22 LGBTQ+ Athletes Who Are Speaking Out and Leading the Way – in Sports and Beyond
There is so much potential for sports to unite us – you can see it after a home run drops over the fence, or a last-minute goal hits the back of the net, or a marathon finish line is crossed – but the truth is that athletic institutions and communities have long fallen short when it comes to LGBTQ+ inclusion. Directly and indirectly, these institutions have often silenced LGBTQ+ athletes, forcing them to hide their identities in an environment that has often been closed-off and discriminatory.
We have a long way to go, but progress is being made. And it’s pretty clear who we have to thank for it: LGBTQ+ athletes who use their platforms to amplify the voices of their community. No one – including athletes, celebrities, and other public figures – is ever obligated to come out or be a spokesperson for the LGBTQ+ community, but for every LGBTQ+ athlete who does share their gender or sexuality, the sports world becomes that much more inclusive for those who follow. Here are 22 LGBTQ+ athletes who are doing just that, actively breaking down boundaries, leading by example, and showing their pride from the ring, field, court, skating rink, and beyond.
Megan Rapinoe is a captain on the US Women’s National Soccer Team, an Olympic gold medalist, and two-time World Cup winner. She plays professionally in the National Women’s Soccer League for the OL Reign in Tacoma, WA.
Rapinoe has been out publicly as gay since 2012, telling Out at the time, “I feel like sports in general are still homophobic, in the sense that not a lot of people are out. I feel everyone is really craving [for] people to come out. People want – they need – to see that there are people like me playing soccer for the good ol’ U.S. of A.” Since then, she’s been an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ+ rights as well as racial and gender equality, taking a leading role in the USWNT’s fight for equal pay.
Women athletes, she told NBC News in 2019, are often at the forefront of movements for change. “We’re gay, we’re women, we’re women of colour,” she said, underscoring the diversity across women’s sports. “We’re unfortunately constantly being oppressed in some sort of way. So I feel like us just being athletes, us just being at the pinnacle of our game is kind of a protest in a way and is sort of defiant in and of itself.”
Basketball star Sue Bird has won multiple championships in the NCAA, WNBA, and EuroLeague, and holds four Olympic gold medals to her name. Famously private, Bird went public with her sexuality in a 2017 ESPNW feature, saying, “I don’t feel like I’ve not lived my life. I think people have this assumption that if you’re not talking about it, you must be hiding it, like it’s this secret. That was never the case for me . . . It’s happening when it’s happening because that’s what feels right . . . It’s my journey.”
Bird has been dating Megan Rapinoe since 2016, and has said that Rapinoe showed her the importance of publicly sharing her sexuality. “Megan and I would have conversations about it, and she opened my eyes to another way of looking at it, which is that in today’s time, in today’s society, it’s still important to kind of say it to make it the norm,” she told the Seattle Times in 2018. That same year, Bird and Rapinoe became the first same-sex couple to appear in ESPN’s Body Issue.
Layshia Clarendon was the ninth overall pick in the 2013 WNBA draft and has since become an All-Star, a world champion, and the vice president of the WNBA Players’ Association. They are currently a free agent point guard (reportedly set to be signed by the Minnesota Lynx) and an advocate for intersectional social justice.
“So many of us have had to overcome being told to hide who we are by people we loved and respected,” she told Athletes For Hope in 2019, noting that LGBTQ+ people are at risk for “violence, harassment, and bullying. It’s still difficult to navigate workplaces, religious spaces, and to find community.” As queer, nonbinary Black person, Clarendon knows firsthand the why activists must prioritize intersectionality. “If we want to be activists, social justice oriented, good allies or even just good people, we MUST make sure we approach the work through an intersectional lens,” he said. “It’s why we have to show up for each other and especially for the folks who live on the margins of society.”
Billie Jean King
At 76, Billie Jean King is considered one of the greatest tennis players of all time, but is equally well-known for her work as an activist for gender equality and LGBTQ+ rights.
In 1981, King was publicly outed as a lesbian. The experience was “horrible,” King told NBC News in 2017, adding that her team urged her to deny her sexuality. King refused, saying, “I’m going to do it. I don’t care. This is important to me to tell the truth.” She said she didn’t fully feel comfortable with her sexuality until age 51, but added that if she could change anything about her experiences, it would only be this: “I’d come out earlier.”
Michael Sam was the first openly gay man drafted by an NFL team, called up by the St. Louis Rams in 2014 after a successful college career at the University of Missouri. He came out nationally several months beforehand, telling the New York Times, “I just want to make sure I could tell my story the way I want to tell it. I just want to own my truth.” Though Sam was ultimately cut from the Rams and left the sport in 2015, his public coming out left its mark on the league. According to Yahoo Sports, Sam now does public speaking engagements on college campuses.
Retired USWNT player Abby Wambach is recognised as one of the most successful soccer players in the world. Before her retirement in 2015, Wambach had scored the most international goals of any player, male or female, in history, though she’s since been passed for that title by Canadian Christine Sinclair.
After winning the 2015 World Cup, Wambach went to the stands to kiss her then-spouse, Sarah Huffman. Speaking to ESPN about the moment, Wambach said, “I wanted to share that moment with her because she knows all the ups and downs going on in my life as an older player, whether I was starting or not starting. I just wanted to share that moment with her.” Wambach added that she’s never been ashamed of her sexuality, though she hadn’t been very public about it before. “I am not going to scream it from the rooftops, but I sure want to share that moment with my better half.” She’s now married to author Glennon Doyle.
Gymnast Josh Dixon competed for Stanford and, after coming out in 2012, dreamt of becoming the first openly gay American Olympic gymnast. Though he fell short of his goal in 2012 and 2016, Dixon told Out that “coming out was necessary in accepting who I was,” allowing him to grow as a person and an athlete. “It was more or less a decision to be a role model and to say, ‘You know, it’s okay to be yourself, and to be yourself in the sporting world.'”
Ali Krieger is a defender on the USWNT and two-time World Cup winner, and plays professionally for the Orlando Pride. She married USWNT and Pride goalie Ashlyn Harris in December 2019 after being together for nine years, and the couple adopted a daughter in 2020.
Krieger and Harris didn’t confirm they were in a relationship until announcing their engagement, a decision Krieger said simply felt right. “Up until now, we were a bit hesitant, but that was more from a privacy perspective rather than a hiding perspective,” she told Her in January 2020. Their friends, family, and organizations knew the two were dating, but Krieger and Harris worried about the sponsorship consequences if they came out publicly. Eventually, she said, “it was like f*ck it, and if they don’t like us that’s their prerogative and that’s their loss. We just want to be our authentic selves, live our lives to the fullest and not feel that in this day and age we have to hide from being ourselves and being happy.”
Ashlyn Harris is a goalie for the Orlando Pride in the NWSL and on the USWNT, with whom she’s won two World Cups. Along with her spouse, Ali Krieger, Harris is an outspoken advocate for equality across the gender and sexuality spectrum.
Growing up, Harris explained to POPSUGAR in a previous interview, “I didn’t see people of my community, and it made me feel like I had to hide, and it made me feel that I couldn’t live my truth. I think, for us, that is something that Ali and I strive to do just to create the visibility aspect in our sport and in our life and show that we get happy endings, too.”
Football player Ryan Russell, who played for the Tampa Bay Buccanneers and the Dallas Cowboys, became the first openly bisexual NFL player when he came out in 2019.
“In nobody’s worlds should being careful mean not being yourself,” Russell wrote in an essay for ESPN. “The career you choose shouldn’t dictate the parts of yourself that you embrace.” He went on to address the NFL’s potential for embracing diverse sexualities, writing, “I can tell you from experience that as long as a teammate contributes to success on the field and in the locker room, NFL players aren’t concerned about who their defensive linemen date.” With all the problems facing the world and the NFL, Russell said, “I can say with confidence that LGBTQ players having the comfort to be themselves, date who they want, share parts of their life with friends and teammates will not rank among those issues.”
Professional runner Nikki Hiltz competed at the 2019 world championships and has a good chance of making the US Olympic team in 2021, a career trajectory they say was made possible by opening up about their sexuality. “When I decided to be who I am, a weight was lifted. I don’t think my breakthrough season was coincidental,” Hiltz told Women’s Running, referring to their senior season at the University of Arkansas, when they placed second in the 1500 meters at the NCAA outdoor championships. “I was holding back this part of me, hiding it and burying it. When you’re happy and holistic off the track, it’s going to translate on the track. That was that.”
Hiltz has since made their platform an authentic and positive one, though they’re not afraid to tell off trolls in the comment section. “I responded to a lot of them with funny comments because it made me feel better, but also to educate,” Hiltz said. “Part of me didn’t want to give these people an ounce of my energy, but it also open floodgates for positive messages.”
“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m Black. And I’m gay,” wrote Jason Collins in a 2013 edition of Sports Illustrated, becoming the first athlete in any of the four main professional sports leagues to publicly come out. “I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport,” Collins continued. “But since I am, I’m happy to start the conversation . . . If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand.”
Reflecting on his journey in 2018 with People, Collins said he “lived with a lot of stress, uncertainty, and a lot of anger,” while growing up. If he could, he’d tell his teenage self, “Everything’s going to be OK. Just know that it’s going to be OK.”
A year after winning a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics, British diver Tom Daley took to YouTube to share that he was dating a man. “I didn’t want my words to get twisted. I wanted to put an end to all the rumors, the speculation, and just say it,” he told viewers at the time. In the past, Daley has rejected putting a label on his sexuality, telling The Times in 2015, “My generation shouldn’t feel the need to be labelled; we are too obsessed by gender. I am not 100 percent straight, I’m not 100 percent gay, I’m just queer. My generation, I think, are more fluid.”
Daley has spoken out about anti-LGBTQ+ laws as well. After winning gold in the 2018 Commonwealth Games, the diver tweeted, “37 of the competing nations criminalise being LGBT+. I feel so lucky to be able to be openly who I am without worry. I hope one day every athlete from every nation in the commonwealth will be free to compete openly as who they are too!”
Soccer player Robbie Rogers played for the US Men’s National Team and professionally for Leeds United and the LA Galaxy. He came out as gay in a 2013 blog post and, after some time away from the sport, returned to become the first openly gay player in MLS.
“I realized just by playing and being on a soccer field, that’s a symbol right there, and that can encourage and give people hope,” he told Today in 2014. “I think when young kids can see Jason Collins and myself and Michael Sam, and Abby Wambach and Megan Rapinoe, and different athletes come out, it will definitely change and encourage younger gay men and women to play a sport.”
Olympian Orlando Cruz came out in 2012, making him the first openly gay professional boxer in the sport’s history. “I want to be true to myself. I want to try to be the best role model I can be for kids who might look into boxing as a sport and a professional career,” Cruz told Boxing Scene at the time. “I have and will always be a proud Puerto Rican. I have always been and always will be a proud gay man.”
In 2016, Cruz dedicated a win to the victims, family members, and survivors of the Pulse night club shooting, which occurred a month before and less than 20 miles away from the fight. “At first, I was sad [after the shooting],” Cruz said. “Second, angry . . . because they attacked my community.” He added, “I want people to be more friendly, that people accept the community of LGBT.”
Leo Baker is a seven-time X Games medalist, an Olympic hopeful, and the fifth-ranked street skateboarder in the world. As a trans and nonbinary skateboarder, Leo has become an advocate for LGBTQ+ people and other minorities in their sport.
“In skateboarding there are still a lot of people who are still pretty homophobic,” Leo said in a Nike video earlier this year. “Sometimes it’s just because they’re just like ignorant. They don’t know any better.” They’ve talked before about struggling to find sponsorships because they weren’t perceived as “feminine enough,” and the importance of creating safe and inclusive spaces for all skateboarders. Baker told POPSUGAR last year how much “resistance” they’d felt from the skate industry as a whole. “I just want people to recognize how pure and sweet it really is, to be accepted for exactly who you are.”
Fallon Fox, the first transgender professional MMA fighter, endured harsh criticism from the fighting community after coming out in 2013. She persevered nonetheless, fighting in six professional matches and being inducted into the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame in 2014.
“I never set out to do this, but I have to,” Fox told the New York Times in 2013. “I’ll stand here, for my community, because I have no choice.”
Freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy won a silver medal at the 2014 Olympics to go with his multiple X Games gold medals and world titles. He came out as gay in a 2015 cover story for ESPN The Magazine, saying, “I never got to be proud of what I did in Sochi because I felt so horrible about what I didn’t do. I didn’t want to come out as the silver medalist from Sochi. I wanted to come out as the best freeskier in the world.”
For most of his life, Kenworthy wrote on Facebook, he’d been “afraid to embrace that truth about myself. Recently though, I’ve gotten to the point where the pain of holding onto the lie is greater than the fear of letting go, and I’m very proud to finally be letting my guard down.”
Football player Esera Tuaolo played 10 seasons in the NFL. In 2002, two years after his retirement, he publicly came out as gay on HBO’s “Real Sports” and has since become an outspoken activist on anti-bullying and LGBTQ+ rights, founding a nonprofit organization called Hate Is Wrong.
“It was very difficult waking up every single morning and as soon as you walk through those doors to the locker room, you transform yourself into somebody that you’re not,” he said in 2019 on an episode of Talks at GS. He described coming out as difficult but “incredible,” opening up doors for him to pursue other passions like singing; Tuaolo even competed on The Voice in 2017.
Adam Rippon skated to an Olympic bronze medal in 2018, won the 2016 National Championships, and, after publicly coming out in a 2015 interview, became the first openly gay American to qualify for the Olympics. He’s been open about the bullying he experienced growing up, telling Today, “One time, I was in the fourth grade and somebody said, ‘Oh, because you skate, you’re gay.'” At the time, Rippon didn’t even know what the word meant, “but to me it felt like they were trying to insult me and I felt so exposed in front of all of my classmates and my peers. I felt embarrassed and I didn’t know why.”
He said his friends, family, and passion for skating helped him rise above the bullies, and after coming out, he said his performance on the ice improved remarkably. In a 2018 interview with InStyle, Rippon said, “It’s a really liberating experience to just be yourself.”
In 2018, Patricio Manuel became the first transgender boxer to compete in a professional fight (which he won). Manuel began his career as a female competitor in the early 2000s, seeing success on the amateur levels before making the decision to transition, despite the effect it might have on his career. Manuel told CNBC in 2019 that he lost his coach, gym, jobs, and some of his friends during the transition.
“Regardless of what your goals are, whether you are trans, whether you are an athlete or not, our dreams have big costs,” he said. “It all requires risk for us to find that reward.” He continued, “We only have one life to live. As cliché as that sounds, I really try to live my life having the least amount of regrets as possible.”
Ryan O’Callaghan, a retired NFL player who played for the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs, has been open about the effect that homophobia had on his mental health. He constructed a plan to play football as long as he could, then kill himself rather than live as who he was. “I was convinced from a young age that my family would never love me if they knew who I really was,” O’Callaghan said in 2019. A psychiatrist convinced him to come out to his family and friends, whose acceptance helped him find happiness.
“As long as there are people killing themselves because they are gay, there is a reason for people like me to share my story and try to help,” O’Callaghan told Out Sports in 2017. “It’s not always easy being honest, but I can tell you it’s much easier and more enjoyable being yourself and not living a lie.”
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