As an openly gay male athlete in a pro team sport, I feel like a distinct minority and wish more athletes would take the plunge and come out.
I am from Canada and play pro volleyball and it hasn’t been easy being openly gay. Volleyball isn’t as high profile as some of the other major sports throughout the world and especially in North America, so I feel that my impact is limited to the volleyball community. But I think my experiences as a team sport athlete are not unique.
I have had at least one pro volleyball team not sign me because I am gay, but I don’t regret being out. I just wish more pro and Olympic-caliber team sport athletes would join me.
I find this chart of openly gay LGBT athletes at the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Summer Olympics to be telling.
In the Rio Games, there were 62 openly gay or lesbian athletes (whether they came out before, during or after the games). This is really amazing to see. However, the data show some major differences between the out men and women. In the last three Summer Olympics, a huge majority of the out athletes were female. That in itself shows that there is still some room for growth for gay men in sport, but that’s not all.
Throughout the last three Summer Olympics, 60% to 65% of the out gay women competing belonged to a team sport. On the men’s side, none of the openly gay athletes were on a team sport. (I define team sport as a sport where you compete alongside more than one teammate.)
The reasoning for this difference is quite simple. Sport has always been a test of masculinity, going back from beginning where you would compete to see who was the strongest or fastest.
Today, sport has evolved into having a large psychological component with the necessity of evolved techniques, tactics and team play. Our perception of sport hasn’t changed though. This is the problem. Gay men are still stereotyped to be more feminine than their straight counterparts as opposed to gay women who are stereotyped to be more masculine.
When competing in sport, that stance means it was perceived to be more desirable to have a gay woman compared to a straight woman. For men, the opposite is true. This is the reasoning that openly gay men are prevalent in individual sports, where they compete without having to worry about their teammates’ feelings. Another argument is that gay men aren’t drawn to sport like gay women, but I personally know several athletes in different sports at the highest levels in the world who are not publicly out.
The views about gays being inferior in sport has proven incorrect as about half of openly gay or lesbian athletes medaled at the Rio Olympics. Personally, I see being openly gay as a strength, not a weakness. I was able to overcome adversity and try to demonstrate leadership qualities on my team.
I think that playing while being out makes a huge difference compared to coming out after retiring. Don’t get me wrong — it’s amazing to have role models come out after accomplished careers, but progress would occur faster if current athletes took the plunge.
I know that is asking a lot. I’ve trained my whole life to play professional volleyball, and now I’ve lost several opportunities because teams don’t want to take a risk having a gay player. It is already hard enough to find a contract, never mind adding another factor.
I would do it again a thousand times over, though. It has been such an awesome experience and I hope to pave the way for future athletes.
Despite some teams not wanting to take me on, the teams I’ve been on have been nothing but accepting. I haven’t experienced any homophobia on my teams and even saw huge growth from people.
This past year I played on a team in Finland where the Finns on my team had never met a gay man before. I thought it would be a potential problem, but it was anything but. Near the end of the season, our team became the first professional volleyball team in the world to walk in a Pride parade. It was amazing to have the support of my club and teammates and it sent a strong message to the rest of the sport community.
It’s shared experiences like this that bring a team together and allow them play at their best. In the end, our team went from not making playoffs the last couple of years to finishing fourth, after defeating the defending champions in the quarterfinals and losing in the bronze medal series. It’s my feeling that marching together was an experience that propelled us forward.
With the number of out athletes on the rise, it can be easy to feel that our mission is accomplished and we can move on. However, it’s important to realize the stigma that team sport gay men feel, prohibiting them from coming out. As a sporting community, we haven’t arrived yet and so it is important to do everything we can to allow more team sport athletes to come out. We’re going to need help from straight athletes and organizations.
The Vancouver Canucks had a Pride Night where all the players warmed up in Pride jerseys. It would go a long way for more organizations to take charge with promotions similar to that to allow the athletes to feel more comfortable. Gay players should be celebrated to help promote equality and acceptance outside of sport.
There’s still a lot of room for growth, but I think we are approaching the tipping point. Keep fighting the good fight.
Chris Voth, 26, is a pro volleyball player based in Winnipeg, Canada. He will be playing professionally this year in the Czech Repulic. He can be reached via email (firstname.lastname@example.org); on Facebook; or Instagram (@chrisvoth).