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Five most influential LGBT+ sportspeople

In recent decades the visibility and acceptance of LGBTQ+ people in our communities has developed considerably. Despite this excellent progress, many believe that the world of sport is still lagging behind. But here are some who are paving the way.

In recent decades the visibility and acceptance of LGBTQ+ people in our communities has developed considerably. The law has changed in many countries to permit same-sex marriage, and major storytelling platforms such as Netflix and Hollywood are representing LGBTQ+ people more and more. Despite this excellent progress, many believe that the world of sport is still lagging behind.

According to a 2019 Human Rights Campaign report, 70% of LGBTQ+ people do not come out to their teammates and coaches through fear of homophobia and non-acceptance. Hence, sportspeople who decide to come out are not just being honest about who they are; they are taking an ethical and political stance that is crucial to shaping the future. 

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RUGBY: Garath Thomas 

Gareth Thomas made his name in international rugby following his debut for Wales against Japan in 1995. He then equalled the best Welsh record by scoring four tries in a match against Italy in 1999. Gareth was selected for the British and Irish Lions Tour of New Zealand in 2005 and was made the captain for the second and third tests in the series. 

Gareth and his wife, Jemma Thomas, filed for divorce in 2007; in 2009 their divorce was finalized. In December 2009, Garath announced that he was gay, telling the Daily Mail newspaper: “I don’t want to be known as a gay rugby player. I am a rugby player, first and foremost. I am a man.”

By coming out as gay, Garath Thomas became the first openly gay male rugby player – he hoped his announcement would make it easier for a younger rugby player to come out and be accepted by the game, he said. 

Following his announcement, support for Garath was roundly positive, from his ex-wife Gemma, and the world of rugby. Later, in a newspaper interview, Gemma said they had wanted to stay together, but for that to happen, she would need to have all of him, not ninety percent. She went on to marry again, and so did Gareth – to a man called Stephen Thomas. Neither Garath, Gemma, nor Stephen enjoy the media attention surrounding their private lives and tend to steer clear of it. 

In September 2019, Garath made another public announcement – that he was hiv positive, with an undetectable status. He was again applauded for his bravery and proactive stance on the issue. On the day of the announcement, he completed an Ironman event.  

Sportspeople who decide to come out are not just being honest about who they are; they are taking an ethical and political stance that is crucial to shaping the future. 

FOOTBALL: Katie Sowers 

In 2020, Katie Sowers became the first openly gay person to coach at the Super Bowl, acting as an offensive assistant for the San Francisco 49ers. She was born in Kansas and began playing football at the age of eight. She began her playing career with West Michigan Mayhem and the Kansas City Titans. In 2013, she won the IFAF Women’s World Championship with the United States Women’s National American Football Team – but in 2016 she announced her retirement, due to a hip injury.  

Following her retirement, Sowers joined the National Football League with Atlanta Falcons – she was a wide receiver’s intern. She stayed with the Falcons after the internship ended as a scout before moving to the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers hired her through the ‘Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship,’ a program that aims to bring more diversity into NFL coaching positions. Sowers continued her work as a seasonal coaching assistant until 2019 when she received a promotion to a full-time position. In her first season as an offensive assistant, the 49ers won the championship sending the club to the Super Bowl – Katie Sowers then became the first female, and openly gay coach, involved in the event.

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As one of the first out female coaches in the world of football, Katie Sowers represents a change in attitudes within the sport and its official governing bodies. The need for more inclusivity and diversity in the sport, particularly within coaching roles, has opened up new channels of possibility for talented minority coaches to make an impact. Katie Sowers is likely to be both an inspiration to younger minorities involved in the game and the first of many in leading professional roles.   

DIVING: Tom Daley

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Tom Daley is an Olympic diver and award-winning personality who disclosed his sexuality on his popular YouTube channel in 2013. He was born in Devon, England, in 1994. He had an early interest in diving and was noticed by a diving coach at a local center. After being placed into a competitive squad for the first time in 2002, his career went from strength to strength; he won many junior events throughout his boyhood and began entering professional competitions as a teenager. 

In 2012, Tom Daley, along with his counterpart Jessica Ennis, was tipped to be among the first medallists of the London Olympic Games. They were widely publicized with big brand department store John Lewis displaying 40-foot banners of them outside selected stores. The event itself, however, didn’t go exactly to plan. Tom’s performances in the dives varied drastically – in one event he requested to retake the dive due to the interference of camera flashes. Despite the setbacks, Tom won a bronze medal in the men’s 10-meter dive event.

In 2010 Tom began a YouTube channel where he uploaded Vlogs on a range of topics including food, exercises, and lifestyle. In 2019, his channel had 800,000 subscribers and over 100 million views. It was on this channel in 2013 that Tom announced he had been in a relationship with a man since earlier that year. In summary, he said that he had never before felt love before and that he couldn’t be happier with his new partner. He stopped short of applying a label to himself, merely saying that he still fancied girls, but the attraction felt much stronger with his spouse.

TENNIS: Renee Richards

Renee Richards is a former American tennis player who underwent male-to-female reassignment surgery and competed in professional tennis tournaments in the 1970s. Born in 1934 in New York City, she grew up as a Jewish boy named Richard Raskin. As a youngster, she excelled as a wide receiver on the football team, a pitcher on the baseball team, as well as an outstanding performer on the tennis court. 

In college, Richards began dressing as a woman which eventually led to reassignment surgery in 1975. Following her surgery, she battled to compete in several professional tennis tournaments. 

Renee Richards personal journey and professional success was not easy. She experienced issues with her identity, which created sexual confusion, depression, and suicidal tendencies. In the early to mid-sixties, she began to see a doctor called Charles Ihlenfeld, who specialized in endocrinology, transsexualism, and sexual reassignment. With the help of Dr Ihlenfeld, she began taking hormone injections in the hope of future reassignment surgery. It finally happened in the early 1970s through a specialist surgeon – following the surgery, she moved to Newbeach, California.   

While in California Renee (a name which means reborn in French) picked up tennis again and began playing at the local club. Her devastating left-hand soon caught the attention of the club, and she was entered into several professional tournaments including The Tennis Week Open. The USTA and WTA attempted to block her through sanctions, but she won a court case at the New York State court arguing that the governing body was undermining her human right to be a woman.    

SOCCER: Megan Rapinoe

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Women’s soccer has boomed in recent years, growing in popularity around the globe; diversity in the sport is also on the rise, and people such as Megan Rapinoe are leading the way. Born in 1985 she is an American winger who has played in World Cup tournaments for her country, as well as a string of home-based professional teams. She is known for her skill on the ball, her accurate passing, and composed finishing. Outside of the game, she is an advocate for many LGBTQ+ organization, like Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and Athlete Ally. 

In her first year of college, Rapinoe discovered that she was attracted to women; she officially came out in the July 2012 edition of Out magazine – aged 27. In her interview, she disclosed that she had been in a relationship with Sarah Welsh, an Australian soccer player, since 2009. Five years later, the couple ended their relationship. In 2015 Rapinoe announced her engagement to Sera Cahoone; however, the arrangements were put on hold. Rapinoe later confirmed she had been dating basketball star Sue Bird. 

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As well as openly expressing her sexuality in the media, Rapinoe is an advocate of LGBTQ+ rights and has stood up against inequality and discrimination – quite publicly – on a number of occasions. In 2016, she knelt down during the national anthem at an NFL league game in support of Colin Kaepernick, and has refused to sing the national anthem on several occasions: “being a gay American, I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties,” she says.

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