A sports icon is an athlete who has gained a following due to professional and personal excellence. With the rise of LGBTQ awareness after Stonewall, there has been a movement to search the sports archives for possible Gay and Gay-related athletes throughout history. This has led to the creation of a set of sports icons, many of them folk heroes exclusively recognized by the LGBTQ community.
Before the Stonewall Uprising (1969) and the worldwide Gay liberation movement, there is evidence of athletes that did not fit heteronormal expectations concerning sex, gender, and orientation. Nevertheless, such evidence is rare, a fact that may change as further research by LGBTQ scholars reveals more examples.
In 390 CE, a popular charioteer was arrested for homosexuality in Thessalonika (a Greek city in the Roman Empire), which led to a riot by his fans. The Christian emperor Theodosius, who had previously outlawed homosexuality, responded by inviting the population to a chariot race and then massacring thousands of them at the racetrack, an action that earned him condemnation from Ambrose, Bishop of Milan.
American tennis player Bill Tilden, a flamboyant man whose sexuality was an open secret for much of his life, won the men’s singles title at Wimbledon in 1920. In his lifetime, he won two more Wimbledon titles, seven U.S. championships, and led U.S. teams to seven Davis Cup victories.
Born female in Britain in 1915, Laurence Michael Dillon (originally named Laura) was the first medically-transitioned female-to-male transman in recorded history to receive comprehensive hormonal therapy and plastic surgery. Before she transitioned from female to male, she received her undergraduate education at Oxford University, where she was on the women’s rowing team. Dillon began passing as a man after he graduated. He changed his name from Laura Dillon to Laurence Michael Dillon, and enrolled in medical school at Trinity College in Dublin, where he rowed on the men’s team. Michael Dillon died in India while attempting to gain acceptance in a Tantrayana Buddhist community as a monk, despite resistance from Buddhist authorities to recognizing his petition due to his birth in this life as female.
John Curry was an Olympic and World champion figure skater for Britain who was the British flag bearer for the 1976 Olympics. After being outed by a German tabloid reporter, Curry won the world championships. The outing caused a scandal at the time, but was ignored by the public and the press. Due to the individual and aesthetic nature of figure skating, the sport is not considered very masculine, and news of Curry’s homosexuality was not terribly shocking to many people.
Tennis player Renee Richards underwent sex reassignment surgery in 1975. She was denied entry into the 1976 US Open by the United States Tennis Association, citing an unprecedented women-born-women policy. After she disputed the ban, the New York Supreme Court ruled in her favor in 1977. This was a landmark decision in the history of Trans rights.
Professional tennis player Billie Jean King was first prominent professional female athlete to come out as Lesbian. She did not do so until 1981 when a former lover filed a palimony lawsuit (money demanded after the breakup of as interdependent household, akin to alimony). King said that she had wanted to retire from competitive tennis in 1981, but could not afford retirement because of the lawsuit and the loss of her commercial endorsements when the lawsuit was made public.
Czech American tennis player Martina Navratilova also came out in 1981, shortly after being granted U.S. citizenship. Coming out cost Navratilova endorsements, but she said she gained respect from other players.
Perhaps the first professional team-sport athlete to come out was David Kopay, an NFL running back who played for five teams (San Francisco, Detroit, Washington, New Orleans, Green Bay) between 1964-1972. He did this three years after retiring during an interview with a newspaper.
In 1990, British soccer player Justin Fashanu (of Nigerian and Guyanese parents) came out during his athletic career in the late 1980s, and may have been the first athlete in a men’s professional team to come out while still competing. His revelation was met with outrage, and Fashanu committed suicide in 1998 at the age of 36.
Glenn Burke, former outfielder with the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Oakland A’s, came out in 1993 during an interview. He was released from his contract with the A’s in 1979, ending his career at age 26. During that interview, Burke said he believed he was traded from the Dodgers because management suspected he was homosexual. In 1999, outfielder Billy Bean also came out.
Greg Louganis, four-time Olympic gold medalist in diving, came out in 1994 in public at the Gay Games, years after rumors of his sexuality had been bandied about the media.
Rugby icon Ian Roberts became the first major team sports figure in Australia to come out. In 1995, he posed for two Gay magazines: (Not Only) Blue in February (he was naked) and was featured the cover of the popular lifestyle journal OutRage in August. When he formally came out later that year, it was a media event, but few were surprised, considering his prior exposure in Gay publications. As a result of declaring his sexual orientation, Roberts became a fixture at a variety of LGBTQ events and his endorsements increased.
The Thai national champion volleyball team of 1996 was comprised of transwomen, transvestites, and Gay men. Although not allowed to compete internationally in the name of Thailand for fear the diverse orientation and gender expression of its members would shame the nation, the team was the subject of a film, Iron Ladies, in 2000, and Iron Ladies 2 in 2003. Also from Thailand, kick-boxing (Thai: Muay Thai) champion Nong Thoom used money she raised on her way to the top to pay for sexual reassignment surgery in 1999. Identifying as kathoey (traditional Thai third gender identity) and famous for not only her skill but also her traditional approach to the men-only sport, Nong Thoom’s story was also the basis of a movie, Beautiful Boxer (2003).
Icons of the New Millenium
Sue Wicks, a Women’s National Basketball Association star, was the first member of a women’s professional team to come out in 2000. In an article for The Village Voice written by Alisa Solomon, Wicks speculated on the number of women with same-sex orientation in women’s professional basketball (“I can’t say how many players are gay, but it would be easier to count the straight ones”) and criticized the tendency for the sports industry to erase Lesbians from view: “I like it when they give insight into athletes, and I think it’s great when they say, ‘Here’s a player and her husband and baby.’ But I’d love to see a couple of women profiled, too, especially if they had a great, solid relationship, just to show that in a positive light.”
Esera Tuaolo, a Samoan American NFL professional football player, came out after he retired in 2002. Fears for his safety and the prospect of losing his job kept him in the closet. He believed that if he came out while playing professionally, he would have been attacked by other players and possibly killed.
Sheryl Swoopes, a three-time most valuable player in the Women’s Basketball Association, came out in 2005 and became the most recognizable player in a female or male team sport to do so while still playing professionally. Her revelation was duly noted by the media, but did not cause a huge uproar because of the assumption that many female athletes are more masculine and therefore more likely to be homosexual.
American professional basketball player John Amaechi came out in 2007 after his retirement. He stated after he came out that he underestimated America: although he received death threats, the reaction of the general public was not as severe as he had anticipated.
Openly Gay diver Matthew Mitcham won the gold at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and expected to see about a million dollars in endorsements. Unofficially, many in the sports marketing business have stated that the potential for endorsement money would have been much higher if he had not already come out.
Professional surfer Amee Donohoe lost money from coming out. In an interview in Curve by A Gillian Kendall, Dononhoe explained why she had trouble getting sponsors: “The surf industry is never, ever going to come out and say it’s because of my sexuality, but I’ve approached a couple of companies and I just get ‘No, no, I’m sorry.’ I think they don’t want their company associated with that image. They want surfies to have a real feminine look, and I don’t.”
Eudy Simelane was an openly Gay athlete on the South African women’s national football (soccer) team and a LGBTQ rights activist when she was brutally gang raped and murdered in 2008. The investigation into her murder suggested that it was a hate crime committed against her because she was openly Lesbian. A local Gay rights organization, Triangle (in which Simelane was active) attributed her death to the practice of corrective rape (when men rape women perceived to be lesbian to cure them of their sexual orientation), which was widespread in South Africa.
Puerto Rican professional boxer Orlando Cruz came out in October 2012.
Intersex Exclusion: Pre- and Post-Stonewall
Erik Schinegger became a world champion Austrian women’s downhill skier in 1966 as a female know as Erika. While he was in the process for preparing for the 1968 Winter Olympics, an International Olympic Committee (IOC) medical test determined that Schinegger was chromosomally male and was disqualified. He had been raised as a girl, and was surprised by the results. This case led the IOC to begin to require chromosomal testing of all athletes. After the disqualification, Schinegger decided to live as a man. He transitioned, changed his name, married, and became a father.
Caster Semenya was a South African middle-distance runner and world champion who won gold at the 2009 World Championships. After the victory, questions were raised about her gender, and her participation became a controversial case of sex verification in sports. South African civic leaders, commentators, politicians, and activists have said that the controversy was an affront to Semenya’s privacy and human rights.
Semenya was tested by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and the results were interpreted to show her as intersex. In September 2009, Semenya was featured on the cover of South Africa’s You magazine, in feminine dress and makeup while announcing “Wow, Look at Caster Now! Exclusive: We Turn SA’s Power Girl into a Glamour Girl — and She Loves It!”, to prove her femininity and therefore confirm that she was biologically female. In November 2009, South Africa’s sports ministry stated that Semenya had reached an agreement with the IAAF to keep her medal and the prize money. There was no mention if she would be allowed to compete as a woman in future contests.
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