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.
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.