Despite a smattering of high-profile sports figures who’ve come out as gay, homophobia remains a major hurdle in athletics. The good news? The dial has finally started to move, and while change may be coming slowly, it’s irrefutably on its way.
Scroll down for a look at ten influential athletes who helped kickstart that change by having the courage to speak their truth in the face of personal and sometimes professional repercussions…
Martina Navratilova — 1981
ESPN credits the Czech tennis pro, who came out as bisexual in 1981, with having “expanded the dialogue on issues of gender and sexuality in sports.” “Martina was the first legitimate superstar who literally came out while she was a superstar,” Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women’s Sports Foundation, said. “She exploded the barrier by putting it on the table. She basically said this part of my life doesn’t have anything to do with me as a tennis player. Judge me for who I am.”
Justin Fashanu — 1990
Fashanu became the first and one of only two English professional footballers to be openly gay when he came out in the press in 1990. This was an unprecedented move at the time, and Fashanu faced intense backlash, especially from his family.
Justin’s brother, fellow pro footballer John Fashanu, was interviewed a week later under the headline John Fashanu: My Gay Brother is an outcast. He would later go so far as to claim Justin was only claiming to be gay for attention.
Justin committed suicide in 1998, and John has since expressed regret at how he handled things.
Matthew Mitcham — 2008
The out-and-proud Australian champion, who took home the gold for the 10m platform dive at the 2008 Olympics, is at ease with the spotlight his sexuality has sometimes put him in: “Until it is easy for sports people to come out without fear of persecution or fear of lost sponsorship income, or fear of being comfortable in the team environment, I don’t mind attention being brought to my sexuality in the hope that it might make other people feel more comfortable,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald.
Gareth Thomas — 2009
Thomas’s decision to come out publicly while still an active rugby player was seen as a brave move by LGBT rights advocates. Though others have since followed suit, Thomas hoped everyone would eventually consider his sexuality as unimportant. “What I choose to do when I close the door at home has nothing to do with what I have achieved in rugby,” he told The Guardian. “I’d love for it, in 10 years’ time, not to even be an issue in sport, and for people to say: ‘So what?’” We’d love it, too.
Orlando Cruz — 2012
Orlando Cruz, former Olympian and the World Boxing Federation’s number four ranked Featherweight, punched his way out of the closet in a big way, becoming the first openly gay man in boxing.
“I’ve been fighting for more than 24 years and as I continue my ascendant career, I want to be true to myself,” said Cruz. “I want to try to be the best role model I can be for kids who might look into boxing as a sport and a professional career. I have and will always be a proud Puerto Rican. I have always been and always will be a proud gay man.”
Megan Rapinoe — 2012
The 30-year-old U.S. Olympic soccer player came out as a lesbian essentially by saying she was never “in.” She’d just never been asked before. “I think they were trying to be respectful and that it’s my job to say, ‘I’m gay,’” she told Out. “Which I am. For the record: I am gay.”
“I feel like sports in general are still homophobic, in the sense that not a lot of people are out,” she added. “In female sports, if you’re gay, most likely your team knows it pretty quickly. It’s very open and widely supported. For males, it’s not that way at all. It’s sad.”
Jason Collins — 2013
“I wish I wasn’t the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, ‘I’m different,’” Collins wrote when he became the first openly gay athlete from a major American team sport. “If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand.”
Collins coming out was a game changer. “It starts with President Obama’s mentioning the 1969 Stonewall riots, which launched the gay rights movement, during his second inaugural address,” he added. “And it extends to the grade-school teacher who encourages her students to accept the things that make us different.”
Tom Daley — 2013
In a candid video he posted to his YouTube, Daley admitted he’s only been willing to talk about things with which he’s comfortable. But since he was in a serious relationship, having met and fallen for a guy, he took a figurative dive by publicly acknowledging his sexuality for the first time.
“Now I kind of feel ready to talk about my relationships,” he said. “Come spring this year, my life changed. Massively. When I met someone. And it made me feel so happy. So safe. And everything just feels so great. Well, that someone is a guy.”
What nobody saw coming at the time was that “someone” turning out to be Daley’s future husband Dustin Lance Black.
Michael Sam — 2013
Sam’s professional football career may not have taken off exactly as he’d hoped, but his coming out ahead of the 2014 NFL draft sparked a national discussion about homophobia in sports. Then there was that iconic shot on ESPN when he learned he’d been drafted by the St. Louis Rams. Michael, shedding tears of joy, shared a passionate kiss with then-boyfriend Vito Cammisano.
It was certainly a first for sports fans, but it won’t be a last.
Robbie Rogers — 2013
Robbie Rogers made headlines when he came out and promptly retired from the game of soccer. Then, a few months later he just as abruptly came out of retirement and became the first out male athlete to play in Major League Soccer and the first active player to compete with an American professional sports team.
“I seriously felt like a coward,” the player told USA Today. “These kids are standing up for themselves and changing the world, and I’m 25, I have a platform and a voice to be a role model. How much of a coward was I to not step up to the plate?”