LGBTQ+ acceptance in sports is slowly growing.
Athletes are proving that their prowess has nothing to do with sexuality or gender and changing the narrative for what it means to be queer. In a world where gender stereotypes seem to be a prerequisite for dominating your opponents these athletes show that there’s nothing wrong with bringing your true self to the field or court.
It was April 29, 2013, and the regular NBA season was over when Jason Collins became the first active male athlete in any of the four major North American sports to come out. A week later he’d be featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, breaking barriers for being brave. It was a feat that not only he and his family were proud of, but also then-NBA Commissioner David Stern and the Obamas. Even Kobe Bryant said it was bigger than the hardwood: “You look at it from the context of having the first openly gay player. But they missed the domino effect that it has way beyond sports.” That fact was even evident with Collins’ ’98 jersey number that was constantly sold out and honored the anti-gay murder of Matthew Shepard.
Michael Sam was bold. He was an All-American and dubbed the “Defensive Player Of the Year” when he was a senior at Missouri. But before the draft, he came out to his teammates. “Coaches just wanted to know a little about ourselves, our majors, where we’re from, and something that no one knows about you. And I used that opportunity just to tell them that I was gay,” Sam told ESPN. He’d step away from the game in 2015 after being selected by the St. Louis Rams, citing mental health reasons. But his impact was felt as he was awarded the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2014 ESPYs and his work as a speaker has helped denounce a bill that was discriminatory against LGBTQ+ people. It also doesn’t hurt when you get a shout-out from President Obama.
Megan Rapinoe’s got an all or nothing attitude, and it serves her well. She came out in 2012 and denounces anything anti-gay whenever she gets the chance including Russia’s legislation. In 2013 she spoke up for the LGBTQ+ community by partnering with The Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) to help put a stop to name calling.
“If I can stand on a platform and use the popularity that I have and the team has to make people more aware and to make this place more accepting for all people is something that I’m really, really proud to do,” Rapinoe said in the video, understanding the position she’s in. She was even inducted into the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame in 2015, cementing that she not only gets the job done on the turf but in the community as well.
“I have and will always be a proud Puerto Rican. I have always been and always will be a proud gay man,” Orlando Cruz said back in 2012. Not only is Cruz a professional boxer who represented Puerto Rico at the 2000 Olympic Games in Australia, but he’s also the first active boxer to ever come out as gay. And 12 years after going pro, getting it off his chest was stressful, but his first fight since the announcement was a success with a unanimous win over Jorge Pazos. He was happy that the boxing world still wanted him and he even received supportive texts from Olympic teammate Miguel Cotto and singer Ricky Martin.
Coming out as a professional athlete is brave, but transitioning amidst the pivotal years of high school takes another level if dedication. Meet New Jersey’s Matt Dawkins, who was born Maya Dawkins. He ran on the women’s track team —and broke records—his freshman and sophomore years, and suddenly he was a rising star on the men’s team. Void of the money and fame that come with professional sports, competing at a high school level is tougher, with some states even requiring a birth certificate or sex reassignment surgery to compete in circuits. Nevertheless, Dawkins persevered and broke barriers and started conversations that will help fuel the fight to help high school trans athletes.