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    Coming Out Victories in the Sports World

    kaiwayIn the still highly homophobic world of sports, deciding to come out and say you’re gay, or trans, has been a tough call for most LGBT athletes. For school kids aspiring to college scholarships, the Olympics, pro careers – or simply to play in games and on teams – the epithets and exclusion they face is often too much to bear. As a consequence, too many LGBT boys, girls, men and women have not fully pursued their athletic interests and talents. Or they have adone so from the closet with all the stresses, self-denials and limitations that entails.

    The sports world has proven to be more of a last bastion of homophobic discrimination than even the military or electoral politics. The number of athletes known to be gay or lesbian has been absurdly and disproportionately low. Fortunately, as the gay liberation movement has gained momentum over past decades, and as marriage equality and civil rights become ours at last, stunning advances are being made in sports too. High-level athletes are daring more to come out, and are finding greater acceptance by fans, coaches and management. One by one, out athletes are pushing the envelope and opening closet doors. A collective tide is building that is challenging the sexist and heterosexist norms that have prevailed for far too long in sports.

    As we celebrate this 44th annual SF Pride, let’s celebrate all the sporting strides our movement is making. While it is still a harrowing road, and thus still rare for athletes to feel safe to say they’re gay, happily there are now too many to mention here. In honor of all LGBT athletes this week, take some time to cruise the Internet  to learn more about our brothers and sisters who are out there changing the sports world.

    Here are some brief stories of high-profile LGBT athletes who have stood up bravely to say and be who they are, both on the field and off. Their coming out has never been easy, yet has always added to opening minds, changing attitudes, and creating new opportunities for the next generation of young athletes. They are amongst many others, more and less famous, in every sport, who are making a huge difference for everyone!


    The legendary Martina Navratilova stormed the American tennis scene in the mid-1970s when she came to the US from Czechoslovakia. She let the world know she was a lesbian in 1981, while on the rise in her phenomenal career and amidst her famous rivalry with Chris Evert. Her coming out helped bring sexuality and gender issues to the fore in sports, but cost her millions in lost endorsements. Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women’s Sports Foundation, observed: “Martina was the first legitimate superstar who literally came out while she was a superstar. She exploded the barrier by putting it on the table. She basically said this part of my life doesn’t have anything to do with me as a tennis player. Judge me for who I am.” Navratilova has been called “arguably the greatest tennis player of all time,” and continues to be an outspoken gay rights activist.

    Billie Jean King, winner of 20 Wimbledon titles and a host of others, founded the Women’s Tennis Association, World Team Tennis and Women’s Sports Foundation. In 1974, she won the famous Battle of The Sexes, defeating former world #1 Bobby Riggs after he cockily claimed men were so superior to women that he could beat any of the best female players. King has long fought for equality of opportunity, recognition and pay for women, which has helped women tennis stars earn greater sums than women in any other sport.

    Billie Jean was outed in 1981 when her partner of many years sued for ‘palimony’ upon breaking up. Within 24 hours, King lost all her contracts and endorsements. For years she had feared coming out: “I couldn’t get a closet deep enough. I’ve got a homophobic family, a tour that will die if I come out, the world is homophobic and, yeah, I was homophobic…I ended up with an eating disorder that came from trying to numb myself from my feelings.” It took her until age 51 to feel whole, and in retirement she continues to work tirelessly to promote women’s and LGBT rights. In 2007, when Wimbledon voted to award equal prize money to both male and female competitors, King said: “Remember, it’s not about the money, it’s about the message it sends to women and girls around the world. Every time we can change a benchmark like this, it helps people ask in their daily life: ‘Are we insisting on equality for our sons and daughters?’”


    Rosie Jones, a 13-time LPGA winner, played on Tour from 1982-2006. While she and her family knew she was gay at age 19, and LPGA players and colleagues knew, she waited until age 44 and 2 years before retirement to let the world know. In a letter to the New York Times, Rosie talked about the vulnerability, risks and rejection so many LGBT people face; that her main identity was as a golfer and she waited until she felt ready to be open publicly; and shared her hopes that the LPGA Tour and sponsors are becoming less critical and more supportive. In 2011 she was chosen for the great honor of captaining the US Solheim Cup Team. Rosie, always a very popular player on Tour, says coming out “was a perfect transformation for me, because I do live a more open existence from that experience.” She has worked with Olivia travel and now offers her own golf getaways for the community.



    Greg Louganis is widely considered the greatest diver of all time, sweeping the 1984 and 1988 Olympics and becoming the only male and just second diver to accomplish that feat. Despite his great athletic gifts, as a young gay man he suffered domestic violence and rape and battled drug abuse. After retiring from competition, he revealed that he was HIV positive, and came out in 1994 at the Gay Games in New York. While initially he lost sponsors, Greg’s greatness and grace brought the sport of diving into world focus, and he is beloved by the American public for his golden grace and inspiration. Studying his superb mechanics and style is credited as the basis for resurgent Chinese diving dominance. Louganis continues to coach divers, mentor the US Olympic team, raise HIV awareness, work with the Human Rights Campaign, do motivational speaking—and he married his soulmate in 2013!

    Figure Skating

    Johnny Weir is a recently retired American, Olympic and World Champion figure skater, embraced worldwide for his elegance and edginess both on and off the ice. Always flamboyant, he is credited with “bringing flash to a snoozy sport.” He put rhinestones and lace into male figure skating fashion, and wore female and genderqueer costumes even at the cost of crucial medal points in the eyes of subjectively biased judges. In 2010, Weir failed to receive a medal despite high technical scores, and faced comments that he should compete in the women’s division, and: “They’ll think all the boys who skate will end up like him. It sets a bad example.” To which Weir replied, “I’ve heard worse in bathrooms. I don’t want 50 years from now more young boys and girls to have to go through this sort of thing.”


    Johnny officially came out in his 2011 memoir Welcome to My World, in part to help slow the rate of youth suicides, and to give hope and strength to LGBT youth and athletes. He continues to win awards for his efforts to educate the public about gay and gender issues. He was sent to Japan by Hillary Clinton’s State Department as a Goodwill Sporting Ambassador, based on her tenet that gay rights are human rights. HRC gave Weir its 2010 Visibility Award honoring “individuals who are living open and honest lives. Johnny is doing much more than that! He is a force of nature, with all of his fabulousness swirling around him…Thank you, Johnny Weir, for making the world a more welcoming place, and for your brave determination to be who you are.” At the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Weir was an NBC commentator alongside Olympian Tara Lipinski. He was unabashedly his gay, fashion-loving, expert self, and from Russia won rave reviews and put ‘genderqueer’ favorably into the international spotlight!

    NFL Football

    In 1975, David Kopay, a running back who played for five NFL teams in nine years (including the San Francisco 49ers), became the first professional team-athlete ever to come out. The David Kopay Story, published in 1998, remains a powerful tale of the long journey from denial to acceptance, from pain to pride. Kopay failed to gain coaching jobs, and the depth of macho-laden homophobia in football was so great that it has taken until this year for another NFL-bound athlete to dare say he is gay. In June, 2014, Michael Sam became the first openly gay college football player to be drafted and signed by an NFL team. Upon receiving the incredible news of being selected in the 7th round of the draft by the St. Louis Rams, Sam was filmed rejoicing by kissing his boyfriend. The video immediately went viral, to both thrilled and horrified reviews. But Sam is certainly making inroads that have taken nearly four decades since Kopay’s brave declaration.

    In 1999, Leigh Steinberg, still today the pre-eminent superagent of sports stars, was quoted as saying: “Homosexuality is probably the last and strongest taboo in sports…I think it would be much easier to be convicted of robbery and serve time, then come play in major-league baseball or the NFL, than to be gay.” That is strong stuff, giving his insider opinion that convicted felons would have an easier time gaining entry into big league sports than would qualified gay athletes!

    Golf Long Drive

    Transgender athlete Lana Lawless had sexual reassignment surgery in 2005, and in 2008, won the women’s world long drive championship. The next year, she was barred from competing and lost lucrative sponsorship deals, because the Long Drivers of America changed its rules to match the LPGA’s policy that said competitors must be “female at birth.” This targeted discriminatory rule change – along with the facts that other professional golf associations and the International Olympic Committee allow transgender athletes to compete – led Lawless to file a federal lawsuit against the LPGA, Long Drivers, and several corporate sponsors.

    “It’s an issue of access and opportunity,” Lawless said, claiming she was  “shut out because of prejudice.” Backed by the Transgender Law Center in San Francisco, the lawsuit succeeded as the LPGA deleted the born-female language, and Long Drivers agreed to follow the LPGA’s policies. It really was quite amazing. As an LPGA member, I clearly remember attending a behind-closed-doors meeting convened by Commissioner Mike Whan at the 2011 PGA Show in Orlando. He saw the lawsuit as a chance to educate himself and others about transgender issues in sports. The Commissioner reported that Tour members had already voted to change the discriminatory policy. He then urged the Teaching Division to also better understand transgender issues and vote accordingly (and avoid further costly legal problems).


    An article last year described an ‘out footballer’ (soccer player) as a last taboo in British sports, and the British ‘obsession’ with the very idea of gay players. Numbers of known gay players are afraid to be public due to unknown reactions and expected backlash from fans, media and management. Meanwhile, German star Thomas Hitzlsperger came out earlier this year, as did American great Robbie Rogers in 2013. Both players struggled for years with living in silence and fear, facing slurs and gay-bashing while trying to follow their athletic passion, talents and dreams. They came out and are speaking up so other LGBT athletes can be free to be themselves and to play.

    Says Thomas: “Being gay is a topic that is ignored in football…Fighting spirit, passion and winning mentality are intrinsically linked, which doesn’t fit the cliché,‘Gays are soft.’” Robbie says he knew was gay as a teenager, knew that he wanted to play, but had no idea what to do because “there were no gay footballers.” Rogers had played for Leeds in the UK and retired at age 25 immediately upon coming out. He was surprised at the support he received, and soon returned to play professionally after an offer from the Los Angeles Galaxy. Rogers wrote in his coming out letter on his blog: “I’m a soccer player, I’m a Christian, and I’m gay. Those are things that people might say wouldn’t go together. But my family raised me to be an individual and to stand up for what I believe in.”

    Jamie Leno Zimron is an LPGA Pro, Aikido 5th Degree Black Belt, and Corporate Speaker-Trainer. She is happy to help women get ready with special pre-tourney golf lessons! Contact her at