To mark the 2015 Queerties Awards, we’ve compiled lists of outstanding LGBTQ folks and our allies (and yes, some of our foes) in a variety of categories. At the end of each list, we ask you, the reader, to cast your vote for who should come out on top.
It would seem statistically possible. With the notable exception of Robbie Rogers, a left-back for the LA Galaxy, there are no openly gay athletes in any of the major pro team sports. If you take the lowest possible estimate of the gay men at three percent of the population, there should be dozens of out players. We know they are there. Sometimes, we even know who they are. But the closet door stays shut. It is a situation made possible not only by the stranglehold of homophobia in the locker room, club house, and playing field but the unique circumstances of being a big-time athlete with millions watching your every move, on and off the field.
The door is beginning to crack open, and these stars below are making it happen. Pick your favorites in the poll below…
Yes, after coming out as Transgender on 20/20, she’s known more of an entertainer and activist (and even Republican) than a jock. But it’s important to remember that she made a name for herself as one of the greatest Olympians ever. In 1976, Jenner won the gold medal in the decathlon at the Montreal Summer Olympics, wresting the title from a long run of Soviet athletes and instantly becoming an American cold war hero. To this day, Caitlyn looks like she could step out of her pumps into running shoes and beat anyone. Her athletic prowess helped in part to give her the courage to come out publicly as the world’s best known transgender person, and handle even the most public events with aplomb. Accepting the Arthur Ash Award for Courage at this year’s ESPYs, she faced a crowd of pro sports giants, declaring: “If you want to call me names, make jokes and doubt my intentions, go ahead because the reality is I can take it. But for thousands of kids out there coming to terms with the reality of who they are… they shouldn’t have to take it.”
In a move that made gay hearts flutter everywhere, Gus Kenworthy, an Olympic freeskiing champion who garnered worldwide fame when he helped find homes for stray dogs while competing in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, told the world his truth in an ESPN magazine interview. “In skiing, there’s such an alpha male thing about pulling the hottest chicks,” Gus told the mag. “I know hooking up with hot girls doesn’t sound like the worst thing in the world. But I literally would sleep with a girl and then cry about it afterward. I’m like, ‘What am I doing? I don’t know what I’m doing.’ I don’t want to make skiing less cool. I hear the snowboarders call us ‘skier fags.’ And it’s frustrating because I’m literally going to live up to that stereotype. Perhaps, but gay fans everywhere think he snagged the best prize of all.
This year, retired outfielder Bill Bean was named ambassador to the LGBTQ community by Major League Baseball, a newly created position designed for him. It was a remarkable achievement for Bean, who just a decade earlier had left baseball at the apex of his career when he felt forced to chose between his love of the game and his love of a man. He courageously chose the latter, but always regretted that baseball’s hostile climate made it so difficult to have both. Now he has come full circles, embraced by the game that had once rejected him. He now spends his time educating players, coaches and executives, and MLB, thanks largely to Bean’s outsized influence, just announced that it would begin actually recruiting LGBTQ front office executives. (You can read about Billy’s journey in the newly released paperback edition of Going The Other Way, written with Queerty editorial director Chris Bull.)
Thorpe — or Thorpedo, as he was known in his Olympian days — came out in 2012. But he continues to be active in LGBTQ and other causes in a way that other retired athletes have not. Perhaps even more importantly, he’s been willing to talk openly not just about the coming out process but the aftermath, which includes the more everyday events such as the challenges of dating. Thorpe says that the biggest challenge was the fact that he had lied previously by repeatedly denying his homosexuality. The conundrum drove him to depression and the self-medication of alcohol and drugs. The lie became his identity, a cautionary tale about asking too many personal questions of young public figures. “That was the problem,” he says. “I was asked when I was far too young and then my response was ‘I’m not.'” And of course coming out is just the beginning. He’s extended his searing honesty to dating life, acknowledging what we all have experienced but didn’t think would apply to a 30-something former Olympian: “Dating’s been a lot harder than I thought it would be. It’s an absolute mess out there!”
“I work in Major League Baseball and I’m gay” Spenser Clark said in an essay published by Outsports. The words may seem nonchalant, but at 21 he is one of the very few gay men who actually steps on a pro sports field anywhere. Yes, he’s a “batboy,” a job that basically entails picking up after spoiled young millionaires, but it’s actually much more. Spenser’s youth, race, and sexual orientation will be something that hundred of great athletes will deal with every time they face off against the Nationals, one of the National Leagues best teams. “I was tired of trying to fit into conversations about women and having nothing to say,” Spenser says. “I couldn’t express myself the way I wanted. I didn’t want to hide anymore. I was unsure about how ‘sports people’ would feel about having a gay co-worker. I was worried about getting fired or ostracized, all because of who I am. None of that happened. I told everyone individually and everyone had similar reactions. They were proud of me and congratulated me for feeling comfortable enough with myself to be myself. They told me that nothing would change – and nothing did.”
It is no exaggeration to say Abby Wambach may be the best women’s soccer player of all time. Perhaps even the best player period. She holds the all-time international goal scoring record — for both men and women — and was FIFA’s Player Of The Year in 2012. After marrying her longtime partner in Hawaii in 2013, she was asked about being a lesbian: “I can’t speak for other people, but for me, I feel like gone are the days that you need to come out of a closet. I never felt like I was in a closet. I never did. I always felt comfortable with who I am and the decisions I made.” She retired this year at the young age of 35, but it is just the beginning of her efforts on behalf of LGBTQ players.
Billy Bean has predicted that the path to the holy grail — an openly gay pro sports star — will start at a much less august level. A promising player will come out at a young age, since, well, its not such a big deal these days. That player will then blossom into a big-time pro and, voila, openly gay team sports star! We are not saying David Denson, a slugger in the Milwaukee Brewers organization, will become that star–although he is already known for his prodigious home runs. But he is tracking to prove Bean’s theorem at the age of 20. Whatever his future in the sport, Denson did a very courageous thing this year, coming out in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He is currently the only gay minor league athlete in all of baseball, just a few steps from the majors. For that alone, he’s already a star.
Jim Buzinski & Cyd Zeigler, Outsports
The founders of Outsports have managed to coax more gay men out of the closet than a Madonna concert. (Yes, we are jealous!) Literally dozens of athletes, from lesbian soccer players to minor league baseball players, have told incredibly powerful and moving stories of harassment, discrimination — and ultimately triumph worthy of a world series victory — on the pages of the site, which is now owned and operated by SBNation. And it didn’t happen overnight. Cyd and Jim launched the site way back in 1999, and worked tirelessly to make it a must-read for athletes and fans worldwide.