All too often I hear people point to some “holy grail” of gay pro athletes who will transform the sports world by coming out. “What we need is a gay superstar,” the mantra goes.
It would be great, to be sure. Having an NBA MVP come out publicly would help so many people.
Yet the sports world has already transformed. Sports is no longer an inherently homophobic institution. Certainly a gay Super Bowl champ would shine a light on how much sports has changed, but he’ll be behind the changing times, not ahead of them.
Last week writer and director Dustin Lance Black (Mr. Tom Daley, for you out of the Hollywood know) encouraged gay professional athletes to publicly come out of the closet. He echoed what we at Outsports have been saying for years.
"There are a lot more gay kids out there who love football and want to play football and could be stars in football, but they're afraid. They're afraid they'll be judged and they're afraid they'll bring shame to themselves or their family. I urge more sportsmen, actors, people in the public eye to come out and dispel those myths, those lies and that shame."
That is all true. When Michael Sam and other LGBT professional athletes come out, they inspire others to do the same.
Yet the beauty of the LGBT sports movement — heck, the beauty of the advancement of our inclusion across the cultural and political landscape — is that we have made progress despite the dearth of publicly out people in high-level sports, entertainment and government.
Our movement has been bottom-up, not top-down.
We don’t have a gay Martin Luther King Jr. We don’t have a gay Jackie Robinson. We don’t have an Althea Gibson.
We never will.
To be sure, the spark of the LGBT sports movement was a former pro athlete, Dave Kopay, who came out publicly shortly after he retired from the NFL. When he told a reporter in 1975 that he was gay, he truly shocked the sports world. For us at Outsports, Kopay’s coming out continues to be the most important moment in LGBT sports history.
A few years later he was followed famously by two women — tennis legends Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova — who elevated the conversation. These two women have been pillars of the LGBT sports movement ever since.
In the last 35 years since those two women there has been a trickle of professional athletes coming out. That trickle has become nothing more than a gentle brook in the last couple of years.
Yet despite the slow pace, we have made monstrous leaps in acceptance in sports. Last year alone, at least 171 LGBT people in sports came out publicly, a number that continues to grow every year. Virtually every single one of them talks about the acceptance they received from colleagues and teammates.
Those shifts in acceptance have been largely due to young athletes in high school and college sharing their stories. It’s been thanks to gay coaches and trans sports writers openly being their true selves and being good at their jobs. As the national attitude toward LGBT people has changed, so has the ability for athletes to come out and be accepted by their teammates.
In the last decade, we have heard of virtually no gay athletes who have been rejected by their teammates when they came out (and we have proactively searched for them). On the flip side, we have heard from hundreds of LGBT athletes — from football to swimming, Tennessee to Idaho — who have been warmly accepted by those around them.
The power of elite athletes coming out publicly is that they shine a really bright light on the shift toward acceptance that has already happened.
Robbie Rogers showed an MLS team can win a championship with an out athlete. Michael Sam showed an SEC team can have a shockingly good season with a gay player in their midst. Brittney Griner showed a WNBA player can dominate her sport and be out at the same time.
The biggest reason a professional athlete should come out publicly is because of what it will do in his or her life, and the affirmation they will feel for doing it.
We at Outsports would love for there to be more out professional athletes. But we got tired of waiting for that to happen more steadily years ago. That’s why we’ve focused so much on the incredible high school and college athletes who have taken the mantel of trailblazer and moved us all forward with their courage.
When LGBT athletes in the NFL and MLB are ready to tell their stories, we remain here ready to share them.