Updated: Jan 25, 2021
While Hollywood has slowly become more accepting of the LGBTQ community, some people believe the world of sport still has work to do.
According to a Human Rights Campaign report from 2019, 70% of LGBTQ people do not come out to their teammates and coaches while playing a sport. Additionally, 82% of athletes have witnessed homophobic or transphobic language in their sport, according to the OutSport Survey.
Throughout history, however, there have been athletes who have proudly stood up for who they are — and who have been supported by their teammates and fans.
From the NBA to the NFL, here are 20 past and present athletes who have come out as LGBTQ.
Billie Jean King is one of the most famous names in professional tennis. Over the course of her career, she earned 39 Gram Slam titles from 1966 to 1975. She also beat Bobby Riggs in the famous "Battle of the Sexes" match. But in 1981, King was outed as a lesbian, and her publicists told her to deny the claim. "I said: 'I'm going to do it. I don't care. This is important to me to tell the truth.'" King told NBC News 44 years later. "The one thing my mother always said, 'To thine own self be true.'"
Renée Richards transitioned from male to female in the '70s, and in 1976, she applied to participate in the US Open. She refused to take the required Barr body test, which would test her blood to find out her sex. When she was rejected by the US Open, she sued the United States Tennis Association for gender discrimination and won.
Richards eventually retired from the sport in 1981 and has gone on to become an influential coach. Today, she refuses to be put in the spotlight as a trans activist.
"Years ago I was the pioneer, no question about it. They all quoted me and my court case," she told Sports Illustrated. "But I am not anymore."
In 2014, Michael Sam came out as gay in an interview with ESPN and made history that same year. He was drafted by the St. Louis Rams, becoming the first openly gay man to ever be drafted into the NFL.
"Since February and my big announcement, this has been a whole [lot of] speculation of the first openly gay football player, but you know what? It's not about that. It's about playing football," Sam said in a press conference shortly after being drafted.
Unfortunately, Sam was let go from the team, and in 2015, he announced he was leaving the sport for good.
Ryan Russell played for the Dallas Cowboys and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a defensive end, and now he is a free agent. But in 2019, he made headlines when he announced he is bisexual in an essay on ESPN.
"Let that sink into your brain: Even though openly LGBTQ people are thriving in every area of public life — politics, entertainment, the top corporations in America — they are so invisible in pro sports that a gossip blogger is doing a favor for a bisexual football player by not disclosing that he happens to date men," Russell wrote in the essay. "Nobody should need a favor to live honestly. In nobody's world should being careful mean not being yourself. The career you choose shouldn't dictate the parts of yourself that you embrace."
Ryan O'Callaghan played six seasons in the NFL for the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs. He retired in 2011, which is when he had suicidal thoughts and became addicted to painkillers because he was closeted, he said.
"My whole plan was to play football and kill myself," he told NBC News. "I was convinced from a young age that my family would never love me if they knew who I really was. The things you hear as a child—every time you hear someone say 'f----t' or talk bad about a gay guy, or see something on TV and make fun of that. If you have a closeted kid, he hears every one of those times you say something. It sticks with him. This was 25 years ago. Most of the things they said were out of ignorance, not hate."
A psychologist convinced the athlete to come out to his family instead, and when he was accepted with open arms, he came out publicly in 2017.
Soccer star Megan Rapinoe is openly gay.
Megan Rapinoe. Getty Images/Molly Darlington
In 2019, the women's US national soccer team won the FIFA Women's World Cup, but it seemed all eyes were on the team's star player and captain: Megan Rapinoe. The athlete quickly made a name for herself in a series of TV interviews, where she voiced her support of women's rights and LGBTQ rights as an openly gay woman.
"I think female athletes, in general, are at the forefront of every protest in general because we're gay, we're women, we're women of color, we're sort of everything all at one time," Rapinoe told NBC news. "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."
Robbie Rogers was the first openly gay soccer player in a professional league.
Robbie Rogers. Michael Tran/ Getty
Robbie Rogers played soccer in England until 2013 when he announced he was gay and leaving the sport. He later told The Guardian that he left the sport after coming out because he didn't want the media attention and scrutiny.
"I'd just want to be a footballer," Rogers said. "I wouldn't want to deal with the circus. Are people coming to see you because you're gay? Would I want to do interviews every day, where people are asking: 'So you're taking showers with guys – how's that?'"
But a few months later, he joined the Los Angeles Galaxy team and became the first openly gay man to play in a major US professional league.
Jason Paul Collins was the NBA's first openly gay player. Jason Paul Collins. Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesIn 2013, Jason Paul Collins made history when he became the first person to openly come out in any of the four major professional sports. When he was a Washington Wizards center, he broke the news in an article in Sports Illustrated, writing, "I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay." "I didn't set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. But since I am, I'm happy to start the conversation," he said. "I wish I wasn't the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, 'I'm different.' If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I'm raising my hand." The following year, Collins retired from the NBA after 13 seasons in the league.
Sheryl Swoopes was an openly gay woman in the WNBA.
Sheryl Swoopes in 2008. Elaine Thompson/ AP
Sheryl Swoopes was one of the first women to be drafted into the WNBA, and she has three Olympic gold medals. More notably, some refer to her as the Michael Jordan of the WNBA. In 2005, she came out as gay.
"I was at a point in my life where I am just tired of having to pretend to be somebody I am not," Swoopes told The New York Times. "I was basically living a lie. For the last seven, eight years, I was waiting to exhale."
Swoopes retired from the sport in 2011.
Patricio Manuel became the first openly transgender professional boxer.
Patricio Manuel. HBOBoxing/ YouTube
Patricio Manuel started boxing professionally as a woman in the early 2000s and made a name for himself, becoming a USA National Amateur Boxing Champion. When he eventually transitioned and came out as trans, he lost his coach and his gym in the process.
"It hurt a lot … gyms are our safe space," Manuel told The Guardian. "To have someone basically say you can be here, but no one can know you're here, I don't live my life like that. I will never compromise who I am to make someone feel comfortable."
In 2018, however, Manuel fought Hugo Aguilar in a professional match, and he won, becoming the first openly transgender boxer in the US.
Meanwhile, Orlando Cruz became the first openly gay man in boxing.
Orlando Cruz. Alex Menendez/ Getty
In 2012, Orlando Cruz, a professional boxer from Puerto Rico, announced he was gay. At the time, he said, "I have always been and always will be a proud gay man."
"I don't want to hide any of my identities," he told ESPN. "I want people to look at me for the human being that I am. I am a professional sportsman that always brings his best to the ring. I want for people to continue to see me for my boxing skills, my character, my sportsmanship. But I also want kids who suffer from bullying to know that you can be whoever you want to be in life, including a professional boxer, that anything is possible and that who you are or whom you love should not be impediment to achieving anything in life."
In 2016, he dedicated a match to the victims of the gay nightclub shooting at Pulse in Orlando, Florida.
Fallon Fox is the first and only openly transgender professional MMA fighter.
Fallon Fox. Cindy Ord/ Getty
In 2013, Fallon Fox came out in a series of interviews for Sports Illustrated and Outsports, becoming the first transgender woman in MMA fighting history. But her coming out did not go well. Instead, it sparked widespread criticism and controversy, leaving many to question if she should be allowed to fight cis women.
"It took me about a year to understand and to feel the support from the transgender community," Fox told The Guardian. "Because heck, they're scared. Some of them support me, but they're scared of showing up at my fights because of this. But I did have a fight where people came to support me and that's all I needed. I needed to know for certain that I had someone I was fighting for besides myself."
Glenn Burke is often credited with being the first gay man in the MLB.
Glenn Burke. AP
Glenn Burke joined the MLB in 1977 with the Los Angeles Dodgers. While playing, everyone on the team knew Burke was gay, but the general public did not. In 1980, Burke left the game and moved to San Francisco. He came out publicly in 1982, and in 1995, he died of AIDS at 45 years old.
Following Burke, Billy Bean is one of the first to publicly come out as gay in the MLB. Billy Bean. Cindy Ord/ GettyOver the course of his MLB career, Billy Bean played for the Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Dodgers, and San Diego Padres, but in 1995 he left the game because he could not live with his secret anymore. In 1999, he finally came out as gay. Today, he's now the Ambassador for Inclusion at the MLB, which allows him to speak to each team in the league about the importance of inclusion and acceptance. "I feel rewarded in those moments that we're creating an environment where it's not sinister," Bean told Cleveland.com. "I think the fact that we're having this conversation means we're getting close. These conversations, I feel like we should've taken care of a long time ago. But it's happening."
David Denson was the first active baseball player to be openly gay.
David Denson. Timber Rattlers/ YouTube
David Denson was playing for the Milwaukee Brewers when he came out as gay in an interview in 2015. He became the first person to be openly gay while playing in the league.
"I think I opened the door. I showed just because I'm gay doesn't make me any different or less of a person," Denson told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "If there are others who want to come out, hopefully, they have my story to fall back on and see it's OK."
Denson announced he was retiring from baseball in 2017 and told the media it had nothing to do with coming out.
Gus Kenworthy is an Olympic skier, and he came out as gay on social media. Gus Kenworthy. Quinn Rooney/Getty ImagesIn 2014, Gus Kenworthy won the silver medal at the 2014 Sochi Olympic games for skiing. Just a year later, the freeskier made headlines again when he came out. He tweeted a picture of himself on the cover of ESPN magazine with the words, "I am gay." "Wow, it feels good to write those words," Kenworthy said on Facebook at the time. "For most of my life, I've 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."
Caitlyn Jenner came out as transgender almost 40 years after winning gold at the Olympics.
Caitlyn Jenner. Getty Images
At the 1976 Olympic Games, Caitlyn Jenner won a gold medal and set a world record, skyrocketing her to fame. Through the decades, she stayed in the public eye with the help of endorsements, and eventually, she starred alongside her family in the reality show "Keeping Up with the Kardashians." She made headlines in 2015 when she announced she was in the process of transitioning and shared her name, Caitlyn.
"My life is so simple," Jenner told Variety. "It's just to be myself all day. I think people think when you transition, it is this tremendous thing, and now you're a totally different person. I'm still the same person. Caitlyn lived inside me all my life."
Johnny Weir is an Olympic figure skater, and he's openly gay.
Johnny Weir. Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
Johnny Weir is considered a superstar in the world of figure skating. He first made a name for himself on the international field at the Olympic games in 2006 and 2010. Since then, Weir crossed into mainstream media, appearing in his own reality show called "Be Good Johnny Weir" and hosting several lifestyle talk show segments. In 2011, he published his memoir in which he came out as gay.
"I wear my sexuality the same as I wear my sex or my skin color. It is something that simply is and something I was born into," Weir tweeted in 2018. "I was extremely lucky to grow up in a family/community of acceptance and perhaps that's why I don't see my sexuality as something that needs addressing. I am forever indebted however, to the warriors who came before me that allow me to lead the life I do so openly."
Adam Rippon, a figure skater, was the first openly gay American to qualify for the Olympics. Adam Rippon. Getty ImagesIn 2015, Adam Rippon came out in an interview for Skating magazine, so when he qualified for the 2018 winter Olympics, he made history. He became the first openly gay American to go to the Games. "One time, I was in the fourth grade and somebody said, 'Oh, because you skate, you're gay,'" Rippon told Today. "And I didn't even know what that 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 and I didn't even know what being gay really meant. But I also remember feeling badly for them. I remember being grateful that I got to do something that I really liked every single day."
Greg Louganis was an accomplished Olympic diver and is an out gay man.
Greg Louganis. Gabriel Olsen/ Getty
Greg Louganis won four gold medals and one silver medal at three Olympic Games from 1976 to 1988 as a diver, but it wasn't until 1994 that he came out as gay. The following year, the diver announced he was also living with AIDS.
"Things are different now," Louganis told ESPN. "I think we've come to a place of acknowledging bullying and recognizing the importance of standing up for your fellow teammate. I think there is less of that. There is much more sensitivity, and people are much more open. Just look at how many athletes have come out now."