For a long time being gay in sports was like being gay in the military. The unspoken rule was “don’t ask, don’t tell”, and ideally, pretend like you’re not gay so as to not raise any suspicions.
Even the most confident gay athletes in the 1980s, 1990s, and even the early 2000s, felt unsafe to come out. They feared being alienated from teammates or being ostracized in the locker room. Thankfully, a few openly gay athletes eventually had the courage to crack open the “closet door.”
Since that time, the floodgates have opened and new generations of LGBTQ+ pioneers in sports have emerged. Below, we profile inspiring gay athletes who deserve recognition for being forerunners within our community.
Billie Jean King – Coming Out in Women’s Pro Sports
If you’re a millennial, you’ve probably never heard of Billie Jean King. But if you ask your parents, her name will at least ring a bell.
She was one of the first athletes to be openly gay – though her coming out to the press wasn’t her choice.
She was “outed,” which means someone else shared her sexuality without her permission. It was not their truth to tell, but they did it anyway.
Billie’s career is a long and well-documented one. She played Tennis from the 1960s to the early 80s. During that time, she won almost 40 Grand Slam trophies, making her the Serena Williams of her time.
She was so good that she beat a man, Bobby Riggs, in a heavily televised match that the networks called “The Battle of the Sexes.” It was a bit like when Serena Williams won while being 4-months pregnant, but even more epic.
Someone leaked King’s sexuality to the press in 1981, and everyone around her told her to deny, deny, deny. But Billie refused. She knew that she had nothing to be ashamed of and that love is love.
So instead, she told her truth. She confirmed that she was a lesbian and gave credit to her mother for the bravery it took to be authentic. Her mother always said, “To thine own self be true,” and that’s what Billie did.
Jason Paul Collins – Coming Out in the NBA
Jason Paul Collins is a professional basketball player who played 13 seasons in the National Basketball Association (NBA). In May 2013, at the age of 34, he made headlines when he came out as gay in a feature story published in the magazine, Sports Illustrated.
This courageous decision made him one of the first American pro sports players to come out as gay—in any sport.
While many people applaud him as the first pro sports player to come out as gay, his timeline aligns closely with Robbie Rogers. Robbie was a U.S. men’s National Soccer Team player who came out as gay in early 2013. Regardless, Collins’ announcement was a heroic move and one of the first of its kind in a major American pro team sport.
Though he had the odds stacked against him as a black gay man, he didn’t let that stop him.
To Collins and those who loved him, labels don’t matter. He grew into one of the best centers to ever play in the NBA, representing the Houston Rockets, New Jersey Nets, Memphis Grizzlies, Minnesota Timberwolves, Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Washington Wizards and the Brooklyn Nets during his career.
While Jason didn’t set out to achieve the goal of being the “first openly gay athlete” in a major American team sport, he said he’s “happy to start the conversation.” He also admits it’s not always comfortable to be the one raising your hand and saying, “I’m different.”
Jason embraced his discomfort, played one more year in 2014, and is now retired after 13 successful NBA seasons.
In April 2014, Collins was rightly honored on the cover Time Magazine as one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World”.
My-King Johnson – Coming Out in NCAA Collegiate Football
Many people know they’re gay starting in childhood. It was no different for My-King (“King”) Johnson, who grew up in Tempe, Arizona.
King had known he was gay for a long time but didn’t let that stop him from committing himself to his true passion: football.
That’s not to say that he was never apprehensive about being open about his sexuality. In 2017 King was recruited by colleges to play football as a Defensive End. He first set his sights on UCLA, committing to the coach at signing day, but changed his mind after the University of Arizona coach made it clear that he’d be an ally to him.
The UA coach let him know that he wanted him on his team as a person and a football player, no matter what.
That’s how King became the first openly gay college football scholarship player in NCAA history.
Nothing sums up his journey better than a tweet that King wrote himself in February 2017, “I’m just here to play football.”
In 2019, Johnson was added to the NCAA portal, positioning him to play for a team that needs his talents more than the current Arizona lineup. With the current impact of COVID on sports, we don’t know yet if he’s reached a transfer decision.
Ryan Russell – Coming Out in the NFL
My-King Johnson was the first openly gay college player, and it’s possible his story could have inspired Ryan Russell, who came out two years later. Ryan is an American pro football player who has played for the Dallas Cowboys and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during his career.
In 2018, Russell suffered the death of a close friend and former teammate, Joseph Gilliam, and entered a severe bout of depression. Around that time, he moved to LA to begin writing and introspecting.
In August 2019, he came out as bisexual in an essay released by ESPN, saying the NFL allows “LGBTQ people to perform their jobs like everyone else.” He cited the need to live authentically, honestly, and without fear as motivators behind his decision.
He also publicly introduced his boyfriend at the time, Corey O’Brien, who is a dancer. According to Russell, the NFL just wants players to do their best on the field, no matter who they date.
Honoring Openly Gay Athletes
Some of these openly gay athletes judiciously picked their moment of truth. Others had it thrust upon them. Regardless of their paths, they each demonstrated enormous courage in the face of fear.
Plus, there will always be someone who doesn’t like something about you, whether you’re gay, straight, beyond or in-between. Thankfully, you can disregard their opinions. As the wise philosopher Seneca once wrote, “Be your own spectator; seek your own applause.”