As we enter pride month, it is a good time to reflect on the impact that LGBTQ+ athletes have had on modern sport, as well as the troubles they have faced in trying to level the playing field.
For most of sporting history, there has been a massive stigma surrounding the participation of LGBTQ+ athletes. Even today, 70% of LGBTQ+ athletes do not come out to their teammates and coaches concerning their sexual identities, according to Human Rights Campaign. This likely stems from the lack of visibility that LGBTQ+ players have when compared to their heterosexual and cisgender counterparts. Hiding the truth about themselves from coaches and teammates alike can have adverse effects on mental health. A majority of athletes who did not disclose their sexuality reported issues with mood, relationships, and overall engagement in the sport.
Not only are LGBTQ+ athletes often alienated from their teams due to their sexual status, but also they suffer from higher rates of mental illness than the average person. 44% of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Americans have had a mental illness at some point in their lives. This percentage is higher than any other race, ethnicity, sex or sexuality group in America.
However, over half of LGBTQ+ athletes surveyed showed more comfort and likelihood to approach a sport or team in which other LGBTQ+ people were involved. A key to achieving more fairness and participation in sport from LGBTQ+ people lies in the voices of the athletes that are members of the community.
In the past, there was tennis star Billie Jean King, who was forced by her publicists and lawyers to keep her sexual orientation a secret. Eventually, she came out publicly, allowing a space helping to clear a space for women like herself in tennis.
Today we have athletes like US soccer star Megan Rapinoe, who has repeatedly stood up not only for queer pride, but also equal pay amongst men and women, and against systemic racism.
In her book Rapinoe writes, “If you’re a prominent athlete, coming out isn’t for yourself but for others. Until everyone can come out without it being a big deal, nobody gets to “just” live their lives. And the more people who come out, the more we break down the stereotypes of what it is to be gay.”
Rapinoe, and many other athletes such as Sue Bird, and Jason Collins, have all promoted a message of acceptance and created a space for LGBTQ+ athletes in many sports.
Despite the messages of acceptance that have been spread by LGBTQ+ athletes, there are still significant barriers, and risks of mental illness that come with being an LGBTQ+ athlete. As peers, athletes, fans and coaches, it is our job to step up and make sure they feel welcomed and supported in any and all sports.