Tonight, from my perspective, is ‘peak sport’ for 2014: the start of play at Wimbledon (when we can at least still dream of an Australian winner), and the first of the final group games at the men’s football World Cup (with Australia bowing out, hopefully with another solid performance, against Spain in the early hours of tomorrow morning). As a long-term tennis fan – and football fan once exactly every four years – it doesn’t get much better than that.
To celebrate this, but more importantly to acknowledge the fact that the past 12-18 months has been a ‘breakout’ period for LGBT people in sports worldwide, I thought I would write about some of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender athletes who I admire most, some for their outstanding play on the field, some for the paths they have forged for others to follow, and some for what they have accomplished off the field as well.
Of course, in limiting this list to just a dozen names, there are many, many worthy people who I have left out (and to whom I apologise) – but here are some of the LGBT athletes that this particular sports fan looks up to:
12: Abby Wambach
Given the current World Cup in Brazil, I thought I would start with a football player who has competed at three World Cups, as well as at two Olympic Games (winning Gold Medals at both). Abby Wambach is also the highest goal scorer in international football – male or female – with 167 goals, and was FIFA World Player of the Year (2012).
Abby’s sexual orientation became more widely known last October, when she married fellow football player Sarah Huffman – although she rejected descriptions that this was her ‘coming out’: “I can’t speak for other people, but for me, I feel like gone are the days when you need to come out of a closet. I never felt like I was in a closet. I never did. I always felt comfortable with who I am and the decisions I made.”
See also: Casey Stoney, who has herself played at two World Cups, more than 100 internationals, captained both England, and Great Britain at the London Olympics, and who officially came out in February this year.
On the men’s side, few players have come out while still active, with the most recent being Robbie Rogers (who has played 18 times for the US, although none at World Cup level), and of course Justin Fashanu, an English player who came out way back in 1990, but whose life ended tragically eight years later.
11: Nicola Adams
Bisexual British boxer Nicola Adams did one of the most difficult things in sport: to win a Gold Medal, as a favourite, at a home Olympics (London 2012). In doing so, she became the first openly LGBT boxer to win a medal at that level.
See also: Puerto Rican former world IBA Featherweight champion Orlando Cruz became the first male professional boxer to come out as gay while still active in October 2012.
10: Michael Sam
So much has been written about Michael Sam already this year that adding much here is almost redundant. He makes this list alone for the courage of coming out publicly prior to NFL draft camp (although his teammates knew during his final season of College football) – and accepting the risk that he would be drafted lower, or even not at all, because of this declaration. To risk killing off your career, by being honest about who you are from the outset, in a sport where no active player has ever come out, is the definition of brave.
The moment where he emotionally celebrated being drafted by the St Louis Rams by kissing his boyfriend Vito Cammisano, broadcast live on ESPN to millions of Americans, was also one of the most beautiful things we will see on TV this year (sports or non-sports related). I’m sure I’m not the only person around the world who knows very little about ‘grid iron’ but who cares passionately about whether Michael Sam makes his on-field debut in the next few seasons.
See also: US basketball player Jason Collins came out via Sports Illustrated in April 2013 and, in March 2014, played for the Brooklyn Nets, becoming the first openly-gay active player in any of the ‘big four’ North American men’s sports competitions (baseball, basketball, football and ice hockey), although baseball player Glenn Burke was apparently open about being gay to his teammates and club owners in the late 1970s, but not to the public at large.
9: Brittney Griner
While there might be more accomplished openly lesbian or bisexual women’s basketball players (so far, anyway) than the 23 year old Griner, it is hard to look past someone who, in the same week in April 2013, was both picked first overall in the WNBA draft and came out publicly as a lesbian to Sports Illustrated (a couple of weeks before Jason Collins). The fact that she has used her new-found fame to stand up against bullying, and bullying of young LGBT people in particular, makes me respect her even more.
See also: There have been several other notable lesbian or bisexual female basketball players, although one of the more famous was three-time Olympic Gold Medallist Sheryl Swoopes, who announced she was gay in 2005 and had a long-term female partner, although has since become engaged to a man (NB I have not used the word bisexual here because I do not believe Swoopes uses that term to identify herself).
8: Belle Brockhoff
As with Griner, there have no doubt been more accomplished openly-LGBT athletes at the Winter Olympics. But, to me, coming out to the world at age 20, before your first ever Games, and then being an active part of the Athlete Ally/AllOut ‘Principle 6’ campaign against homophobia in the lead-up to the Sochi Olympics in Putin’s Russia is seriously impressive. Oh, and did I mention that just this week she became a beyondblue Ambassador for mental health, including LGBTI mental health?
See also: Dutch speed-skater Ireen Wust, who came out as bisexual in October 2009, has been to three Winter Olympics, winning 4 gold, 3 silver and 1 bronze medals, becoming the most successful athlete for the Netherlands at the Olympics. And, while he just missed out on qualifying for the Sochi Games, I couldn’t leave out the Vancouver Olympian from New Zealand, Blake Skjellerup, who came out in May 2010 and is, like Griner, an advocate against bullying.
7: Matthew Mitcham
Another athlete to come out before their first Olympic Games – also aged just 20, in the lead-up to Beijing in 2008 – Mitcham went on to claim the Gold Medal in the men’s 10 metre platform, with the highest-scoring dive in Olympic history. The fact that he had been so public about his sexual orientation also meant that the world got to see him celebrating his victory by embracing his boyfriend, Lachlan Fletcher, in the stands – a forerunner of, and rival to, the Sam-Cammisano moment.
See also: It would be remiss not to mention British Olympic bronze medallist diver Tom Daley, especially given his December 2013 coming out video on YouTube has been watched more than 11 million times around the world.
6: Amelie Mauresmo
I have chosen the previous four athletes at least in part because they have all been ‘out’ from the early days of their sporting careers. One of the most famous athletes to set that precedent was French tennis player Amelie Mauresmo, who not only came out publicly at the age of 19 during the 1999 Australian Open (where she went on to make the final), but who also endured negative comments from other players in response.
The fact that she persevered against her (on-court) psychological struggles, to become world number 1 and then both Australian Open and Wimbledon Champion in 2006 is truly admirable.
See also: I have written previously about the large number of out female tennis players (link here) compared to the complete absence of any out male players. Of those women, one of my favourites is Casey Dellacqua, who came out in August last year, with the simple announcement that she and her partner Amanda had become parents.
5: Greg Louganis
Greg Louganis is the only person to feature on this list who was not openly LGBT during their sports career. And, while he may go down in history as one of the greatest divers of all time (winning two gold medals at both the Los Angeles and Seoul Olympics), that is not the reason I have included him here either.
He features because of his disclosure in 1995 that he was both gay and HIV-positive, having tested positive at the start of 1988. In doing so, he was confronted by, and helped to confront, the stigma and discrimination surrounding HIV, at a time when large numbers of people in the US, Australia and other Western countries were still dying from AIDS-related illness (noting of course that this continues to be true for much of the world today).
Louganis has since worked as an advocate for people living with HIV, as well as for the human rights of the LGBT community, thus demonstrating his champion abilities extended from the diving board to the real world.
See also: Australian Sydney Olympic silver medallist, trampolinist Ji Wallace, who announced he was gay in 2005, and HIV-positive in August 2012, and who has since become another advocate for people living with HIV.
4: Renee Richards
One of the true pioneers of LGBT sports, Renee Richards transitioned in 1975. She was subsequently denied entry to compete at the 1976 US Open Tennis championships. Richards contested this ban in the New York Supreme Court, which ruled in her favour, allowing her to compete at the 1977 US Open where, despite losing in first round singles, she made the women’s doubles final.
Richards continued to compete until 1981, rising as high as number 20 in the rakings (in February 1979). She may not have won a title, but in the period since she has won an enormous amount of respect for being a trailblazer for trans* participation in sports.
See also: Mianne Bagger, Danish born Australian resident, was the first trans* woman to play in a professional golf tournament at the Women’s Australian Open in 2004. She went on to qualify for and play on the European Women’s Golf Tour. Trans* Canadian athlete Michelle Dumaresq is another pioneer in this field, competing in the 2002, 2003 and 2004 World Mountain Biking Championships.
3: Louisa Wall
Wall made her international debut for the Silver Ferns in netball in 1988 at the age of just 17. Later, she went on to compete in international rugby union, coming out publicly as a lesbian prior to playing for the New Zealand team that won the women’s World Cup in 1998.
As if that wasn’t impressive enough, Wall entered Parliament in 2008, and it was her Private Member’s Bill which was eventually passed on 17 April 2013, making New Zealand the 13th country in the world to achieve marriage equality. That list of achievements is enough to make most people (this author included) feel pretty inadequate by comparison.
See also: While he never played internationally, another LGBT athlete to make the transition to politics is Brian Sims, who in 2001 became the only openly gay college football captain in NCAA history, and is now a Democratic member in the Pennsylvania State House of Representatives.
2: Ian Roberts
Looking back on it now, almost 20 years later, it is difficult to overstate the significance of Ian Roberts’ coming out – for so many people around the world (including for the author, who was 17, deeply in the closet and at a religious boarding school in Brisbane at the time).
The fact that someone who was one of the ‘hard men’ of rugby league, having played 9 State of Origin matches and 13 Tests for Australia, talked openly about being gay – and, importantly, who continued to play the game for another three years – was simply amazing.
At the time, it was also supposed to be a ‘game changer’, with Roberts opening the door for other gay or bisexual rugby league (and Australian rules) players to come out, too. In 2014, in Australia at least, none have followed in his footsteps, thus underscoring just how significant his original declaration was.
See also: While no other Australian top flight rugby league or Australian rules players have come out since Roberts retired, Welsh rugby union and rugby league dual captain (and British Lions captain to boot), Gareth Thomas came out as gay in 2009, prior to his rugby league international appearances.
1: Martina Navratilova
It is almost inevitable that the number one person on any list of LGBT athletes to admire will end up being Martina Navratilova. Yet, despite her ‘top ranking’ becoming almost a cliché, there is a reason why it is impossible to ignore the achievements of a tennis player who came out as a lesbian, aged 24, way back in 1981.
At the time, Navratilova had already won two Grand Slam singles titles and previously reached the top ranking. She would go on to win a further 16 Grand Slam singles titles (including every major at least twice, and Wimbledon nine times), 41 Grand Slam doubles titles (31 women’s, ten mixed), among 167 singles titles overall, and 177 doubles titles overall. Martina (her fame was such that many felt they were on first name basis) was also world number one for 332 weeks, second only in history to Steffi Graf.
The fact that she did so as an out and proud lesbian meant that Navratilova served as a powerful role model for countless young lesbians and gay men in the 1980s, especially when such role models were somewhat thin on the ground. And it should be remembered that she did so at great personal cost – at a time when tennis was moving from the early days of professionalism on its way to becoming a global money-making machine (for the top players at least), Navratilova’s declaration no doubt contributed to a massive loss of potential sponsorship income.
For all of these reasons, her on-court accomplishments, the fact that she was a powerful role model, and that, in coming out at 24 she knowingly sacrificed financial rewards to be true to herself, Martina Navratilova is the LGBT athlete I admire most.
See also: There is no ‘see also’, it’s just Martina.
Obviously, putting together any list like this is going to be somewhat subjective, and the athletes included above certainly reflect the fact that I am a tennis fan (with three of the 12 positions) and Australian (it’s highly likely that if I wasn’t, Belle Brockhoff and Ireen Wust would be swapped). There are also plenty of other athletes who would have made worthy entries – Alyson Annan, Natalie Cook and Rennae Stubbs among them.
I also make no apology for the fact that women make up two thirds of the list – it is undeniable that men have been lagging behind in terms of LGBT sports for some time (although there are hopeful signs, with people like Robbie Rogers, Jason Collins and Michael Sam, that they might finally be starting to catch up).
Finally, I acknowledge that I have not included any intersex athletes in this article. I have done so deliberately because, for the most part, the fact that these athletes have been intersex has been publicly revealed not because of the athlete’s own actions, but as a result of the compulsory ‘sex testing’ of those athletes (in many cases leading to disqualification and bans from their chosen sports). In such a situation, I do not believe it is my place to talk about their intersex status – that is up to them.
Postscript 24 March 2017:
I have now had the good fortune to meet one-third of the ‘top 12’ listed above:
-Martina Navratilova at the Montreal OutGames in 2006
-Ian Roberts at a number of events in Sydney in recent years, and
-Matthew Mitcham and Greg Louganis at Mardi Gras panels on sport and homophobia.
All have been lovely (thankfully – there is little worse than meeting an idol only to find them to be unpleasant individuals). Hopefully I have the opportunity to meet more athletes from the list in coming years.