There have seen quite a few athletes who have made the news in the last couple of years after coming out as gay or transgender. Michael Sam was the first pro American football player to do it, Jason Collins became the first openly gay active NBA player, then Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner made worldwide news when she announced she was a trans woman.
Those are all pretty well known cases, though. There are plenty of professional athletes who are gay but did not get the type of news coverage that those other people got. In fact, there are quite a few gay athletes and former athletes who didn’t make it on the list below. The fact is that only a few of these stories get picked up each year.
You won’t find too many extremely popular athletes on this list, but they all had the courage to come out and most of them did so to try to help others. While you might not have heard of some of these names, luckily there is now a large enough LGBTQ community out there and at least some of them have recognized them for their impact on their respective sports.
With that being said, here is our list of 15 professional athletes who you didn’t know were LGBTQ.
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15 Kwame Harris
Kwame Harris wasn’t the best offensive tackle in the NFL, but he was a first round pick and was able to stay in the league for six seasons. Many people think of Michael Sam as the first football player to come out publicly, but Harris actually came out a full year before Sam, though he was already retired.
We’re not huge fans of the way that Harris broke the news that he was gay, but we have to give him credit for being willing to do so. He was actually charged with battery against his ex-boyfriend, which put his name in the news. He officially came out in an interview on CNN in late 2013. He’s also been vocal about his disapproval of straight NFL players being uncomfortable with gay men in the locker room.
14 Tom Daley
Platform diving isn’t the most popular sport in the world, but young Tom Daley is definitely more popular than a lot of athletes in more popular sports. That’s especially true in the United Kingdom after he was able to win a bronze medal at both the 2012 and the 2016 Summer Olympics. He’s also won two gold medals at the World Championships, so expect the 22-year-old to remain one of the moist popular in his sport for a while.
In 2013, Daley made a YouTube video telling his fans that he was in a relationship with film director Dustin Lance Black. He has claimed to be both gay and bisexual, saying that he still was attracted to women, but he became engaged to Black in late 2015.
13 Gareth Thomas
Speaking of influential gay athletes from Britain, many will argue that none have done more for the cause than former rugby star Gareth Thomas. He is one of the most prolific try scorers in international history and he was always recognized as being one of the best players in the world during his peak years.
Thomas took a big chance by coming out in 2009 since he was one of the first in the sport to do so. It’s known as a “manly man’s” sport, so he easily could have run into some issues with fans. He actually ended up getting a very positive reaction, though, and he has since been very involved in trying to help young people deal with bullying and other common issues.
12 Emile Griffith
Emile Griffith has perhaps the most interesting story of everyone on this list. Not only was he a quasi-openly bisexual boxer in the 1960s, he also happened to kill someone in the ring after they made homophobic comments to him.
In that bout, he fought his long-time rival Benny Paret. After Paret touched him and made homophobic remarks, Griffith made sure to hit him as hard as he could in the ring as many times as he could. Peret was knocked unconscious and would never wake up.
It’s a bit surprising that Griffith isn’t a more well-known name ion the world of sports. He came out at a time when being gay or bisexual was thought of as having a terrible disease, so he took a huge chance being so open about it. He also happened to be a great boxer. Griffith passed away in 2013.
11 Megan Rapinoe
Megan Rapinoe is not only one of the best women’s soccer players right now, she also happens to be one of the best American soccer players ever. She has 117 international caps to her name and has been able to score 31 goals. Not only that, she’s also regarded as one of the most vocal supporters of most LGBT organizations around the world.
Rapinoe had pretty much always known that she was gay, but she decided to publicly come out in 2012 to help others in the LGBT community. She knew that other young gay people had a tough time coming out to family and friends, so she hoped that her doing so would empower them.
She currently plays for Seattle Reign FC and is engaged to musician Sera Cahoone.
10 Esera Tuaolo
A defensive tackle in the NFL from 1991-1999, Esera Tuaolo was just the third former pro football player to come out publicly, but it seems like most sports fans forget his name when the subject of gay athletes comes up. Not only did he go on the popular Real Sports to tell the world that he was gay, he also dropped by The Oprah Winfrey Show to tell an even bigger audience.
Since he made that announcement, Tuaolo has been very active in trying to helping gay people get the rights that they deserve. He has testified to try to help eliminate anti-marriage laws and he’s been especially hard on the NFL for the atmosphere surrounding homosexuality within the league. He was in a 10-year relationship with a man named Mitchell Wherley, but they broke up in 2007.
9 John Amaechi
While it’s true that Jason Collins was the first active NBA player to come out, he wasn’t actually the first NBA player to be openly gay. John Amaechi played pro basketball from 1995 to 2003, spending seven of those years in the NBA. He had been retired for four years when he decided to come out publicly in his memoir.
Amaechi was running multiple businesses and was a basketball commentator when he came out, so some people thought he ran the risk of losing clients and jobs. Surprising, even to him, the reaction was much more positive than anyone expected. You could definitely say that other athletes, including Collins, would not have had the guts to come out had it not been for Amaechi.
8 Orlando Cruz
Unlike many of the other athletes listed here, former boxing champ Orlando Cruz did not come out and worry about the response. He did so with a smile on his face even though he was the first boxer to come out while still competing in the sport. The Puerto Rican featherweight was a hero to those who saw him come out in such a positive way back in 2012, but unfortunately it wasn’t big news in America.
Cruz is still one of the top boxers in his division and currently has an impressive record of 25-5-1. He was one of the first athletes to be inducted into the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame and he is always proud to wear his rainbow trunks in the ring.
7 Darren Young
Until recently, athletes who competed in professional wrestling didn’t come out while they were still signed to fight. Well, Darren Young decided it was time for that to change when he told an interviewer that he was gay back in 2013. Impressively and sort of surprisingly, the higher ups at the WWE and other wrestlers were quick to support Young.
Darren Young is still currently signed with the WWE and is a former Tag Team champion with the promotion. The 33-year-old tries to keep his private life private, but he is known to be in a long-term relationship with his partner. He is still the only known active homosexual WWE Superstar, but he certainly upped the chances of other gay wrestlers having the confidence to come out publicly.
6 Billy Bean
A former MLB outfielder, Billy Bean has certainly been one of the most influential gay baseball players ever. He only played in a total of 272 games in the majors after being drafted in the fourth round by the Tigers in 1986, but it was what he did after he left the league that helped him make a name for himself in baseball circles.
Bean was married to a woman for a few years before coming out in a newspaper article in 1999. He was just the second former pro baseball player to come out and he went further than many other gay athletes by publishing a book on the subject. Bean is currently the Ambassador for Inclusion for Major League Baseball, which helps gay men have the same chances to sign with Major League teams as everyone else.
5 Robbie Rogers
Those who saw the stories about Robbie Rogers coming out in 2013 were impressed that he had the courage to do it at such a young age. The soccer prospect had made the announcement online and had said that he would be retiring, but then the LA Galaxy took a chance on him and made him the first openly gay man to ever play in the league.
Rogers is still currently a part of the LA Galaxy organization, but he has played on their reserve team for the last couple of years. He also has an impressive 18 appearances for the national team, scoring twice while wearing the red, white, and blue. He and his partner, Greg Berlanti, have been together since 2013 and have a son together.
4 Johnny Weir
Many skating fans assumed that Johnny Weir was gay for years before he came out, but he didn’t make it official to the public until 2011. And that’s not a knock on him since he simply didn’t feel like he had to come out and make a statement. He did finally make the decision to tell the world about his sexuality because he realized that there were a lot of gay people who were too scared to admit their sexual orientation.
Since coming out, he's gotten married and is considered to be one of the top gay sports icons in the world. He regularly speaks out about gay causes, including his choice to boycott the Sochi Olympics in 2013 over their controversial anti-gay laws. He retired from skating in 2013 and has since become an analyst.
3 Brittney Griner
Brittney Griner is one of the most famous female basketball players in the world right now. She was drafted first overall in the 2013 WNBA Draft and she is easily one of the best defensive players the league has ever seen. She has already been to the All-Star game three times, she’s won one NBA championship, and she has led the league in blocks four times. Yeah, she’s pretty good.
Griner came out in 2013 in hopes of keeping other young gay women from going through what she went through as a youngster. She was bullied for both her height and her sexual orientation, so she can regularly be found at events to help young people recognize the negative impacts of bullying.
2 Billie Jean King
Billie Jean King is arguably the top athlete on this list. During her 24 years as a tennis pro, she was able to win 39 Grand Slams, which included six Wimbledon singles titles. She was at the top of her sport for what seemed like forever, but even those who didn’t follow tennis very closely got to know her name when she was outed in 1981.
She didn’t necessarily want to come out publicly, but she has since done more than just about anyone else to help with women’s rights and social equality. She is the head of a number of organizations that focus on helping women in tennis and other sports and she is regularly mentioned as one of the most influential gay athletes ever.
1 Glenn Burke
It’s unfortunate that so many baseball fans have never heard Glenn Burke’s name. Not only was he an openly gay man when he was playing for the Dodgers back in the late ‘70s, he was also willing to talk about it with his teammates. That’s even unheard of now, so it’s pretty surprising to hear that someone was so open about it during a time the public at large looked down on gay people.
Burke was heavily involved in gay causes after he retired from baseball, but sadly he became addicted to drugs and died from complications of AIDS in 1995.
Fun fact: Burke is credited with being the creator of the high-five, which actually became a gay pride symbol after he slapped a teammates hand during a game in 1977.
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