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.
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.