The words “coming out” represent a nearly universal experience, and often a defining moment, for members of the LGBTQ+ community. For Coming Out Day on Oct. 11, ESPN spoke to 17 out athletes from around the world about their journeys.
Athletes from Argentina to Australia, America to Africa, and many other places between, shared details of their search for identity, why they came out publicly and how their lives have changed as a result.
What was the “coming out to myself” process like for you?
NHL prospect Luke Prokop: There was a lot of questioning, it took a lot of time. Seeing the growth that we’re making in the world, and the steps we’re taking, made it a little more comfortable for me. I just took a big leap of faith and had some confidence in myself. I came out to myself and then finally came out to my friends and family. It was tough hiding it. Being in hockey, the locker-room talk is very prevalent and something that I didn’t want to talk about. I kind of hid myself from that topic of conversation. Going through those four or five years were tough for me.
Olympic skateboarder Alana Smith: It was maybe the hardest — especially growing up in a household [with] such a lack of emotional availability. We didn’t really have conversations about anything, so I had to figure things out on my own. I was like, “Wow, I feel this way about everybody and I don’t know if it’s normal.” I started looking people up [online] and I realized that it [being bisexual] was OK. Also, being non-binary, that was a process of its own. I was like, “I don’t necessarily feel like I’m on one end or the other. Maybe, some days, I am feeling either way.” In-between fits me. It was definitely a battle, the process of figuring out me.
Footballer Collin Martin: As early as elementary school, I knew I liked guys. When you’re suppressing it so much, you become not super clear on how it’s going to be a reality in your life. So throughout middle school and high school, I was dealing with my sexuality as, “How am I going to make this work?” or more so, “How am I going to marry a woman and have kids and not allow this to be my reality?” Not only was I struggling around teammates, but I was going to church regularly and wondering how bad I was sinning everyday just being myself. There’s multiple layers. I was fortunate to have a very supportive family, but they didn’t know I was gay. It wasn’t until I left Wake Forest [University] that I really began to [come to terms] with my sexuality.
Rugby league legend Ian Roberts: I always knew [being gay] wasn’t embraced by the greater society so I kept it secret. I first came out to my parents in my early 20s. I didn’t have a good relationship with my family for five or six years after I came out, but my parents gradually came around. By the time my dad passed away [seven years ago] he was totally embracing of the LGBTIQ+ community. I’ll never forget: My dad was reading a paper and I sat at the table with my partner and my mum. We were talking about marriage equality [in Australia], [he put] his paper down and turned to us, saying, “Why shouldn’t you be allowed to marry the person you’re in love with?” He picked his paper up and started reading again. That was such a journey for my father to get to that point.
Did you have a specific reason for coming out to the media/public, rather than keeping your private life private?
Olympic diving great Greg Louganis: I was out in my early 20s, I was out to my friends and family, but not to members of the media. People in USA Diving knew about my sexual identity, because the diving team is a really small team and we’re travelling internationally. I came out at the Gay Games in 1994, welcoming the athletes and saying, “It’s great to be out and proud.” That was my public coming out. The reason why I came out then was that I was coming out with my book, “Breaking the Surface,” in 1995, so I had to start getting comfortable with talking about my sexual identity in interviews. I was [also] coming out with my HIV status, as well as an abusive relationship, depression and my learning difference. That was a stepping stone into a bigger picture of being able to talk about who I was as a whole person.
WNBA star Brittney Griner: That feeling of not being true to yourself, and looking in the mirror and not liking what you see, is a horrible feeling. I didn’t want anyone to feel like that. I never really had anyone to look up to that was, like, huge. … So I wanted to be someone to look up to. Everybody who reaches out to me, they tell me, “You helped me, you inspired me,” and I think that’s bigger than basketball, honestly. Bigger than a gold medal, any award. Knowing that you helped someone not feel down, or have horrible thoughts, because I’ve been there.
Endurance racing driver Charlie Martin: I felt it could do a lot of good. I felt that motorsport, especially such a male-dominated sport that doesn’t really have much visible diversity, is really lacking stories that could inspire and educate other people. Some people say, “Doesn’t it annoy you when you see you are ‘trans racing driver Charlie Martin’?” It doesn’t really, because the power of visibility is more important than me going, “Yeah it would be nice not be prefixed as trans.”
Olympic sprinter Dutee Chand: A year before it became public, I had confided in my mother and elder sister about my love for a girl and my desire to marry her. When relations between me and my sister got strained, she threatened to tell the media [details] about my same-sex relationship and, in her anger for me, went through with it. News stories were run about me in the local press, slowly it became national news, so I decided to speak up for myself.
Paralympian Katie-George Dunlevy: I don’t talk about it often because it’s [usually] not relevant, [but] as time goes on, I’m going, “Actually, if it does give hope to someone out there, then I should.” Also, I’m disabled and female, so I have three things: Women in sport, I’m disabled because I’m partially sighted, and I’m out too. I’m happy to talk about it. I’m not shouting from the rooftops, but I’m not hiding it like I did for so long.
Has coming out impact your career and opportunities at all?
Footballer Phuti Lekoloane: Yes, it had a negative impact on my soccer career. A lot of clubs shut doors in my face because of my sexuality. It has hit me very hard and it has taken a lot from me. The question was, “How are we going to accommodate you, because we don’t feel like our players will be comfortable sharing rooms and showers and going to camp with you.” Another time, the owner of the team told me that my sexuality was against the team’s beliefs, so it wouldn’t look good to have a gay soccer player in the team.
Griner: Before I went pro, I said if I have to change how I look, how I dress, then I don’t want it [being a pro]. If I’ve got to put on a bunch of makeup, or look extra girly, just to get an endorsement or be on someone’s commercial … they can have it. I’m not going to sell out myself for any dollar, or fame, or anything.
Basketballer Sebastian Vega: I experienced a drastic change, not from a technical standpoint, but in my confidence on the court. I really enjoyed all the things that were happening to me, which I previously didn’t because there were always roadblocks, things inside my head, ghosts that didn’t allow me to enjoy things. Many reporters, many teammates, and acquaintances told me, “Seba, you look different, you look so happy and great on the court.”
How has your sport changed with regard to the LGBTQ+ community during your career?
Footballer Merel van Dongen: We’re becoming more open about our relationships, we no longer think it’s something you should keep to yourself. In men’s football it would be great if that were to happen. When you look at football as a sport, women’s football could be an example of openness about who you are and who you love, as a great soccer player. In men’s football the opposite is true, you can’t be who you are. The men can learn from the women that it makes no difference who you are, you’re a professional.
Olympic volleyballer Douglas Souza: The LGBTQ+ community has always been very active, especially in women’s volleyball [in Brazil]. Everybody is always rooting for the national team, for the club leagues. I think what’s changed is that, with the growth of social media, there are thousands of groups talking about the players. Now we have more of a space to speak.
Olympic athlete Ramsey Angela: Maybe it’s weird, but I’ve only known about that [LGBTQ+ athletics] community since last summer. I knew it existed, but I never paid any attention. At least now I know what the letters mean, I’ve become more aware of it. Before we went to the Olympic Village we did a training camp in Shiba, near Tokyo. I woke up one morning and found I had a few thousand new [Instagram] followers, thanks to a post by Attitude magazine. I was like, “Huh? I love having more followers, but who are they?”
What is the most rewarding, and perhaps unexpected, part of being out?
Footballer Michelle Heyman: Receiving a letter from a young girl at a Canberra United game who was trying to come out to her mum and dad, and she wanted some advice. She asked me the questions of, “How did you come out? Do you think my mum and dad will hate me? Do you think they’ll love me still?” Then the following home game, her mum came up to me and shared the story of her [daughter’s] coming out, and they were very grateful to have the support [from me]. It was a really touching and beautiful moment to share with a fan and her parents.
Collin Martin: I had a friend that told me, “You could make a lot bigger of an impact. It’s great that you’re supported and I think you should tell people this. There’s not a lot of people like you … you gotta to come out.” And I know that sounds really simple, but you don’t think that way when it’s you. You don’t think that you’re going to have an impact on other people. It was something that kind of blew me away.
Chand: I can hold hands with my partner anywhere in public. Before I came out, we would stand on opposite ends of malls, parks, and streets. Now we travel together without fear of what people may say about us. The unexpected part has been the support I’ve received from people worldwide. My picture appeared on covers of big magazines, I was invited to a few top TV shows in India and the LGBTQ community has been welcoming of me.
Out athletes from a variety of sports share their stories on the most unexpected benefits of coming out.
What would your advice be to folks who are struggling with their identity?
Olympic figure skater Adam Rippon: Nobody cares. I know that feels crazy, but nobody really cares that much. That shouldn’t make you feel sad — it should make you feel liberated, because the only person that really cares about the way that you feel, and the way you interact with the whole world, is you, so focus on what you like and not how to appease other people. Just ask yourself really simple questions: What do I like? Do I like this? Do I want to wear this? Do I want to talk to this person? Am I attracted to this person? Just ask yourself the bare-bones questions and don’t make it any more complicated than it has to be.
Charlie Martin: If there’s not someone in your life you feel able to share your thoughts with, then therapy is a good thing to look at — having someone impartial that can help you find answers to your questions. Not everybody transitions — it’s sometimes about choosing to live as the identity they feel comfortable as. It can feel daunting, and it can feel like you have to make some major changes in your life. Taking some small steps initially, in terms of changing your name, pronouns, the way you dress, the way you style your hair. … Doing those little things is the best way to get started, and it’s a good way to see what feels comfortable for you without putting yourself under pressure.
Smith: One of the things that I’ve had to learn is that I’m forever going to grow as a human being and that rushing to labels isn’t necessary — it is such a hard, long, powerful process, it is OK to take your time. It is OK to express yourself and try different things. Try on the T-shirts until one fits. Don’t be so hard on yourself if you change, because it happens.
When debating coming out in your mind, what were your worst- and best-case scenarios? And did either come to pass?
Lekoloane: I was scared for my life because of the LGBTQ+ killings in the country. It’s an everyday thing. I’m even scared to go out — you never know when they’re coming for you. That’s the only thing that I’m scared of.
Chand: I had already fought a tough battle over the hyperandrogenism rule to earn the right to run again, and I didn’t want to throw that away. The best-case scenario was me competing at the Tokyo Olympics and not having to hide who I am anymore. My career hasn’t been hit by my coming out like I dreaded. I could race in Tokyo and come back to the person I love.
Roberts: I got one friend — I’ve known him since my teenage years, he’s my age, we grew up in the ’80s and ’90s clubbing together. He came out to his family in his 20s and they’ve never spoken to him since. I saw him three or four months ago and … it hit me in the face, like, “Oh my god that still happens, you’re my age, you’re 55 and your parents still aren’t talking to you.”
Did you ever feel any pressure to be a role model or an ambassador for the LGBTQ+ community? And is that something you embrace now?
Footballer Lola Gallardo: I feel very comfortable because I haven’t stopped being myself. When you aren’t playing a role, or when you aren’t forcing anything, it happens by itself. I haven’t had that kind of pressure, but I do like being a person who people can look at, and make their life a little bit easier. I’m really proud of my life story, and I wish everyone was.
Rippon: I’ve never felt pressure to be a role model because I don’t think that I am, but if I can do things that empower people, that’s great. I think the reason I got here is just because I learned to focus on things that felt really authentic to me. If there was something that I wanted to talk about, I would talk about it. If there was something that I felt wasn’t right, I would say so. If I really liked something someone did, I would go out of my way to make sure that they knew it. I would just try to empower people in that way. Throughout my sporting life and athletic career, I hope that’s something that people got from me. I hope that it’s inspired them, but I don’t truly know if I’m a role model.
Louganis: That was one thing I was a little concerned about when I came forward with my HIV status — that I would be the poster boy for HIV. That wasn’t something that I wanted, but in a sense I did give it a face and bring awareness to it. I thought that was a good thing. It’s not anything that I wanted — I didn’t want that kind of attention — but I learned that stepping into that can be really powerful and influential. When I work with kids, I encourage them to learn to be their own heroes. If we continue to bring that forward, then we will have lived a life to be proud of.
Reporting by: Lucas Benicio, Lucie Bertoldo, Kyle Bonagura, Bethan Clargo, Pablo Cormick, Lindsay du Plessis, Sjors Grol, Emily Kaplan, Alex Kirkland, Niamh Lewis, Kathleen McNamee, Susan Ninan, Jean Santos, Leonard Solms, Josh Weinfuss