Did you know there has never been an openly gay player in the NHL as of 2019? It’s a well-known fact that there isn’t a lot of representation for the LGBTQ community in professional sports, whether it’s the NBA, MLB, NFL, WWE — there is a serious lacking in openly gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual or queer professional athletes.
There is a definite stigma around LGBTQ professional athletes, especially in men’s professional sports, but there are a handful of athletes that have been open about their sexuality, whether that’s during or after their careers.
In August 2019, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers player Ryan Russell wrote a personal essay for ESPN coming out as bi-sexual, and according to the New York Times he’s the only active bi-sexual or gay male athlete in all professional sports league (NFL, MLB, NHL, NBA.)
In his essay, Russell wrote that he believes the NFL is ready to accept openly LGBTQ players and he said he’s ready to be honest about who he is as a person. Russell is currently a free agent and hopes to return to the NFL.
Emile Griffith was a professional boxer from the U.S. Virgin Islands who held numerous World Champion titles, and who was bi-sexual. In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Griffith said that he was interested in both men and women, but that he didn’t like to label himself as homosexual, gay or anything else.
In a 1962 fight against Benny Paret, Paret used a homosexual slur against Griffith. Griffith beat Paret so badly during the fight that Paret had to be taken to the hospital, where he passed away 10 days later, and some speculated Griffith had intentionally harmed Paret, though it was never confirmed.
Billie Jean King
How can we not talk about the legendary lesbian tennis player Billie Jean King when talking about LGBTQ pro-athletes? King won 12 women’s Grand Slam titles, 27 doubles, and mixed doubles Grand Slam titles as well as six Wimbledon titles.
Then there’s also the infamous Battle of the Sexes match against Bobby Riggs where she won three straight sets against the man who said he could beat any women’s tennis player. King has become an open LGBTQ advocate and was one of the first inductees into the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame.
Jason Collins is a former professional basketball player who played 13 seasons in the NBA between 2001 and 2014. Collins came out as gay in April 2013 after the season ended, making him the first male athlete in any professional sports league to be openly gay.
Collins was a free agent but wasn’t offered a contract again until February 2014 when he was offered a 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets, who he had formerly played with (as the New Jersey Nets) from 2001-2008. He eventually signed on with them for the rest of the 2014 season.
Glenn Burke was an MLB outfielder who played for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland Athletics from 1976 to 1979. Burke came out to his teammates and coaches during his career, and he publicly acknowledged that he was gay, which made him the first openly gay player in MLB history.
Unfortunately, Burke wasn’t widely accepted and after he was unexpectedly traded from the Dodgers to the Athletics, Burke’s former teammates speculated it was because Dodgers’ management wasn’t comfortable with having a gay man in the dugout.
Greg Louganis is a four-time Olympic gold medal-winning diver, as well as LGBT activist. Louganis took home the gold medal for both the 3m Springboard and the 10m Platform at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, and took home those same two medals at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Louganis had been openly gay throughout his career and his life, but following his wins at the 1988 games, he revealed that he was HIV positive. Following his reveal, Louganis was dropped by a number of sponsors. He now is a vocal LGBTQ rights activist as well as HIV/AIDS awareness advocate.
Patricio Manuel is an American professional boxer, and is the first transgender boxer in U.S. history to fight in a professional fight. Before transitioning, Manuel was a five-time USA female amateur boxing champion.
In his only professional fight to date, Manuel won by unanimous decision against Mexican super-featherweight Hugo Aguilar. Aguilar learned of Manuel’s transition two days prior to their fight and said in an interview that he had no issues with it; he respected Manuel and understood that they were both simply there to fight — and to win.
Former tennis player Renee Richards began her professional career in the early 1970s but is best known in relation to the 1976 US Open. Richards transitioned from male to female in 1975, undergoing gender reassignment surgery, and she became one of the first professional athletes to identify as transgender.
Ahead of the ’76 Open, the US Tennis Association began requiring genetic screening for female players, so Richards fought to compete as a woman and the New York Supreme Court ruled in her favor, which was a monumental win for transgender rights.
Megan Rapinoe is a professional soccer player who has played for the Seattle Reign FC since 2013, and she captains the team. She was on the gold medal-winning U.S. women’s soccer team at the 2012 London Olympics, as well as the 2015 and 2019 Women’s FIFA gold medal teams.
Rapinoe came out as gay in 2012 and has been dating WNBA player Sue Bird since 2017. In 2018, Bird and Rapinoe became the first same-sex couple to be featured on the cover of ESPN‘s “The Body Issue.” In 2019 Rapinoe was the first openly gay woman to be featured in Sports Illustrated‘s annual swimsuit edition.
Billy Bean is a former professional baseball player who was an outfielder in the MLB from 1987-1995. During his time playing for the San Diego Padres from 1993-1995, Bean came out as gay to his parents, but didn’t come out publicly until 1999. He became the second MLB player to publicly come out, after Glenn Burke.
In July 2014 Bean was appointed the MLB’s first “Ambassador for Inclusion,” the same year that Wade Davis became the NFL’s first Diversity and Inclusion consultant. He was later made the vice-president of social responsibility and inclusion for the MLB.
Former Kansas City Chiefs offensive tackle Ryan O’Callaghan came out as gay in a 2017 interview, making him one of the few openly gay former NFL players. O’Callaghan has talked about the support he received from his friends and family, in particular from former teammates or coaches, including former teammate and current Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
O’Callaghan also praised New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft for the support he was given — O’Callaghan was drafted as a rookie to the Patriots and played one season with them. Kraft told O’Callaghan he would “always be a Patriot.”
Fallon Fax is a retired American Mixed Martial Arts fighter, and she is the first openly transgender athlete in MMA history. Fox underwent male to female gender reassignment surgery in 2006, and began her professional fighting career in 2012.
Fox came out publicly as transgender in 2013 after her first two professional fights, which raised a lot of debate over whether she was qualified to fight in the women’s category because she was born a man. The Association of Boxing wrote a new policy on transgender athletes and determined Fox met the criteria so she was allowed to continue her MMA career as a woman.
Former professional tennis player and coach Martina Navratilova won her first professional singles title in 1974 at the age of 17 and from then until her retirement in 2006 she was unstoppable. She is universally considered one of the best female tennis players of all time.
In a 1981 interview with the New York Daily News, Navratilova revealed that she identified as bisexual, and has since come out to say she identifies as a lesbian. Navratilova is an active gay rights activist and in 2000 she received the “National Equality Award” from the Human Rights Campaign.
Former NFL and NFL Europe cornerback Wade Davis came out as gay in 2012, nearly a decade after his NFL career had come to end. Davis had said that he didn’t tell his teammates he was gay because he feared the backlash in the locker room or the impact it could have on other players.
Since coming out, Davis has become an avid LGBTQ advocate, writer, and public speaker. In 2014 he became the NFL’s first Diversity and Inclusion consultant, where he works to break down barriers between the NFL and the LGBTQ community.
Darren Young is a professional wrestler who made his WWE debut in 2005 and made numerous appearances for WWE between 2005 and 2010. Young’s career continued with The Prime Time Players when he was signed to the SmackDown brand. He still fights on the independent circuit under his real name, Frederick Rosser III.
In 2013, Rosser publicly came out as gay, making him the first professional wrestler to come out while still signed to a major promotion. The WWE released a statement in support of Rosser and he received support on social media from other wrestlers.
Former NFL running back David Kopay was amongst the first group of professional athletes to come out as gay when he did so publicly in 1975, just three years after he retired from the Green Bay Packers, and from the NFL.
Since coming out, Kopay has become an advocate for the Gay Games, which is a sport and culture event to promote the acceptance and normalization of LGBTQ athletes. The Gay Games are structured similarly to the Olympic Games and are held every four years, with the next Gay Games coming up in Hong Kong in 2022.
Diana Nyad is an American swimmer who set numerous long-distance swimming records in the 1970s, including in 1979 when she set a world record (for men and women) for distance swimming over open water. Nyad swam 102 miles through shark-infested waters with no protective gear from North Bimini, Bahamas to Juno Beach, Florida in under 28 hours.
Nyad is openly gay and now works as a sports journalist who often writes about LGBTQ issues, and she was inducted into the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame in 2014.
NFL veteran Michael Sam came out as gay during his senior year at the University of Missouri, and when he was drafted to the St. Louis Rams in 2014, he became the first openly gay player to be drafted to the NFL.
Unfortunately, Sam’s career was short-lived as he bounced from the Rams to the Dallas Cowboys to the Montreal Allouettes of the CFL before retiring in 2015. Sam has talked about how difficult it was to be an openly gay NFL player, and he now works as a motivational speaker.
In an April 2015 interview, Olympian Caitlyn Jenner came out as a transwoman and discussed her struggles with body dysphoria from a young age.
Jenner found success at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, winning a gold medal in decathlon while also setting a world record score. Jenner also won the gold medal for decathlon at the 1975 Pan-American Games in Mexico City. Of the 13 decathlons Jenner competed in between 1973 and 1976, she only lost one.
Esera Tuolo is a former professional football player who played in the NFL as a defensive tackle for 10 years, including four years with the Minnesota Vikings. After retiring from the NFL in 1999, Tuolo came out as gay in 2002 on HBO’s “Real Sports.”
Tuolo is a strong advocate for the LGBTQ community now, and sits on the board of the Gay and Lesbian Athletics Foundation. He wrote an autobiography about his life as a gay man in the NFL and has appeared on television programs like Good Morning America to talk about combatting homophobia.