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Determining whether or not an LGBT athlete is 'publicly out' isn't always simple

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The Olympics showed that it's not always easy to determine 'outness' in the era of social media.

Out athletes diver Tom Daley, left, and rower Robbie Manson met in Rio at the Olympic Village
Out athletes diver Tom Daley, left, and rower Robbie Manson met in Rio at the Olympic Village
Robbie Manson Instagram

Determining which gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender athletes are publicly out is not always a clear-cut process, as Outsports found when compiling a list of out Olympians in Rio. Social media is a big reason for this.

Our list of out Olympians —— with the invaluable help of LGBT historian Tony Scupham-Bilton — started at 27 athletes. Just days after the Rio Olympics ended, we are at 55 — 44 lesbian or bi women, 11 gay men and 0 trans athletes.

The fact that the number more than doubled from when the list was first published shows the tricky nature and degrees of being out. Our standard for making the list has always been an athlete who is "publicly out." This means that anyone with an Internet connection could do a search and determine the athlete is LGBT.

At Outsports our goal is to highlight out LGBT athletes as a way to show that athletes need not be held back by their sexual orientation. We are not interesting in hunting down LGBT athletes, but rather showcasing the courage of these athletes where it is pertinent.

Usually, out athletes are easy to identify. They tell their story on Outsports or elsewhere in the media and it's billed as a coming out story. When New Zealand rower Robbie Manson came out, he did it via Outsports, leaving no doubt he was gay. The same is true for many other athletes, such as Brittney Griner, who came out in Sports Illustrated.

Even easier is when Olympic athletes contact us and let us know they should be added to the list. This happened with Tessie Savelkouls, a Dutch judoka, and Ashley Nee, a Team USA kayak whitewater slalom athlete. Both saw the out athletes list and said they would be honored to be added. If only all cases were so easy, but it's not always possible to reach these athletes.

The Olympics are tougher because they feature many athletes in a lot of sports who don't get much media attention save for a two-week period every four years. Therefore, these athletes are not as widely covered, so many are comfortably out without it ever having gotten publicity.

Social media makes the issue even less clear-cut. In some cases, it has the same effect as traditional media, such as diver Tom Daley declaring his attraction to men via his YouTube channel. Often, though, it is less clear and that's where we make an editorial judgment.

One example of what was initially a gray area is Brazilian judoka Rafaela Silva, who won Brazil's first gold medal in Rio. She was not on our original list of out Olympians, but after she won gold a reader contacted us and said Silva had a girlfriend. We found social media posts that seemed pretty obvious she was in a same-sex relationship. We contacted a Brazilian reporter we know who relayed an interview request but were told she did want to talk about her sexuality.

In deference to the reporter, we held off adding Silva, but the next day she did discuss having a girlfriend with a Brazilian website. By talking about it publicly with a media outlet, she was added to the list. This had been a case where the two of us went back and forth on whether Silva's social media posts clearly indicated a same-sex relationship. We ultimately agreed they did, but by then she had already discussed her girlfriend publicly.

It was easier with the two latest athletes we added, Kirsty Yallop of New Zealand and Tameka Butt of Australia. Both played soccer in the Olympics. Both also have active Instagram accounts with numerous photos of themselves embracing and kissing, with captions such as "I love you" and "missing this gorgeous human being." Their social media accounts are public and they are clearly a couple, so they meet our standard.

In two cases we had to remove athletes after their representatives wrote us and claimed that the athletes were not public about their sexual orientation. We reluctantly removed their names since neither had publicly stated in one way very specifically that they were gay, though both strongly hinted at such in interviews and social media. Their requests for removal from our list did make us re-think how we determine "publicly out" and made us do even more due diligence before adding an athlete. We certainly don't want to say an athlete is LGBT if they are truly not open about it publicly.

The advent of social media has allowed LGBT people, including athletes, a means to show many facets of their lives, including relationships. As these are public forums (accounts can be made private, though that limits their reach), they allow for more open lives online, sometimes flying under the radar of media.

We are thrilled that 55 Olympians were out and proud and expect that number to grow as the idea becomes less novel and more embraced by the athletes and the sports world, which realizes it's what goes on during competition that ultimately matters.