Athletics have traditionally been a spaces that exclude those who don’t fit a certain mold.
For men, toughness, strength, and a disregard for the emotional and strange were the norm for most of modern history, while signs of weakness, femininity, and vulnerability were ridiculed and shunned.
All of this was especially true within the major leagues, which didn’t even allow women players until the late 20th century. It may feel like history now, but the Women’s National Basketball Association wasn’t formed until 1996, and the National Women’s Hockey League became the first organization to pay female hockey players in 2015.
In this context, it is no surprise that coming out as LGBTQ while pursuing a career as a top-level athlete may appear to be a daunting task. Those who did so in the past had to brave a culture that denied their existence and validity. Men were afraid of becoming pariahs, stigmatized and ostracized by their teammates, while women were threatened by the prospect of being considered too masculine in a culture that already saw their strength and physical prowess as a threat to their status as female.
The good news is that this seems to be changing. There were 45 gay and lesbian participants in most recent Winter Olympics, and the rate of young athletes coming out to their teammates and the public seems to be on the rise. Here are five players who came out in the last few years, three of whom currently play for the U.S. major leagues and two who play college football.
The biggest news for gay athletes this summer was Martin, a midfielder for Minnesota United’s soccer team, coming out publicly on the same day that his team was set to play their Pride Night game.
Although he was out to his friends, family, and teammates for years, Martin decided it was important to also use his platform to help others struggling with being an LGBTQ athlete find their voices.
He is the second gay man to come out while playing major league soccer, and he is currently the only gay male athlete playing for any American major league sports organization.
At 36, Bird is by far the oldest person on this list. She has played for the WNBA since the early 2000s, and although she has known that she is gay since her undergraduate years at the University of Connecticut, she did not come out until 2017. This is not to say that she has been in denial (her family and close friends have known about her orientation for almost as long as she has), but she knew she was a lesbian to her identity as a private person. Privacy aside, when Bird was coming into her career, it was impossible to come out as an athlete without it being a big deal that would politicize a figure overnight.
The changing demographics within the sports industry make it easier for private individuals like Bird to share who they are on their own terms.
Bird continues to play basketball for the Seattle team, and is currently the oldest person in the WNBA. She is also dating U.S. national team soccer player Megan Rapinoe, who is a powerhouse athlete in her own right.
Smith is an up-and-coming athlete on the U.S. national soccer team. She came out to her friends and family right after high school, something that she struggled with growing up Christian in Texas.
Smith still holds on to her faith, firmly believing that God loves everyone even while others may denounce her. This strength led her to publicly come out on her YouTube channel in 2017. Despite being a private person, Smith realized that she could help other young people by telling her story.
She now stands as an example of what both women and LGBTQ individuals can achieve within athletics.
Johnson is a defensive lineman at the University of Arizona, and was the first openly gay man to be recruited to a Division One team on a full scholarship.
He has been out to his family and friends since he was twelve, and made his sexual orientation clear to recruiters and coaches when deciding where to play college football. At Arizona, he found a welcoming environment that made it clear to him they cared more about his abilities as a player than who he is attracted to.
Last season Johnson didn’t play, but this year he will be a starting player in the Football Bowl Subdivision in which Arizona plays. His comfort with being a gay athlete seems to have sparked something within the college football scene; the 2018 season set a record number of LGBTQ college football players, with a total of eight, including Johnson, now proudly out.
One of the other seven gay college football players in Johnson’s cohort, Frantz was the second player to publicly divulge his sexuality and set the precedent on what is hopefully a continuing trend.
Unlike Johnson, Frantz was closeted to both his teammates at Kansas State, as well as his friends and family, until very recently. He played one season as a redshirt, and began to feel the burden of his secret when the opportunity to be honest presented itself in the form of an offsite team-building exercise. During this exercise, the players were encouraged to share personal information that they had previously not divulged, and Frantz decided it was time to be honest about his sexuality. He was met with love and acceptance and reported feeling closer to his teammates than he did before.
He came out to his family a few weeks later and is now leading the vanguard for acceptance of LGBTQ athletes in college football.
Like Johnson and the others in the sport who are now openly gay, Frantz may be entering the NFL Combine within the next few years. This is an exciting prospect, because this could mean openly gay NFL players becoming the norm. Furthermore, the reactions of athletes, teams, and coaches to this news proves that our society is ready for this change.