Without question, gay visibility is at an all-time high. From movies and mainstream television to historic legislation and unprecedented progress during Barack Obama’s terms in office, we’ve come further than many in the community ever imagined. But one area that remains somewhat immune to this visibility and progress is the world of professional sports. There’s currently no active openly gay player in Major League Baseball. Homophobia is still prevalent in locker rooms and on courts and fields around the world. And many players worry about losing their status if they disclose their sexual orientation, a topic the Chicago Tribune explored in-depth earlier this year.
Despite the lack of forward movement in the sports world, there’s a handful of athletes who’ve weathered the storm and pushed for more inclusiveness.
By all accounts, Brian Anderson is a skateboarding legend. He went pro in 1998, was named Thrasher magazine’s Skater of the Year, and even launched his own signature shoe in 2013. But he did all of this while hiding his sexuality. After almost 20 years at the forefront of his sport, he came out. “Life’s too short to hold this stuff in,” he told the New York Times in late 2016. Since then, his decision to come out has been profiled extensively in a VICE sports documentary. And in June, he launched his first zine, Cave Homo.
Gus Kenworthy currently has tongues wagging thanks to his nude editorial in this year’s installment of the ESPN Magazine Body Issue. But it’s not just his physique that has people talking. When he came out in 2015, he was the first Olympic skier to do so. He continues to break down barriers with his award-winning performances. He took home two silver medals at last year’s X Games.
Some argue that Michael Sam isn’t as much of a pioneer as he once seemed. He became the first openly gay NFL player when he was drafted in 2014. But his career was short-lived. He retired in 2015 citing mental health concerns. Fortunately for us, his story didn’t stop there. He became a motivational speaker, sharing his difficulty in the pro sports world with everyone who will listen. “I’m still baffled. I thought it would be a story for two weeks and then it would go away,” Sam said of his sexuality during a February speech in Albany. Hopefully, his openness will help change the climate in the NFL and encourage other talented players to be their authentic selves.
No player knows homophobia in sports like Robbie Rogers. The openly gay Major League Soccer player hasn’t shied away from confronting close-minded players. Last August, he called out an opponent for using a gay slur during practice. That event was further investigated by MLS. Since coming out in 2013, he has openly discussed his sexuality and kept it front and center in his narrative. He released the book Coming Out to Play in 2014 and traveled the talk show circuit to share his experience. He’s one of the most revered soccer players in the league with 18 Gold Cup and World Cup appearances under his belt.
Like Michael Sam, Jason Collins’ stint as an openly gay athlete didn’t last long. After coming out in a highly-publicized Sports Illustrated article, and becoming the first man to do so in professional sports, he retired. His announcement came just 18 months after coming out and only 9 months after signing with the Brooklyn Nets. Though his coming out story inspired support from fellow players, some analysts, commentators, and other athletes were less accepting. Even after retiring from the league, Collins has continued to speak out about homophobia in basketball. He recently called out former NBA forward Amar’e Stoudemire for making homophobic comments in an interview. Collins may not be actively playing now but he paved the way for others to break into the NBA.
Australian Olympic swimmer Ian Thorpe has spent his life in the spotlight. He became the youngest pro swimmer to represent Australia at age 14. And he continued competing on the international stage through 2004. But his achievements seem to pale in comparison to his coming out story. Thorpe came out in 2013, and he used his story to shine a light on bullying as well as the difficulty of coming out in religiously conservative families. In 2016, he also got involved with Safe Schools, an anti-bullying initiative.
Though the MLB doesn’t have an openly gay player, David Denson helped Minor League Baseball achieve that milestone. He was first baseman and outfielder for The Milwaukee Brewers before moving on to the Helena Brewers (Pioneer League). He came out via the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel while playing for Helena. But, like other out athletes, he retired from the sport early. “My baseball journey has come to an end,” he wrote on his Facebook page in March. Denson hinted that he wants to stay connected with the sport in his retirement and he’ll “continue to push forward”.