Here are three icons who many look up to not just for their accomplishments but by the way their coming out has changed the game

By Joyce Reyes-Aguila | Graphic by Tricia Guevara

Sports personalities are celebrities in their own rights. They influence fans and followers through product endorsements, the causes they support, and even their stand on different issues.

The US women’s World Cup football team demanded for equal pay, bringing light to gender pay gap in the sport. Some members of Brazil’s women’s soccer team have raised the issue of sexism against the country’s professional league. And in many countries, across different sports, a growing number of athletes are fighting stereotypes and rejecting discrimination by openly identifying with the LGBTQ+ community.

Like in many areas of society, inclusion in the world of sports seems to be a pie in the sky. When an athlete comes out, the courage is admired, but they risk losing opportunities to play and can be subject to attack on social media. Yet over the years, many sports personalities have spoken out to prove that sexuality does not get in the way of athletic success. Here are some icons who many look up to not just for their accomplishments but by the way their coming out has changed the game.

Billie Jean King

She has 12 Grand Slam singles titles under her belt and was ranked number one in the yearend rankings six times. King campaigned for equal prize money in tennis and was instrumental in making the US Open the first major tournament to offer equal prize money. She even played against “self-proclaimed chauvinist Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes.” Riggs believed that the women’s game was inferior to men and King beat him in straight sets to prove otherwise. But her accomplished career and influence was widely disregarded when she was outed as a lesbian in 1973. According to her official website, she lost all her endorsement deals because of her announcements. But the American stayed her course. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987 and is known to be the first female athlete to have a major sports venue named in her honor: the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, New York, the base of the US Open.

 

Ian Thorpe

He won five Olympic gold medals and broke multiple world records as a freestyle swimmer, earning him the nickname “Thorpedo” for his speed. The Australian initially denied he was gay in his 2012 autobiography This is Me, adding that all his sexual experiences have been straight. Two years later, he came out as a gay man in an interview with Australia’s Channel 10. “I’m comfortable saying I’m a gay man. And I don’t want young people to feel the same way that I did. You can grow up, you can be comfortable, and you can be gay.” He also shared his experience dealing with depression, entertaining suicidal thoughts, and drinking alcohol to help him cope. Thorpe has been a long-time advocate of marriage equality and celebrated Australia’s historic ruling two years ago.

 

Sheryl Swoopes

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Many would think the coming out of NBA player Jason Collins in 2014 was the most prominent LGBTQ+ announcement in the world of hoops. But almost a decade before, Sheryl Swoopes of WNBA told the world she was gay in 2005. The three-time Olympic gold medalist was the first player to be signed by the basketball league and went on to be named Most Valuable Player three times. The All-Star player was heralded as the “female Michael Jordan” and became the first female basketball player to have a shoe named after her: the “Air Swoopes.” “My reason for coming out isn’t to be some sort of hero,” Swoopes shared with ESPN. “I’m just at a point in my life where I’m tired of having to pretend to be somebody I’m not. I’m tired of having to hide my feelings about the person I care about; about the person I love. Male athletes of my caliber probably feel like they have a lot more to lose than gain [by coming out]. I don’t agree with that. To me, the most important thing is happiness.”

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