At the start of the 2016 Summer Olympics, I wrote about the record number of out LGBT athletes competing in Rio for ThinkProgress.org. It’s an incredibly historic mark and one worthy of news coverage. Yet, some people on social media, Twitter in particular, questioned its importance and relevancy.
Yes, the record number of out LGBT athletes competing matters. It’s a big, big deal. But, apparently the reason why it is important and relevant to the sports conversation, specifically the Olympics, needs to be explained.
Please, allow me.
I was never going to be a professional athlete. But I loved sports—both as a fan and as a competitor. I lived, ate and breathed basketball. Yet, I was consumed with the anxiety that one of my teammates would find out I was gay and I’d have to quit the team. Or worse, I’d be kicked off the team. These weren’t outlandish fears or paranoid delusions—they were very, very realistic. And I was only in high school.
For decades upon decades, LGBT athletes struggled in suffocating silence. Locker rooms were not welcoming or safe spaces. They were large, enclosed closets, overflowing with anxiety, fear and shame. To be out of the closet was out of the question. It meant losing sponsors, fans, friends, teammates, family, and in some cases, even a roster spot. It meant loss of livelihood and the ability to compete. It meant ridicule and embarrassment. It meant sacrificing a part of yourself in order to play the sport you loved so deeply.
Imagine, for a brief moment, having to perform at the highest level of competition as an Olympic and/or professional athlete while carrying the burden, stress and heaviness of being in the closet. Imagine trying to bond with teammates without ever letting them know the “real” you. Imagine having to lie about relationships while others speak openly about theirs. Imagine hearing homophobic slurs from fans, coaches, teammates and opponents alike on a regular basis.
After you get a clear picture of how all of that looks and feels, imagine living it day in and day out in real life.
Sure, there are a lot of out LGBT athletes. But there are just as many that remain closeted. According to the first and largest international study on homophobia in sports conducted by OutOnTheFields.com, only one percent of LGBT individuals believe there is full acceptance of LGBT athletes in sports cultures. One percent. And 84 percent said homophobic jokes and “humor” occur all of the time.
It has already happened at the Olympics. During the women’s soccer matches last Wednesday, homophobic slurs were directed at a variety of players and coaches from the U.S., Australia and Canada—six of whom identity as lesbian.
“What does that say to players who are struggling to come out?” Megan Rapinoe of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team asked after the match.
It says a lot.
When 80 percent of LGBT individuals say they have experienced or witness homophobia in sports, even in 2016, then it’s not only important and relevant to mention LGBT athletes, it’s unequivocally necessary. These athletes who are out and open are not only free to be themselves as athletes but more importantly, as human beings.
My hope is that one day in the near future, all LGBT athletes will feel empowered to do the same. That is the end game. That is the final result.
I have no doubt that there will come a time when we can look around, shrug and smile, and genuinely say, “who cares who’s gay or straight,” because it truly won’t matter. But until that day arrives, it still matters. As long as homophobia and discrimination exists, it matters. As long active NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB players remain closeted, it matters.
And as long as future generations of LGBT athletes need positive role models to be reassured that they deserve a spot on the court or field regardless of their sexual orientation, it matters.