Now more than ever, it is crucial that children become involved in physical activity to promote healthy practices for life. The benefits to sport participation have been referenced repeatedly; physical health, socialization to build strong relationships, problem solving skills, etc. Most athletes see sport as a way of life and feel comfortable within that specific environment while enjoying the experience with teammates, coaches and friends. For some gay athletes, it can be more of a challenge to share this same experience. For instance, what if that athlete is not openly gay? Furthermore, what if this athlete wants to be open, but does not have to courage to do so because of the stereotypes or lack of role models within the athletic field? I’ve taken information based on personal reflection, as well as multiple published articles to further explore the mindset of a homosexual athlete.
Megan Rapinoe, an openly gay US Olympic soccer player, believes that many sports still possess a certain “taboo” when it comes to gay athletes, and that there is actually a significant difference in acceptance depending on gender. “I feel like sports in general are still homophobic in the sense that not a lot of people are out,” she said. Still, she added, “In female sports, if you’re gay, most likely your team knows it pretty quickly. It’s very open and widely supported. For males, it’s not that way at all. It’s sad”(Wong, 2012). Rapinoe also delivers her input in regards to the current media attention surrounding Michael Sam, an openly gay NFL prospect. “It seems silly and even embarrassing to listen to people who say Sam being gay is a distraction to the team. There are many more things going on within a team that are much more of a distraction than one team member’s sexual orientation. I applaud Sam and his bravery” (Rapinoe, 2014).
When looking at male athletics, rugby could be considered as one of the most masculine, physically demanding sports in the world. In 2009, a famous Welsh rugby player, Gareth Thomas, came out while still being at the top of his game; maintaining one of the leading positions for the league. Relating to what Rapinoe mentioned in her statement, Thomas felt the pressure of being outcasted by his teammates and fans if deciding to become an openly gay male in a very masculine sport. To cover up his lifestyle, Thomas said that he consciously avoided being seen as gay by overcompensating with straight stereotypes (hitting on multiple women, eventually marrying a woman, drinking the most beer, going out of his way to do more masculine activities rather than feminine ones). Thomas describes the pressure of hiding so extreme, that it one day became too much, resulting in him telling his coach. “It was my coach. He knew that I couldn’t go through this alone anymore and encouraged me to tell my teammates.” Afterwards, a number of Thomas’s teammates came up to show their support saying, “You’re still the same Gareth Thomas” (Doward, 2009). Thomas also advocates other gay athletes to come out in their own time, mentioning that the power professional athletes have on the world is important to the younger generation.
Ellen DeGeneres interviews Gareth Thomas and he talks about his experience.
Obviously, stories and experiences differ based on the individual. With more and more athletes becoming comfortable enough with themselves, and perhaps a shift in cultural acceptance, this gives younger athletes a base to go off of. As pioneering gay athletes, they are not only standing up for themselves, but also for the rights and lifestyles of other gay/lesbian athletes around the world. It is tough enough to be stuck in the limbo of coming to terms with yourself, but to obtain the courage to express this with those you are closest to is a whole other level. Fear is learned, and the way society chooses to portray homosexuals either in film, television or news definitely alters how we fear. Society puts the “gay” in gay athlete, and until it is more comfortable for athletes and fans to accept life as it is, regardless of sexual orientation, we will continue to see “gay athletes” as just that; the “gay” athlete. Living with this label may have its burdens, but also holds empowerment to know that you are creating a conversation.
Doward, Jamie. (2009). Gay Activists Praise Rugby Star Gareth Thomas’s Decision Coming Out. The Guardian.
Rapinoe, Megan. (2014). If Your Team Can’t Handle A Gay Player? Get Out. The Advocate.
Wong, Curtis M. (2012). Megan Rapinoe Comes Out. Huffington Post Website.