The act of coming out is often perceived as something a bit nerve wracking or frightening. While society as a whole is increasingly growing more accepting of different sexualities, there are still many countries where coming out as gay or lesbian makes life extremely difficult. Another area where coming out is relatively uncommon is within the world of sports. In the past few years in particular, athletes have been opening up and coming out in increasingly large numbers. However, it’s still a touchy subject – many athletes decide not to come out until after they are retired, perhaps because they fear it will somehow affect their career, their potential sponsorships, etc. Other athletes are becoming increasingly brave and stepping out proudly, wanting to give a good example for young fans everywhere around the world.
While the act of coming out is a big deal for every individual, athletes are under particular scrutiny. For many athletes, they face rumors and speculation for years before they make the decision to be honest with the public about their sexuality. Other athletes use their public platform, coming out in press interviews, television appearances, or exclusive magazine and newspaper stories.
Though many leagues and professional sports have relatively small numbers of openly gay athletes, the fifteen athletes on this list have all come out of the closet and proudly declared their sexuality to the public.
15 Thomas Hitzlsperger
Hitzlsperger is a high profile soccer player who formerly played for teams such as Lazio, West Ham, and Everton. He came out via an interview with German newspaper Die Zeit, where he told the paper he was discussing his sexuality because he wanted to continue the discourse about homosexuality in the professional sports world. Hitzlsperger has represented Germany countless times and mentions that, in his opinion, while coming out in European countries such as Italy and Germany isn’t a big deal, there were times in the locker room when it was difficult listening to certain jokes.
14 Gus Johnston
Gus Johnston is an Australian field hockey goalkeeper who garnered a lot of media and public attention with the release of his video entitled “Gus Johnston: The reality of homophobia in sport.” Released in 2011 on YouTube, the video was only the first step in Johnston’s efforts to further the discussion about sexuality in sports. He retired in 2010, about a year before releasing the video, but has since participated in countless efforts regarding sports and sexuality, including the organization Fair Go, Sport!, which seeks to promote gender and sexual diversity in sports.
13 Tom Daley
Tom Daley is a British diver who began competing at a young age and has received countless accolades for his athleticism. He also came out as gay right before his relationship with screenwriter Dustin Lance Black was brought into the public eye. Though initially he attempted to come out as bisexual, adding that he still liked girls when he revealed his relationship with a man, he has since come out as a gay man.
12 Ian Thorpe
Olympic swimmer Ian Thorpe has brought home five Olympic gold medals for his home nation of Australia. His incredible talent led him to be thrust into the public eye at a relatively young age, and he spent years denying rumors and speculation that he was gay, even emphasizing his heterosexuality in his 2012 autobiography. It was only recently, in an interview with British talk show host Michael Parkinson, that he came out about his sexuality. Thorpe confessed that media scrutiny during his younger years led him to lie out of defense, and has since stated he wants his example to help other young people.
11 Johnny Weir
Unlike many athletes who came out in television or print interviews, Weir made the decision to publicly come out in his memoir Welcome to my World. He has been under scrutiny throughout his career for things such as his sexuality and his gender ambiguity, with many individuals taking issue with some of his costume or performance decisions. He also received a great deal of public attention for his gay activism during the Sochi Olympics, when he entered into discussions about whether the Olympics should be protested because of Russia’s anti-gay laws. Though he eventually made his opinions about Olympic boycotters known and supported the Olympics – even going over as a commentator for the skating sections – his comments garnered a lot of public attention
10 Wade Davis
Former NFL player Wade Davis opened up to People magazine about his sexuality a whopping nine years after he had retired from the professional sports world. He mentions both the culture of the league he played in, as well as his upbringing – Southern Baptist, military family – as factors that affected his decision to not come out earlier. After retiring he began participating in a gay recreational sports league and volunteering with LGBT youth, decisions that led him to find a place for the real him. He came out publicly in 2012 and has since become executive director of the You Can Play Project, which seeks to address homophobia and discrimination in the sports world.
9 Billy Bean
In 1995, Billy Bean made a huge decision – he quit baseball just so he wouldn’t have to tell his team mates that he was gay. Though married to a woman when he was younger, Bean eventually began dating men and lived in constant fear that teammates would find out. When his partner passed away, he found hiding his secret too difficult and quit the game rather than come forward with his sexuality. In 1999, he became one of the first gay pro baseball players to speak out about their sexuality.
8 Orlando Cruz
In 2012, featherweight boxer Orlando Cruz became the first man to publicly come out in the sport of boxing. In an interview with USA Today, Cruz stated that he wanted to be honest and a good role model as his career progressed, which led to his decision to speak out about his sexuality. While there have been others in boxing to come out once retired, Cruz is the first boxer to come out while still an active athlete.
7 Megan Rapinoe
Soccer player Megan Rapinoe, who has played for the U.S. Olympic women’s team, had an interview with Out magazine in which she stated that she was a lesbian and in a committed relationship. While many athletes deal with years of denying speculations about their sexuality, Rapinoe said that she had never been asked during her career. She also brought a uniquely female perspective to the discussion of sexuality in sports, saying that coming out is more supported amongst female team mates than amongst males.
6 Robbie Rogers
Rogers is an American soccer player who has played in America and the United Kingdom. In 2013, he came out as gay and became only the second soccer player in Britain to do so. Rogers mentions he realised he was gay at about 14 or 15 years of age and struggled to see how he would fit his sexuality into the sports world because he had seen no successful gay soccer players to lead the path for him. The one British soccer player to come out before him, Justin Fashanu, died tragically and during his life received demeaning comments about his sexuality. After the positive reception he himself received, and the countless e-mails and letters from fans, Rogers has decided to try to be a role model and break some barriers.
5 Martina Navratilova
While a lot of the attention on athletes choosing to come out goes to star male athletes like Jason Collins and Michael Sam, tennis superstar Martina Navratilova came out far earlier. Unlike her fellow tennis player and contemporary Billie Jean King, who was forced out of the closet, Navratilova made the decision to come out over three decades before many male athletes began coming out, partly due to King’s own suggestions that she control her message.
4 Gareth Thomas
Rugby is a bloody sport, full of testosterone and violent masculinity. It came as a surprise to many in the sports world when Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas came out as gay. Thomas hid his sexuality for years, not only from his team mates, but even from his wife. He finally decided to open up about the secret he kept for countless years, stating that he wanted to be a positive role model and help other gay athletes and youths.
3 Brittney Griner
College basketball superstar Brittney Griner made headlines when she decided to come out before the WNBA draft, and she has since become a huge role model and inspiration to athletes everywhere. She also holds the distinction of being the first openly gay athlete to sign with sports brand Nike. Though she had spoken about college coaches encouraging her to stay silent about her sexuality to make herself more appealing to recruiters, she has stayed strong and kept sharing her message with the world. She has since become engaged to fellow WNBA star Glory Johnson.
2 Jason Collins
In a 2013 issue of Sports Illustrated, Collins became the first openly gay athlete to play in a major American team sport. He has gained countless accolades for his athletic skills, and has had a long and successful career. He mentions he began thinking of coming out during the 2011 NBA player lockout and realized he needed to publicly speak his mind when his former roommate told him he marched in Boston’s Gay Pride Parade. While he came out relatively late in life, Collins has been very vocal since then, and has become an immensely positive role model. His exclusive piece in Sports Illustrated goes into immense detail about his life, his decisions, and his reflections on the NBA – it’s a must read for any sports fans.
1 Michael Sam
Football player Michael Sam is perhaps the athlete who has received the most media attention lately for his decisions to publicly identify as a gay man. His decision to kiss his boyfriend on camera when he found out he was drafted into the NFL sparked an outpour of reactions, both positive and negative. He was eventually cut by the St. Louis Rams and his decision to be honest from the outset, even before he was drafted, has led many to speculate whether his sexuality played a role in his getting cut from the league. While many others have argued that he merely didn’t have the requisite skill for the NFL, Sam’s career trajectory has definitely sparked many conversations about sexuality in the sports world.