For decades, many LGBTQ+ athletes were essentially forced to remain silent about their personal lives. Fortunately, in recent years a growing number of professional leagues and athletic institutions have made an effort to be more inclusive of those who identify as being LGBTQ+ (which, in case you're unfamiliar with the term, stands for "lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and + for asexual, pansexual, and other sexual orientations & gender identities).
This progress wouldn't have been possible without the help of prominent LGBTQ+ athletes who have chosen to speak up, show pride in who they are, and pave the way for others.
GLAAD — an organization that states that its mission is to "rewrite the script for LGBTQ acceptance"— describes this phenomenon as "the complex intersection of sports culture, homophobia, transphobia, and LGBTQ athletes has become a hot topic among sports fans and in sports media."
While there have been dozens of athletes over the past several decades who have stood up to declare that they don't identify as being heterosexual, some have gained more prominence than others due to factors such as career success, public speaking efforts, and engagement with the media.
7 LGBTQ+ Athletes Who Have Made An Impact
1. Megan Rapinoe
Megan Rapinoe, a professional soccer player in the National Women's Soccer League, has become one of the most prominent public figures in female sports. A captain of the U.S Women's National Soccer Team, Olympic gold medalist, and two-time World Cup winner, Rapinoe has also garnered praise for her openness about being a lesbian and her willingness to fight for LGBTQ+ rights.
Rapinoe has been out publicly since 2012. "I can't speak for other people, but for me, I feel like gone are the days that 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 have made."
2. CeCe Telfer
Cece Telfer became the first openly transgender woman to win a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship. When Telfer first entered collegiate track and field, she identified as male and played in the men's division. After coming out as transgender, Telfer subsequently competed in the women's division following a year of testosterone suppression treatments.
Telfner is now a regular speaker about transgender issues and inclusion. Her personal motto is "Be your authentic self."
3. Michael Sam
Michael Sam became the first openly gay man to get drafted by a National Football League (NFL) team when he was selected by the St. Louis Rams in 2014. An All-American defensive end at the University of Missouri, Sam came out following the conclusion of his collegiate career, declaring that he preferred to be open about his sexuality despite playing a sport with a history of homophobia.
After a brief professional career, Sam became an LGBTQ+ rights activist and motivational speaker. According to Sam, “There are people out there committing suicide because of their sexuality. I decided I was going to be a sword and shield for these people.”
In addition to Sam, Ryan Russell and Ryan O'Callaghan have come out following the end of their NFL careers. Russell is the first NFL player to identify as bisexual.
4. Abby Wambach
Abby Wambach retired from professional soccer in 2015 after an illustrious playing career. Wambach is widely considered to be among the best female soccer players of all time: she was named the 2012 FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year, and once held the record for most international goals among players of any gender.
Wambach won the FIFA World Cup in 2015 and gave several influential interviews in which she openly discussed her sexuality. She is now married to author Glennon Doyle.
Wambach told NPR that she "doesn't just want to be known as a soccer player." She is now a bestselling author and an activist for gender, racial, and sexual equality.
5. Jason Collins
Jason Collins was a player in the National Basketball Association (NBA) who came out in 2013 during an interview with Sports Illustrated. A year later, Collins became the first openly gay athlete to compete in any of the four main professional sports leagues in the US, which also includes Major League Baseball, the NFL, and the National Hockey League. Collins’ jersey rose to the top of NBA jersey sales in February 2014, with the NBA donating proceeds to the Matthew Shepard Foundation.
Collins has been quoted as saying, "I was certain that my world would fall apart if anyone knew. And yet when I acknowledged my sexuality, I felt whole for the first time."
6. Fallon Fox
Fallon Fox was the first transgender professional Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter, with a career record of 5-1.
Fox says that although she was born male, she struggled with her identity as early as age five or six. Like Cece Telfer, Fox's identity as a woman prompted debate as to whether a woman who was assigned male at birth should be able to compete in the women's division before ultimately gaining the right to fight.
She was inducted into the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame in 2014.
7. Orlando Cruz
Orlando Cruz is the first openly gay professional boxer in the sport's history. Cruz came out as gay in 2012 because, as he stated at the time, "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 as a professional career." Cruz noted that his manager, trainer, and sparring partners have not treated him any differently since coming out.
Today, Cruz says that when he steps into the ring and sees fans waving a rainbow Pride flag to cheer him on, "it’s very exciting and beautiful.”