And the honorees are...

Meet the brave sports heroes of 2020 changing the world for the better

[tps_header] The sports world has the ability to move us in more than one way: By great performances that inspire and by the way in which athletes use platforms created by their performances for the common good. Probably the best-known example of this today is Colin Kaepernick, the former quarterback whose decision to take a knee during the national anthem got him a de facto ban from the NFL but earned him a national anti-racist and anti-violence platform that is only gaining steam. Queer athletes have been using their platforms for years to boost the fight for visibility and equality. Think of Renée Richards, the trans pro tennis player who came out way back in the ’70s. Think of the tennis greats Martina Navratilova and Billy Jean King who came out shortly thereafter, and remain forces for good to this day. Then there’s former NFLer Dave Kopay who came out in 1975, just a few years after the first pride marches. In the ’80s Glenn Burke, the young black baseball star, talked about being forced out of the game simply for being honest about who he is. The list of athletes who did the right thing goes on and on to this day, despite the fact that there have never been openly gay players in the four major American pro leagues, a lasting shame. But there is reason for hope. A new generation of athletes are coming out as early as high school and college. For a world thirsting for representation and for a message of equality in a difficult time of violence and protest, these five athletes and ex-athletes have managed to impress both for their athletic prowess and for their courage in speaking up on issues ranging from Black Lives Matter to queer erasure in pro sports–despite the dangers that might entail in 2020 America. [/tps_header]

1. Layshia Clarendon

If any single person makes us optimistic about the future of equality it’s the remarkable Layshia Clarendon. The point guard for the New York Liberty of the WNBA is not just a star on the court, where she has dominated since leading the UC Berkeley Bears to 28–2 record in 2013, earning the team’s first Final Four birth. (The Bears lost in the national semifinals to Louisville.) Unlike many athletes who mysteriously lose their voice after signing fat contracts, Clarendon (selected number 8 in the 2013 draft by the Indiana Fever) only amplified hers, challenging her employers in a way that Colin Kaepernick would approve. The African-American lesbian spoke out when she feared that the franchise’s management was closeting LGBTQ fans under the rubric “Diversity Night” during pride month when in fact pride is a more confrontational statement about equality. The WNBA has become more open in its embrace of queer fans and players since Clarendon raised her voice, at one point employing the league’s Twitter account to send messages of support to Mili Hernandez, an eight-year-old banned from a soccer game because her gender non-conforming haircut made a few parents uncomfortable. The 28-year-old, who married Jessica Dolan in 2017, has turned her eloquent voice to supporting Black Lives Matter protests. That voice, at the intersection of female, queer and black, has never been more necessary this pride month. Asked what pride means to her, Leyshia told Athletes for Hope:
So many of us have had to overcome being told to hide who we are by people we loved and respected. It’s not all rainbows and sunshine. Being a queer person still puts you at risk for violence, harassment, and bullying. It’s still difficult to navigate workplaces, religious spaces, and to find community. As a queer black woman, I live at the intersections of being a woman, being black and being gay. In society, we haven’t done a good job of integrating our fight for social justice to include the people who fall into multiple categories of marginalization. We have seen the queer community as a whole not stand up for issues affecting the black community and we have seen the black community not embrace their queer peers. I often ask myself, where do I fall in all of this? What side do I choose when both are at odds? Do I decide to just be queer today and black tomorrow?

2. Kaitlyn Long

Kaitlyn Long came out as bisexual in an interview with Outsports last year while starring in track and field at the University of Minnesota. Not even a year later, she has dedicated herself to support the daily protest in Minneapolis after the murder of George Floyd. Queerty caught up with the 22-year-old for an update.
What are you up to these days?
I currently live in a suburb of Saint Paul. I graduated last spring and have been working for Wells Fargo as a research analyst. I had already been thinking about going back to school to further my education. In light of the murder of George Floyd, I feel more passionate than ever about going back to school to further my psychology education.
What was your initial reaction when you learned of the killing? I don’t think there are words to describe the emotions I felt when I heard about the murder. I was incredibly sad, angry, and heartbroken. I felt hopeless and it was very hard for me to function and go back to normal day to day activities.
What actions are you taking? I have been focused on trying to educate people on the meaning behind the protests. Although the protests started in response to the murder of George Floyd, I think it’s important that people know why we are protesting. The fight for equality is not a new fight at all. But with newer resources like cellphones and social media, I’m helping share information, pictures, and videos, all of which inspire people to take action. I am also raising donations to buy supplies for families in need and for people involved in protesting. What do you think of the threat to call in the military to cities like Minneapolis? We are protesting peacefully, so to bring in more weapons and military personnel is not only unnecessary, but it is also triggering to many people. Why is it important for athletes to speak out? As athletes, we have a platform, and it is important to use our platform to speak out for what’s right. It’s very important to me that I speak out against the injustices that the Black community faces on a daily basis. I want people to understand that being Black in America is not easy and that our struggles are real and we need to start making real changes. These protests are taking place during the 50th anniversary of the first pride march, which at the time was more protest than celebration. It’s great to see it all come full circle. What started pride was actually [the Stonewall] riots against police brutality in the community, which was started by Black trans women. It feels like history, in a way, is repeating itself and I hope that we can come together to enact real change again. Any other thoughts?
I want to encourage anyone who might be reading this to be vocal and use your platform to work toward making real changes. Educate yourself on the issues and find ways to get involved and how to support your communities. Change happens when people come together as a united front.

3. Justin Rabon

Justin Rabon loves telling the story about coming out to his best friend, Brad Neumann, via text while in college, thinking his friend was not gay. Before long, the two were dating. The couple transferred to the University of Minnesota, where they starred on the track team together. The two are together to this day, working overtime to support the daily protests in Minneapolis. We caught up with Justin about the state of Black lives matter in the Twin Cities. What are you up to now? I work at Insight Global, but thankfully they’ve allowed me to take off as much time as I need to personally heal and do whatever is necessary. I can’t thank them enough for this. For the community, I’m helping with drop-offs of for people in the areas that were most affected by the protests. Brad and I raised around $7,000 in the last 36 hours to do our part. In addition to that, I’m working on simply educating those around me on the reason why we as a community are fighting so hard. What was your initial reaction to the murder? Fear and a sense of hopelessness. For the first few days, I shut down, tried to drown everything out, and eventually that led to a breakdown. I couldn’t get out of bed because I was stricken with sadness and fear. How did that lead to your involvement in supporting the protests? My role is to educate people on why we protest, how to protest, and how to support the protest in a revolutionary time. I’ve had previous bad experiences in the past with protesting myself, so I haven’t gone to as many protests as I would’ve liked, but I’m trying to make up for it in other ways through donations, supply organization and drops-offs, and volunteer work. I am still attending protests, but in the beginning, I was too scared to do so being a black man. What do you think of the threat to call in the military to cities like Minneapolis? Simply put, I hate it. More military/police is more violence and danger to our community and the members of it who are trying to heal through protest.  These protests are peaceful–until they show up. Why is it important for athletes to speak out? It’s important for EVERYONE to speak out, but for someone like myself, I feel an extra personal obligation to utilize my platform and voice in order to educate people. Silence is violence! What does this all say about the November election? I pray and pray that this momentum carries forward. With how things are looking now, I think this gives SO much more ambition and fight to vote out 45. This is taking place in pride month, the 50th anniversary of the first march, which was more protest than celebration at the time. Seeing that connection is absolutely wonderful. While it should not have taken 50 years for a revolution like this to take place, I still couldn’t be more proud. Trans women of color began that movement for the first march, and I just want to make them proud following in their footsteps with all that this country is doing to end systemic racism and police brutality. Any other thoughts you’d like to share? I want to send a resounding thank you to all of those around me constantly fighting and uplifting the community with protests, organizing, and just plain love. My friends, family, and peers have checked in with me periodically for this past week, and those check-ins are what gave me the strength to get back up and begin fighting, especially at a time when my life felt worthless. Thank you to everyone. #MyLifeMatters #BlackLivesMatter

 4. Patty Sheehan

It is fair to say that Patty Sheehan is among the best golfers in history. She joined the LPGA Tour in 1980, quickly racking up six major championships and 35 victories. She is a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. Yet, much like Layshia Clarendon, Sheehan’s greatest accomplishment, at least in our book, is the way in which she has used her platform to embrace great causes. From funding women’s charities via her celebrity golf tournaments to serving on the Orlando city commission, where she is the first lesbian elected and in her sixth term, she is the very model of star athlete turned successful advocate, a pivot few have managed with such aplomb. In conservative Florida, Sheehan, who is raising two kids with her partner, Rebecca Gaston, led the way to passing non-discrimination protections and domestic partnership legislation years before marriage equality was handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2017, Sheehan unveiled a memorial to honor the 49 victims of the June 2016 Orlando Pulse nightclub terror attack, a labyrinth at Colonialtown Square Park. The rainbow heart at the center of bricks featuring the names of each victim. It was only last year that we learned the deep personal wounds that drive Sheehan’s passion for justice. In an interview with Truth Wins Out, Sheehan describes becoming incensed when she learned that an Orlando-based “ex-gay” conversion ministry had applied for a permit to gather in the city she had worked so hard to make safe for everyone. Years earlier, despite being one of the greatest athletes on earth, she had suffered a kind of emotional torture at the hands of a similar group. “It took me a long time to be able to heal from the abusive things I was told about who I could be as a woman and how I could positively express my sexuality,” Sheehan explains in the video. “Do not as a young person, do what I did. It took me years, a lot of substance and alcohol abuse, and personal suffering and bad relationships for me to be able to self-accept. A lot of it because what I was told was wrong with me when I was around these religious people.” Bravo! Now we just want to see Sheehan take down Donald Trump in golf.

5. Tiffany Abreu

Tifanny Abreu had her sights set on becoming the first transgender Brazilian to compete in the Olympics this summer in Tokyo. That dream is deferred until next year, but it hardly would have been her only accomplishment. She was the first trans woman to play in the Brazilian Women’s Volleyball Superliga. Before that, she competed in the men’s league in Brazil as well as championships in the leagues of Indonesia, Portugal, Spain, France, the Netherlands, and Belgium.

For most athletes, this would be accomplishment enough. But that Abreu has achieved this level of play while facing down fierce critics in an increasingly reactionary country where trans people are frequent victims of discrimination and even murder is all the more remarkable. While a member of Belgium’s JTV Dero Zele-Berlare, Abreu underwent sex reassignment surgery. In 2017, she received permission from the International Volleyball Federation to compete in women’s leagues.

But Abreu is not content to change attitudes on the court. In 2018 she ran as a candidate for the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party. She lost, but the campaign was a breakthrough in a country that just one year later would elect perhaps world’s most anti-LGBTQ president, Jair Bolsonaro.

Abreu, 35, says the future of the nation will be different, referring to her young female fans who follow her around the country, watching her play:

I am so proud to be able to be a model for them so they can grow up and play sports, too. The little girls who are inspired by me and also the young [trans] people.

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One Comment*

  • pdpant

    I would like to have someone post a list of all of the black professional players who have donated money to help the black community and schools. I am sure someone can get this info. If they didn’t shame on them

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