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Why we’re celebrating LGBT people in tennis ahead of the U.S. Open

Nick McCarvel, Brian Vahaly and drag queens bring light to gay, lesbian, bi and trans athletes in pro tennis.

Nick McCarvel is a leading tennis commentator, here at Roland-Garros for the French Open.

For a few years now I have been thinking about doing something celebrating the queer community ahead of the US Open. Gay culture has an affinity for tennis that’s unlike many other sports. But up until this spring it hadn’t hit me exactly what that celebration would be.

I’ve always been a tennis fanatic. I spent countless hours – I would actually guess in the thousands – playing tennis against our alley wall growing up in Helena, Mont. I was a decent junior player… but come on, Montana isn’t a tennis state.

As I slowly built myself a career as a tennis journalist over the last 10 years since moving to New York, my yearning to bring the two communities together grew stronger and stronger.

Billie Jean and Martina and Amelie and Rennae and more (and more!) out lesbians have done so much to advance the queer conversation in sports and tennis. But what about the out gay pros in men’s tennis?

There are none.

I was struck with surprise and overwhelming pride when Brian Vahaly came out as gay last year on Jon Wertheim’s Sports Illustrated podcast, Beyond the Baseline. “Finally!” I thought. And so many of my gay friends felt the same way.

This Thursday night I’ll host “Open Playbook: Being Queer & Out in Pro Tennis,” which features a candid conversation with Brian. It’s the brainchild of the thoughts of such an event that have been floating around my head for the last few years, but also of the ones that little kid had, the one who grew up in the Rockies obsessed with Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati.

Thursday wouldn’t be happening without Brian. His fierce determination – some 10 years after being a Top 65 player on the ATP World Tour – to have this open, honest, public conversation is something I’m so grateful for. He already shared his heart so well in a story written by Jonathan Scott on Tennis.com.

Brian and I agree on this: Thursday isn’t about asking pro gay players – because we know that they’re out there – to come out. It’s about furthering this discussion. Furthering the chance to talk about gays in sports – queers in sports.

I can’t tell you how great the outpouring of support has been since we started solidifying details in July. Kevin Anderson’s tweet was astronomical. Think of the power of a Wimbledon finalist shouting out his support like that for us?

I reached out to James Blake because I knew him to be an ally and he didn’t hesitate one bit in sending in a testimonial video about how the straight community – in men’s tennis and beyond – can help gay athletes feel more comfortable. We’ll play that video on Thursday night.

I look at athletes like Gus Kenworthy and Adam Rippon and Jason Collins and Robbie Rogers, and I’m so proud of them for leading particular discussions in their sports.

Now it’s Brian’s turn, and I’m so happy I could be a miniscule part of that.

But in actuality this night isn’t about me or Brian. It’s about a kid in the D.C. area or Montana or New York City or anywhere in this country or world who doesn’t feel full – doesn’t feel like he or she can share who they are with others.

Tennis is so freaking global. The sport goes to Australia and the Middle East and the Americas and Europe and Africa and Asia and everywhere from Centre Court at Wimbledon to low-level Futures events in Turkey.

This discussion matters. Because for as much as tennis is global, it remains conservative. It’s a bubble. Yes, it reaches to the far corners of the world but there is still a culture of the sport not having its eyes open to the bigger picture.

And you can’t blame it – it’s a sport. The focus is tennis. I hear that! Yet that’s the reason why Thursday is happening. We’re pushing the envelope. We’re making people uncomfortable. We’re asking questions that haven’t been asked before.

Brian is so strong for sharing his story. I’m so honored to sit by his side. This night is also a celebration of all that is great about queers and tennis. There will be drag queens because they are loud and crass and they make us laugh. There will be video testimonials. There will be tennis trivia. There will be queer-themed drinks. We even have a surprise guest lined up and she’s pumped to be there.

And there will also be progress. I think this conversation matters because we’re the first to have it in this setting. The US Open turns 50 this year. Fifty! And here’s a chance to offer any tennis player – from the main draw of the Slams to juniors anywhere in the world – to be more confident of who they are.

Brian actually put it best in that Tennis.com interview: “This piece of you that feels so isolating is actually one of the most wonderful, beautiful parts of yourself.”

Amen, sis. I’m so looking forward to Thursday night.

Tickets: Still available at housingworks.org or at the door

Livestream: On the No Challenges Remaining Facebook page

Benefitting Housing Works and NYJTL