Diversity is a great thing. It’s thanks to diversity that our race, society and cultures and political institutions have evolved. Variety, as they say, is the spice of life and across our many and varied cultures we believe in different religions, find humor in different things and fall in love with all sorts of different people. However, the dizzying delights of progress have often been hindered by people who are reluctant in the face of change. In the 21st century, there’s been significant social progress in many Western countries, but there’s still plenty of room for more harmonious, united societies where people can feel comfortable and confident with their individual identities.
According to statistics, about 30% of all suicides have been related to identity crises, particularly related to the fear of loving or being interested in an individual of the same sex. Homophobia, even in some of the most forward-thinking nations in the world, is still an insidious societal danger that can – demonstrably – lead to fear, low self-esteem and even self harm among LGBT communities.
With typical stereotypes and expectations surrounding ‘masculinity’ in sports, gay men who play on sports teams tend to be more fearful about coming out as gay. It’s perhaps perceived that they’ll be ostracized by their fellow team members and sports fans. When a noted sportsman does come out as gay, then, it’s a particularly influential and even brave step. When well-known female sports people make a stance on their sexuality it’s enormously influential, too, because of the very public and well-respected status of these high-profile athletes. Of course, many may argue that the personal lives of our favourite celebrities, musicians or sports people shouldn’t be public property to be analysed and emblemized – but the fact remains that very many cultures are celebrity-obsessed, and consequently very many people stand to be positively influenced by public figures breaking old taboos. Until equality for sexual minorities is attained, sportspeople publicly declaring their sexuality can send a strong message of support and empowerment.
Here, we’ve traced recent athletic history to bring you a list of 10 influential athletes – gay and straight – who either broke the stereotypes by proudly and publicly owning their sexuality or by publicly supporting the LGBT community – paving the way for a future of equality in sports and
10.Billie Jean King
Billie Jean is a former American professional tennis player who won 39 Grand Slam titles at various Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) Tour Championships. She was the captain of the United States’ Federation cup for three consecutive years and won 20 career titles at Wimbledon. King’s prize money for her successes totaled at $1,966,487.
King has been a long time advocate of sexual equality and is the founder of the Women’s Tennis Association, World Team Tennis and the Women’s Sports Foundation. For her efforts she has won many awards such as, Person of the Year in 1975 in Time Magazine and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. After being married to Larry King for many years, Billie Jean discovered her interest in women by 1968 and made it public by 1981. At this time, King was the first professional female athlete to come out as a lesbian. Before her announcement she had a tumultuous relationship with her parents; King wasn’t able to talk to her parents about her sexual identity until she was 51 years-old.
President Barack Obama appointed King to represent the United States at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Taylor is a three-time National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) American wrestler from the University of Maryland. He gained the most wins in the history of collegiate wrestling and is ranked among the top five pinners in NCAA wrestling history.
Taylor is descended from generations of well-known American Christian missionaries. Perhaps surprisingly, then, he is a straight public supporter of gender equality and same-sex marriage. Taylor initially began showing support for the LGBT community by wearing an equality sticker on his wrestling headgear. Consistent ridicule for his support inspired Taylor to begin blogging about his experiences, prompting many gay athletes who had not come yet come out to reach to him for help and guidance. This drove Taylor to start his foundation, Athlete Ally. The foundation’s mission statement is to, “educate, encourage and empower straight athlete allies to combat homophobia and transphobia in sports.” Many other team members and athletes support Taylor and have joined the program. the NBA has actually recently announced they will soon implement sensitivity training from Taylor’s organization. Taylor is now also a public speaker and Gay Voice blogger for the Huffington post, as well as maintaining his passions for sports as a wrestling coach at Columbia University.
Ayanbadejo is an American football linebacker for the National Football League’s (NFL) Atlanta Falcons. He’s played for the Chicago Bears, Miami Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens after signing a four-year $4.9 millions contract including a $1.9 million signing bonus. He also played for the Amsterdam Admirals in NFL Europe and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Toronto Argonauts and BC Lions for the Canadian Football League (CFL) He has been selected to the Pro Bowl three times.
In 2009 Ayanbadejo became one of the first NFL players to publicly support marriage equality. It was his blog about same-sex marriages, written for The Huffington Post, that really put him in the spotlight for gay rights campaigning. He also made a video supporting marriage equality and donated Ravens tickets to the cause. Ayanbadejo continues to frequently support gay rights and is a LGBT rights advocate. In February 2013 Ayanbadejo filed a joint amicus brief with the Supreme Court supporting same-sex marriage and attempt to eliminate California’s Proposition 8, which attempted to rule against same-sex marriage in California.
7. Jason Collins
Collins is an American professional basketball player for the Washington Wizards. Prior to playing for the Wizards he was on various teams like the Memphis Grizzlies, Minnesota Timberwolves, Atlanta Hawks and the Boston Celtics. While attending Stanford University in 2000, he ranked first in Stanford history for his .608 field goal percentage. He also ranked third best for his tallied 89 successfully blocked shots. In the 2002/2003 NBA season, Collins gained the starting center role for the New Jersey Nets and helped them to the finals.
Collins had an 8 year long relationship with a woman whom he was supposed to marry, but the wedding was cancelled in 2009. Collins went on to post a story on the Sport’s Illustrated website in April last year, during which he came out as gay. The story drew 3.713 million visitors to the Sports Illustrated website on the day it was posted – an example of just how widely influential this sort of story can be. This makes Collins the first openly gay professional on one of the four major American sports teams. He also admitted the reason behind his choice in wearing the number 98 on his jersey is because of the hate crime murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998.
6. Chris Kluwe
Kluwe, an American football player signed by the Seattle Seahawks and later for the Minnesota Vikings, set school records for both total punt yardage and total number of punts in a season. While with the Vikings, Kluwe ranked second in the NFC with his average yards per punt and pitch in the league. In 2007 Kluwe became on of the 10 highest paid punters in the NFL after signing an $8.3 million contract with the Vikings.
In 2012 Kluwe released a letter to the press that he had sent to Maryland state assembly delegate, Emmett Burns. The letter backed up the position of Brendon Ayanbadejo, Baltimore Ravens linebacker, on gay rights. It cited the reasons why he disagreed with anti-gay propaganda.
Kluwe was also featured in a documentary called “The Last Barrier” which aired on NBC Bay Area in December 2012. During the interview he spoke about his feelings towards equality. In January last year, talk show host Ellen inaugurated Kluwe as the first name in her Hall of Fame for his same-sex marriage support. In April 2013 he was named the Grand Marshal of the 41st annual Twin Cities Pride festival in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
5. Brittney Griner
Griner is a 22-year-old American professional basketball player for the Phoenix Mercury in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA.) She was their first overall pick. In 2013 Griner was elected the Best Female Athlete ESPY Award and in 2012 she was awarded AP Player of the Year and Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. Griner has won many awards and first time achievements for women’s basketball, including the first women to score two slam-dunks in one game.
In 2013 Griner publicly came out as a lesbian. She has spoke many times about her insecurities growing up and the bullying that occurred. Besides being a professional athlete, Griner works with children in an attempt to stop bullying, especially with young people in the LGBT community. Griner has a love for art and tattoos and demonstrates her sexual identity with two female gender symbols intertwined together. Griner embraces who she is, talks freely of her once insecure attitude to her own sexuality and speaks highly of her current girlfriend.
4. Connor Barwin
Barwin is an American football linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL, though original drafted by the Houston Texans in 2009. In 2013 he signed a six-year, $36 million contract with the Eagles.
Barwin is one of 6 siblings, one being gay (along with a cousin) whom he is openly proud of and supports his rights to marry. After tweeting about his inspiration and appreciation of President Obama’s commitment to supporting same-sex marriage, OutSports Magazine reported and commented on Barwin’s free expression. Barwin immediately after contacted OutSports himself for an interview, making him the first professional athlete to ever contact OutSports to talk about gay issues, instead of the other way around. Barwin continues to support and speak out for LGBT community and fellow out, as well as still in secret, athletes.
Navratilova is a retired Czechoslovak tennis player and coach. She won 18 Grand Slam singles titles, 31 major women’s double titles, which are an all-time record, and 10 major mixed doubles titles. Navratilova also made it the Wimbledon finals 12 times. She’s won various other awards and pioneering achievements throughout her tennis career.
In 1981 Navratilova came out publicly in one of Skip Bayless’s columns. She’s been open about being a lesbian since 1981 and has spoken out on behalf of LGBT rights. Navratilova has since written widely on her struggles and the difficulty of coming out. Navratilova participated in a lawsuit against Amendment 1, a proposition designed to deny gays and lesbians from legal protection from discrimination. In 2000 she won the National Equality Award from the Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay and lesbian activist group in America.
2. Orlando Cruz
Cruz is a professional boxer and former Puerto Rican Olympian during the 2000 Australian Games. He was an undefeated champion from 2000-2009 and is currently ranked 4th among featherweights by the World Boxing Organization.
Cruz hid his sexuality for almost 12 years, fearing the boxing community’s reaction. With the help of a therapist and new promoter, Tuto Zabala, he mustered the courage to publicly come out in 2012. Cruz married his boyfriend Joe Manuel in Central Park, New York in 2013. The couple has hopes to adopt children from Puerto Rico, although the country still does not allow same-sex marriage or adoptions. Cruz often sports rainbow shorts and flags during his fights in support of the LGBT community, and speaks of his new found liberation after coming out, encouraging other sexual minorities to embrace their identity.
1. Michael Sam
Michael Sam is an American football defensive end. The first member of his family to attend college, he played college football for the Missouri Tigers for four years. During his college career he was Co-Defensive Player of the year and also named a first-team All-American by various foundations. He doesn’t yet play professionally but he looks set to join the NFL later this year and he’s recently signed some lucrative endorsement deals.
Michael Sam is the most recent athlete to publicly come out as gay; he came out in February this year. The announcement took place during an interview with Chris Connelly on ESPN, an interview which saw Sam become one of the first publicly out college football players – and possibly be the first active NFL player in history to be openly gay if he is, indeed, drafted.