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LGBT athletes who have been an inspiration on and off the field

There are some sports stars across the US and the world who are out and proud. They are paving a path for new generations, so let’s celebrate them.

Photo by tommy boudreau from Unsplash.com

The sports world is one that loves tradition. In most respects, that’s a good thing, and some of the rituals attached to our favorite sports have become woven into national folklore. There are times, however, when those deeply ingrained practices make it difficult for sport to move with the times. 

It means that traditions dating back to the mid 20th century or earlier can sometimes be accompanied by attitudes from the same period. For example, there is an immense gender gap in professional sports of practically every type when it comes to both the profile of the sport and the money earned by the athletes. Certain sports also show an alarming disparity when it comes to ethnicity. The achievements of stars like Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters illuminate just how few black golfers and tennis pros there are, for example. 

But even more glaringly obvious than this is the underrepresentation of LGBT sports pros. Could it be that even in 2019, outdated “locker room” mentalities mean that there is still a fear of coming out? The good news is that there are some sports stars across the US and the world who are out and proud. They are paving a path for new generations, so let’s celebrate them.

Tom Waddell

The former Olympic decathlete was a man of many talents and of strong convictions. Prior to his professional sporting career, he qualified as a doctor and then served in the US Army as a paratrooper and preventative medical officer. Waddell competed in the 1968 Mexico Olympics, where he placed sixth in the decathlon out of 33 entrants. 

With his military, sporting and medical background, it was an immensely brave act for Waddell to come out given the attitudes of the early 1970s. In 1972, he joined a gay bowling league, and it was this that brought home to him how few openly gay athletes there are. It inspired him to organize the inaugural Gay Olympics in 1982, although an injunction by the IOC forced an eleventh hour name change to the Gay Games. 

Waddell passed away in 1987 aged just 49. Despite declining health, he witnessed and even participated in Gay Games II, winning Gold in the javelin. To this day, he is remembered with numerous tributes and his legacy is one that will live forever. 

Jason Collins

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The center, who played 13 seasons in the NBA, came out in 2013. The news created a media storm, as he was the first active male athlete from any of the four major sporting leagues to come out as gay. The Guardian newspaper said at the time that this was a defining moment for LGBT rights, describing professional sport at the “final frontier.”

Collins himself has always remained level headed, and very much takes the attitude that he is doing no more than less than playing the cards he is dealt. He famously said: “I’m black. And I’m gay. I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. But since I am, I’m happy to start the conversation.”

That conversation is still ongoing and today, Collins is a passionate advocate for LGBT rights. 

Michael Sam

Despite these inspiring stories, it would be disingenuous to pretend that coming out as a sports pro is easy, or that once done, the world will welcome you, congratulate you and let you get on with your life. Michael Sam knows that better than most. 

The defensive end spent one season in the NFL, playing for the St Louis Rams. Having come out the previous year, he was the first openly gay player in the NFL. His pro career never really got off the ground, and after a season with the Montreal Alouettes he retired from football. Throughout his pro career, there was constant distraction due to debate over his sexuality. An anonymous source in the NFL said that Sam’s decision to come out immediately after college would probably affect his chances of being drafted, while campaigners with placards either berating or supporting Sam were a common site at and around games. 

All this meant that Sam struggled to focus 100 percent on football, and he even remarked that his career might have gone differently had he stayed in the closet. Today, he works as a writer and motivational speaker. 

Caitlyn Jenner

Born William Bruce Jenner, Caitlyn Jenner is without doubt the most famous and talked-about transgender woman on the planet. Back in the 1970s and prior to her gender reassignment surgery, she led the world in decathlon. After winning the gold medal at the 1975 Olympics, it was the then Bruce Jenner who started the tradition of taking a national flag from a spectator and carrying it on the victory lap, something that is still imitated to this day. 

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In 1982, Bruce Jenner featured on the cover of Playgirl. Who could have imagined that the next magazine cover, some 33 years later would be so different? Caitlyn Jenner has shared the highs and lows of gender reassignment with the world through interviews, social media and even her own TV series. She’s a lady that polarizes opinion, but that’s fine – after all, black or white, straight, gay or trans, none of us have an automatic right to be liked by everyone. What is beyond doubt is that she’s done more than anyone to get people talking about gender reassignment and to bring into everyday conversation. And that can never be a bad thing.

Blazing a trail

There are literally dozens of other names we could mention, including swimmer Ian Thorp, boxer Orlando Cruz, diver Tom Daley and England cricketers Katherine Brunt and Natalie Sciver, who recently announced their engagement

The good news is that with every passing year, we can add more names to this list, and the day will come when we will no longer have to. Saying a sports star is gay or trans will be as irrelevant as saying he or she is left handed or wears a size 10 shoe. The important thing to remember is that this change does not happen overnight, and it has only been made possible by those who had the courage to take those first steps. 

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