Updated: Jan 25
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.