Out in Sports

Sport, the final frontier. More, and more, queer people are coming out even in the most difficult arena, sports. For professional athletes coming out can be daunting. For some, career ending. This month I’ll explore the history of queer athletes then look at how far we’ve come.

Recently, there have been some inspiring stories of men in rougher sports who have expressed who they are and been embraced by their teams. Queer people can, and do, excel in every area of life.

It all started with Dave Kopay in 1975. It wasn’t easy back then. Athletes sign contracts containing morals clauses intended to protect teams, and corporate sponsors, from potentially damaging behaviour. Coming out would have been a morals issue in Kopay’s time.

Billie Jean King was another queer pioneer in sport. She challenged gender stereotypes by defeating Bobby Riggs in a “battle of the sexes” tennis match.

I can’t do justice in a short piece to all the brave people who have led us to where we are today.

Until recently most athletes did not come out until their Olympic, or professional, careers were over. Greg Luganis didn’t until 1994. The stakes were, and sometimes still are, very high, putting careers, and lucrative endorsements, on the line.

Recently rugby stars, Keegan Hurst, Gareth Thomas, and Sam Stanley,  joined the ranks of out athletes. World Rugby has teamed up with International Gay Rugby to promote inclusivity in the ultra-masculine sport.

Sports teams have always been very challenging for gay athletes. Within the camaraderie, and intimacy, of the team homosexuality can be seen as a powerful threat to cohesion.  But, when Thomas came out he was embraced. He was even featured in a heart warming ad for Guinness beer.

Most recently up and coming British track athlete Tom Bosworth revealed that he is gay. The world is changing.

Is there still any significance to these athletes coming out? Do out sports figures contribute to our ongoing struggle for equality? I think the answer is a resounding yes. They help create shifts.

In hard hitting team sports like, rugby, American football, or hockey,  they educate fans. At least some homophobic  followers may stop to think before they throw a nasty insult, or assault someone, if they know their hero athlete is queer.

Out athletes force people to question their assumptions about what it means to be gay. They prove that gay men can be masculine. The fans may not be waving rainbow flags but we are moving in the right direction.

The most powerful impact that out sports figures have is on kids. They show queer children what’s possible. That they can succeed at whatever sport they want. That they can be accepted by, and integrated into, a team.

Straight kids who find themselves with a gay, or bi, hero will be more accepting of their queer peers. Hopefully encouraging an environment where talent, and teamwork, rather than sexuality, are the primary measures of potential.

I believe queer people in the public eye have a responsibility to come out. I deeply respect people’s boundaries. Everyone has the right to choose when, and  with whom, they are out,  But, when someone chooses the path of fame, with all of the accolades, and benefits it brings, they should be expected to give back.

Successful athletes are heroes to the next generation. That comes with power. If you are a closeted athlete, you owe it to yourself, and your fans, to shine bright as who you really are. You have no idea how many lives you may positively impact with that simple brave act, or in how many ways it will make your own life better.