J.P. Licari: From Skates to Strikes
J.P. Licari laced up his first pair of figure skates at age 6. He loved the movement, the ice, the competition—everything about the sport. He rose as high as number four in the U.S. rankings. In 1984, he missed qualifying for the Olympic team by just one point.
But unless you’re an Olympic star, it’s tough to make money as a figure skater. When his father got sick, Licari realized he could no longer ask his parents to support him. He turned pro, with Disney on Ice.
The Connecticut native spent nearly 12 years as a principal skater. He toured the United States, and during eight months in Japan helped open Tokyo Disneyland. He traveled to Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand and throughout Europe.
But after falling 10-and-a-half feet onto his tailbone, Licari had to leave the show.
He had been out of the closet for years. But, he says – despite the stereotype—many gay men in elite figure skating remain closeted. The Brian Boitanos and Johnny Weirs are few and far between.
That, Licari says, is why the Gay Games are so great. “You can be yourself. You can do whatever you want. There’s every sport you can think of—even ballroom dancing.”
After leaving Disney, Licari competed in the 1994 Gay Games. He skated to music dedicated to his partner, recently diagnosed as HIV-positive. A hush fell over the crowd. When his routine ended, they went wild.
He won the men’s competition at Level 4, the second highest. (Matthew Hall—one of the first out athletes ever—captured Level 5.)
“To do all that in front of a packed arena was a bit scary at first,” Licari admits. But it was special, because his parents were part of that audience. It was their first time ever at “that type of event.”
After his routine, Licari found his father, mother, and partner. He gave his father the winner’s bouquet of roses. His dad threw his arms around Licari and said, “I’m so proud of you.”
Licari had never officially come out to his parents. But they knew—they’d visited him and his partner at their Sacramento home. The couple was among the first 25 to register as domestic partners, when that became legal in California.
“It was so comforting to have my parents there in New York,” Licari says. “A lot of parents are not there for their kids. Mine were front and center.”
Back in California, Licari joined the Imperial Court. He ran for grand duke and promised to organize an AIDS on Ice fundraiser. Licari pulled in favors from many skaters he knew. They rehearsed for a month, put on four shows and raised $30,000. That was the start of a year-long charity drive for children with HIV.
Licari moved to Tampa, where he skated at Busch Gardens for three years. Then it was on to Disney World, where he spent the next decade. “They have a very big gay clientele,” he notes. On Gay Day, he turned the corner during a Main Street parade and saw “hundreds and hundreds” of same-sex couples.
After his father died, Licari returned to Connecticut. He participated in his second Gay Games in 2006—as a bowler.
“You can’t skate forever,” he says. He made it to the medal round in Chicago, where he lost by one pin.
A gay bowling league had filled a void, after he gave up skating. Competitive bowling is even harder and more stressful than skating, he says, because the events last longer.
The Chicago Gay Games were great fun. They’re a place to “meet old friends, make new ones, and see people from all around the world.”
He skipped the 2010 Gay Games in Cologne. But last month, Licari was back in action, in Cleveland.
The opening ceremony—in the same arena used by the NBA’s Cavaliers—was “amazing.” Thousands of athletes strode in, Olympic-style, and were announced by state and country. Greg Louganis, Lance Bass, and the Pointer Sisters performed.
Continuing his close calls, Licari failed to qualify for the singles cutoff by one pin. He finished seventh. He was 20th in doubles, and seventh in team event.
“I missed the 1984 Olympic team,” he says, 30 years later. “So now this is my thing. Everyone is so warm and welcoming. Every restaurant, every shop had a rainbow flag in the window. When the mayor spoke, he talked about what a thrill and an honor it is for Cleveland to host this.”
Licari was also impressed with little things: an 80-year-old man running for AIDS awareness. LGBT athletes in wheelchairs. A restaurant conversation with straight Clevelanders who told him how much they enjoyed the Gay Games.
“If you haven’t been to a Gay Games, you need to experience it,” he says, emphatically.
Which is why, four years from now, he’ll be heading to Paris.
Dan Woog is a journalist, educator, soccer coach and gay activist. His latest book is We Kick Balls: True Stories from the Youth Soccer Wars. Email Dan Woog