel so much self-punishment, denial, and shame dissipate. By the time my story was made public, my life felt gentle again. I am so honoured for those who gave me the opportunity to share my narrative that I for so many years believed to be unworthy.

What was your experience as a gay man competing in competitive skiing? How did coming out impact your experience?

I do know that the way my journey has unfolded was the way it was supposed to happen. It allowed me to learn what I needed to in order to enter the next chapter of my life as best as I possibly could. I say this because I have held some shame in coming out following my athletic career retirement. And I think that sufficiently sums up my experience of being a gay man in competitive skiing.

Ultimately, while I was a professional athlete, I truly believed it would be impossible to reveal my sexuality and continue in my career. Partially because of a lack of representation in the space and partially because of the daily atmosphere I found myself in World Cup Alpine Skiing, I had a strong intuition that my career would terminate if I came out.

Understanding and even speaking about this now is the exact reason I am passionate about advocating in this space. I generally do know that I am a strong, resilient, independent, and confident person, so the idea that I could not be who I was while pursuing my greatest dreams is so problematic. And it cost me a lot. My hope is that my story will help at least one athlete or human being never have to sacrifice their happiness, mental health, or dreams simply because of who they are.

You’ve outlined in previous interviews the perceptions and expectations of conforming to ‘masculinity’ in skiing - how do you think typical views of masculinity impacted your experience? How did you deal with that and how did that affect you?

In my opinion, the system or rather more fitting, machine of masculinity, drives the ship in most paradigms of life. I am at a point of trying to truly understand how someone like me; a boy raised by an accepting family, a boy determined more than usual, a boy who experienced success in many spaces including sports and academics, and a boy who stood up for what he believed in was forced to lose all of that because of the environment he found himself in - professional sports.

A paramount part of increasing LGBTQ+ acceptance in sports and traditionally masculine spaces, which in my opinion encompasses almost all spaces of society, is breaking down, reworking, and redefining the rules of masculinity. It is hard to emphasize just how much masculinity shapes our world and most specifically how it shapes our view of sexuality.

From the day I was born, I believe I was conditioned to abide by a pervasive masculine code that was drilled into me both consciously as well as subconsciously. If it is possible to achieve the pinnacle of masculinity or hero status - as I call it - I would say I got pretty close by becoming a physically strong, warrior- style, tough ski racer. And I fed into the hungry machine of masculinity because I thought it would solve all the deficiencies that my uniqueness left me feeling inside. Unfortunately, I let this elusive system of masculinity rob me of a lot of happiness and potential.

Moving forwards, I think we need to create an entirely new roadmap of what it means to be a man. It will be so important for all of us to take a more critical look at the system of masculinity if we want to increase acceptance for all.

What is the significance of ‘Send It for Murph’?

‘Send It For Murph’ is in honour of my late younger brother, Murphy, who passed away in 2016 due to a tragic accident caused by his Type 1 Diabetes.I had just completed my first year on the World Cup ski circuit when I lost my brother. I actually briefly decided to retire, but ultimately knew that this would not do him justice because, in so many ways, Murphy was the person I had always wanted to be and I had not gotten there yet.

Growing up with Murphy, we did not have the perfect relationship because I was jealous of him. He had a self-confidence and comfort in himself that I am just now finally discovering. I wore a ‘Send It For Murph’ sticker on my helmet in each subsequent race and screamed his name down the course as I competed across the world. I would ask him “to come for a ride with me” each time I kicked out of the starting gate and that was truly what kept me going as I dealt with this immense tragedy. During my ski career, the thing that I am most proud of is sharing Murphy’s story and remembering him loudly. He’ll always be with me.

You’ve shared that the loss of your brother and burden of hiding your sexuality negatively impacted your mental health; how did you cope with it and what are some strategies you’d recommend to someone who might be experiencing something similar in their life?

Prior to Murphy’s death I wavered about coming out to my teammates, coaches, and the Team USA organization. However, after Murphy’s death my world flipped on its head entirely. Returning to my career and ultimately making the decision to leave my family during this time and live in Europe for months at a time while pursuing my own self-interest was incredibly difficult. Being closeted already put me on the outside of the world I lived in. And now, being the kid who was mourning pushed me further to the outside.

The competitive, masculine-drive world of ski racing required immense mental precision and a warrior-style approach. It left the thinnest of margins for me to be vulnerable about what I was dealing with personally. I felt that I had to closet my feelings of grief because there just was not room for it in my environment. While simultaneously struggling with my sexuality, I started denying my depression, anxiety, and impeding mental implosion. This would all eventually come to a breaking point.

I think that while I did encounter experiences in the ski world that required me to be silent about all that I was going through, I will say that it is important for all of us to remember that we should never doubt the potential good and love within people. Following my coming out and openness about these years of my life, the amount of support I have received from fellow teammates, competitors, coaches, friends, and family has been immense. I took all of my mental anguish upon my own shoulders when in retrospect I am now seeing that there were people out there equipped to help. And that has been so beautiful to realize.

How are you prioritizing your mental health right now?

Being able to recognize that mental health sits in a realm of my life that I am prioritizing is both incredible as well as shocking. For so many years, acknowledging my mental health meant weakness. I was giving in to the ‘non-masculine’ part of me that I felt was causing all these issues. Now, I know that the state of my mental health is fundamental to the underlying direction of my life.

It is proven that the LGBTQ+ community is prone to higher rates of mental issues and diagnoses. I am making a very concerted effort to speak about my own mental health in order to bring more normalization and visibility to these statistics. I used to think it was honorable to ignore my mental health, some sort of distorted badge of masculinity, but now I make it a point to tell people that I have been and still am being treated for depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other trauma disorders.

We must evolve everyday interaction to include discussion on mental health because mental problems are one thing that we all are going to experience at one point in life. In this sense, it can be the most powerful form of connection and learning that we can achieve from one another.

Knowing what you know now as a happy out gay male, what would you say to your younger self?

I love this question because a lot of what I personally do in my daily life is to reconcile with my ‘younger Hig’. Sure, I have some regrets that I kept myself from happiness for far too long or that I potentially squandered my full athletic potential because I was too weak to love myself. But leaning into that way of thinking is entirely missing the point.

I know that I did my best to live a “full” life, but also that I had so much to learn along the way to make the next part of my life even better. I kept a three-letter word, gay - just like my name, and equally as important to my identity - hidden. That cost me a lot as a young man. But I now know that being gay is truly one of my biggest strengths because it is who I am and all parts of me are now whole-heartedly welcome within my identity.

I always felt like I was running and alone as a young boy. This led me to embrace a misguided ideal of a warrior who was independent, hardened, and insulated. Each one of us has an evolution and that’s what makes humans special: we make mistakes, we learn, we grow, and most importantly we all deserve love and happiness. I am taking all my past experiences to the metaphorical “bank” and investing in a brighter future.

What does Pride mean to you?

For me Pride is all about community. I am so honoured to be here and to have this month to learn, engage, and advocate with all those in the LGBTQ+ community. I fully acknowledge that the privilege I can enjoy today as a gay man exists because of those who came before me to ensure this would be possible. I also recognize my inherent privilege as a white, cisgender male identity within the LGBTQ+ community.

During both Pride as well as every day, I am striving represent and fight for far more marginalized members of our community including the transgender and BIPOC communities who are invariably experiencing more discrimination and injustice than myself. All of our narratives and identities are critical to increasing representation and visibility. The opportunity for Pride is a human right for our community because there is still so much work to do in order to ensure acceptance and equal opportunity.

On and off the slopes, how has the competitive skiing community changed/grown as far as LGBTQ+ equity, and what changes do you hope to see in future?

At this point it is hard to exactly say what has changed. I think that expecting drastic change and acceptance is not entirely reasonable because LGBTQ+ athletes are still incredibly rare. Unfortunately, because of this it seems the conversation always tends to lose momentum. The proverbial glass ceiling has yet to be broken in this space.

My huge hope is that one day stories like mine become non-events not because they aren’t important to recognize and celebrate, but rather that an athlete’s sexuality will matter no more than the type of breakfast they eat the morning of a competition.

In the past few months, I have had the opportunity to engage in discussion with some members of the skiing and broader Team USA community. I have urged the leaders of these organizations to engage discussions on this topic with athletes, tell their athletes that if they are LGBTQ+ they are welcome and safe, and view their diversity, equity, and inclusion statements as more than an obligation. Whereas some sports are further ahead than others in terms of inclusion, many of these smaller, more exclusive athletic spaces must be deliberate in including and exposing their athletes to more diversity.

Inviting LGBTQ+ advocacy groups or athletes to speak to these organizations, providing further resources to LGBTQ+ athletes, or engaging with the LGBTQ+ community are very easy and impactful approaches that I can guarantee will help to expand acceptance and understanding. For me, some of these easy tasks that I felt could have been done by my leaders might have made all of the difference.

What can others do to advance equity for the LGBTQ+ community in the skiing community?

Although this applies throughout all aspects of live, I believe that embracing diversity within the confines of sports can bring about immediate positive externalities.

First and foremost, people must realize that sports as an institution are intrinsically supposed to be open to all. The clock, ball, etc. does not care if you are LGBTQ+. Additionally, sport is a form of therapy and often a distraction to very real and hard parts of our lives. That is what makes the space so beautiful and consequently makes it so important that we advance equity within its often-rigid confines. Not doing so is a violation to the inherent purpose that sports plays in our society.

An increase in acceptance of diversity within the ski community will lift the space, make teammates stronger, precipitate an increase in team morale, and enable the best talent to rise to the top. The skiing community as well as the broader sports community has an obligation to lead the fight for more equity and acceptance. It would truly be a wasted opportunity if this is not realized.

I have so much hope that this progression is around the corner and I ask all who resonate with my story to reach out to me for help. Never forget that you are loved, you are welcome, and I believe in you.