LGBT is still facing huge challenges in the world of sports

✦ Increased inclusion can have a transformative impact

Despite significant progress made in recent years for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community to achieve acceptance and equality in society, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and other barriers are still prevalent in the sports arena.

Much is still needed to be done and the attitudes and beliefs of many need to be enhanced and adjusted if we are to call sports a truly inclusive place.

Consider that it was over 100 years ago when Bill Tilden proudly confirmed he was homosexual, thus becoming the first athlete of note to do so. Tilden won the men’s singles title at Wimbledon in 1920, winning twice more in subsequent years, in addition to seven U.S. championships and seven Davis Cup victories for the U.S as captain. In 1950, a survey of sportswriters named Tilden the greatest tennis player of the half-century.

Bill Tilden

1924: Full-length image of American tennis player Bill Tilden (1893 - 1953) hitting a tennis ball. Tilden was the only man to win the US championships for six consecutive years, 1920 - 1925. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Since then the number of notable athletes confirming they were or are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender has been scarce. Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova are well known exceptions from the tennis court who confirmed themselves as lesbians back in the 1980s, and Caitlyn Jenner came out as transgender almost 40 years after winning Olympic Gold in the decathlon.

Ian Roberts, one of Australia’s most popular rugby players, was the first major sports personality in Australia to come out when he posed nude for a gay magazine in 1995 and spoke about being “part of a different group... an outsider.”

Off-field activism

Encouragingly, the number of professional sportsmen and women who have identified as LGBT has increased in recent years with the likes of British Olympic gold-winning boxer Nicola Adams, and Robbie Rogers of the Los Angeles Galaxy in the American Major Soccer League becoming the first openly gay man to play in a major US professional league. Similarly, NFL player Michael Sam confirmed he was gay in 2014, and fellow NFL star Ryan Russell became the first self-confessed bisexual athlete in any professional league in 2019.

Daniel Dubois v Ebenezer Tetteh - Royal Albert Hall

Nicola Adams poses with the belt after a split decision in her WBO World Flyweight Championship bout against Maria Salinas at the Royal Albert Hall, London.

(Photo by Steven Paston/PA Images via Getty Images)

Orlando Cruz, a professional boxer from Puerto Rico, became the first openly gay man in boxing in 2012, Fallon Fox the first openly transgender professional MMA fighter a year later, and Patricio Manuel became the first openly transgender professional boxer in 2018.

One of the highest profile sports personalities who has identified as being gay is women’s footballer Megan Rapinoe. As captain of the US national team, Rapinoe has won the Women’s World Cup twice and Olympic Gold at London 2012. In 2019 she was named FIFA’s best female player of the year and was on the list of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2020.

Portland Thorns FC v OL Reign

SEATTLE, WA - AUGUST 29: Megan Rapinoe #15 of the OL Reign dribbles the ball during a game between Portland Thorns FC and OL Reign at Lumen Field on August 29, 2021 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Jane Gershovich/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Rapinoe is as well known for her off-field activism as she is for her endeavours on the pitch, having spearheaded the movement that filed a lawsuit against the United States Soccer Federation in 2019 accusing it of gender discrimination in relation to unequal pay. She was lauded for her ongoing clashes with former US President Donald Trump as they traded barbs on numerous occasions, starting in 2019 when she refused a visit to the White House after the World Cup victory.

Personalities like Rapinoe are crucial for the advancement of LGBT in sports; she is articulate, opinionated and has conviction but, above all else, is commercially viable meaning she takes her voice and message to the masses which can effect positive change.

‘Rainbow Olympics’

The recent Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics were a triumph for the LGBT community where over 200 out LGBTQ+ athletes, including nine from Australia, participated - three times more than the number of athletes that were “out and proud” in Rio in 2016. Leading the Aussie contingent were tennis veteran Sam Stosur, women’s rugby sevens player Sharni Williams, basketballer Leilani Mitchell and footballer Sam (Samantha) Kerr.