Updated 14 July 2019:
It is now five years since I posted this list, and it is time for a refresh.
On the positive side, it means I can include some LGBTI athletes who have emerged (or, more accurately, that I have become more conscious of) over that time. This includes Megan Rapinoe, lesbian star of the recent soccer World Cup and outspoken LGBT activist, unapologetically gay figure skater Adam Rippon, and Erin Phillips, Olympic basketball medallist and AFL Women’s dual best and fairest.
It also means I can include Caster Semenya, who obviously was already an Olympic champion prior to my original post, but is now both more readily identified as an intersex athlete and who has since married her female partner.
On the negative side, it means removing people for less pleasant reasons, including WNBA player Britney Griner who in 2015 pled guilty to disorderly conduct charges after an incident of domestic violence involving her then same-sex partner.
Most disappointingly, it means ‘cancelling’ the woman who was previously number one on this list – Martina Navratilova – after she made a series of unacceptable comments about trans women athletes earlier this year, including calling them ‘cheats’. While I continue to respect Martina for what she accomplished in tennis career, and her pioneering efforts as a lesbian athlete, I cannot look up to a transphobe as a role model.
So here it is, my reviewed and renewed list of 12 LGBTI athletes I admire most:
12: Megan Rapinoe
I respect Rapinoe not just for her achievements on the field – including two-time World Cup winner, Olympic gold medal winner and US National Team co-captain. Perhaps just as important has been her stance on social justice issues off the pitch, including being a prominent supporter of Colin Kaepernick and efforts to draw attention to racial inequality in the US, herself kneeling during the US national anthem in 2016. And it obviously helps that Rapinoe has publicly called out the divisiveness and prejudice of President Donald Trump.
See also: Abby Wambach, Michelle Heyman, Chloe Logarzo and Sam Kerr.
11: Billie Jean King
Billie Jean King as an athlete was not necessarily a lesbian role model, and in fact was outed against her will in a palimony lawsuit filed by a former partner in 1981 towards the end of her playing career. But she was a champion on the court, and especially as someone who fought hard – and successfully – for equal pay for women tennis players. After her career finished, and King finally came out as a lesbian on her own terms, she also made up for lost time as an outspoken advocate for LGBT equality, and in 2009 was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama for her work advocating for the rights of women and the LGBT community.
10: Michael Sam
So much was written about Michael Sam 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 then-boyfriend Vito Cammisano, broadcast live on ESPN to millions of Americans, was a beautiful moment (with added points for how much it seemed to piss off American homophobes). The fact he ultimately did not play in the NFL should not undermine the courage he showed – or the fact that he has made it easier for those that follow.
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: Erin Phillips
Phillips is an amazing athlete, and it is impossible to overstate her achievements in two very different sports. She has been a world champion and Olympic Games silver medallists with the Australian basketball team, as well as a two-time WNBA champion. Phillips has also been the most public representative of the AFL Women’s competition, winning two AFLW premierships, and two league best and fairests, in the first three years of competition. Plus, she had her own viral moment, kissing her wife Tracy Gahan, on winning the first of those awards – something that we are still waiting for on the men’s side.
8: Adam Rippon
Rippon’s sporting achievement perhaps do not match some of the other athletes on this list, although he did win a team figure skating bronze medal in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. However, I look up to him both for his perseverance – after missing out on both the 2010 and 2014 Olympics – and for his uncompromising ‘gayness’, both in his sport and in his public appearances. He is a role model that many can look up to for many years to come.
See also: Belle Brockhoff, Gus Kenworthy, Ireen Wust and Blake Skjellerup.
7: Matthew Mitcham
Another athlete to come out before their first Olympic Games – 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 then boyfriend, Lachlan Fletcher, in the stands – a forerunner to the Sam-Cammisano, and Phillips-Gahan, moments.
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
One of the most famous athletes to come out early in their careers 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 2013, 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 LGBTI during their sports career (although Billie Jean King was not out by choice). 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 challenge, 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 LGBTI 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. And obviously Hannah Mouncey, who has bravely fought for inclusion in the AFL Women’s competition (and has played in the VFLW).
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.
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 2019, in Australia at least, none have followed in his footsteps, thus underscoring just how significant his original declaration was. Although, on a positive note, just this year we did see Andy Brennan become the first out A-League soccer player.
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: Caster Semenya
Caster Semenya’s achievement on the track are beyond impressive:
- Olympic gold medal winner in the 800m in London 2012 and Rio 2016
- World champion in 2009, 2011 and 2017, as well as
- Double gold medallist (800m and 1500m) at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
The fact that she has achieved this despite near-constant speculation about her (intersex) variations of sex characteristics, and ongoing attempts by the International Association of Athletics Federations to change the rules in a targeted way to make her ineligible to compete is nothing short of amazing. I sincerely hope that Semenya is successful in her current appeals against the ban, and that one day we simply look back on how brilliant she was as an athlete.
See also: Indian sprinter Dutee Chand, who has also been affected by rules targeting female athletes with ‘hyperandrogenism’, and who has also confronted homophobia in her home country by announcing earlier this year she is in a same-sex relationship.