Last week headlines on Outsports and across LGBTQ and sports media ruffled some feathers, continuing a conversation about how we describe athletes and how they are viewed by the public.
The headline in question: “Gay wrestler Jake Atlas reportedly signs WWE contract.”
Often when we call someone an “LGBTQ athlete” or “lesbian coach” or “gay Olympian,” we see a smattering of responses on social media castigating the writer for allegedly pigeon-holing someone by their sexual orientation or gender identity.
This headline got a few of those responses, including a bit of a rebuke from Atlas himself, who tweeted:
I’m not ‘a gay wrestler.’ I’m a wrestler.— Jake Atlas (@iamjakeatlas) October 22, 2019
He is also a wrestler — And a good one at that, from what I’ve read. You don’t get to the WWE without being really good at your craft.
The combination of those two elements make him an inspiring trailblazer. There are so many young LGBTQ people, particularly in sports, still struggling to accept who they are.
Making sure those teenagers and young adults see the presence and success of a groundbreaking and successful athlete like Atlas can literally help save lives.
Yet he clearly felt calling him a “gay wrestler” minimized who he is as an athlete.
Descriptors, not labels
Whether it’s “gay wrestler” or “lesbian coach” or even “49ers tight end,” descriptors in headlines don’t explain or label someone’s entire being. No two or three words can ever fully describe or label who someone is.
To be sure, some people don’t want a word used for their sexual orientation at all. Many times I’ve heard heard athletes and others say something along the lines of “I prefer to not label myself in that way.”
I respect that perspective, making sure to use the term “gay” only when the person has used that word themselves.
Sometimes describing someone’s sexual orientation can be complicated. When I talked with Olympian Kerron Clement moments after the came out publicly a couple weeks ago, he seemed hesitant to classify his attractions as “gay,” “bi” or “queer,” adding, “though I do identify as a professional gay track and field athlete.”
Atlas has described himself as “gay” multiple times. One of the many instances was in celebration of a wrestling award he won in 2017, telling Gay Star News: “It was an honor to be the first openly gay recipient of the award.”
Atlas has also used the term “LGBTI wrestler” to refer to the group he’s a part of.
“I don’t really know why other LGBTI wrestlers haven’t come forth publicly about their sexuality,” he told Gay Star News.
With his willingness to put himself in the group of “LGBTI wrestlers,” and his self-identification as “gay,” using the descriptor of “gay wrestler” in a headline seems fair.
Either way, the term “gay wrestler” isn’t intended to label Atlas’ entirety as a person. It simply describes a part of who he is and gives readers context of why they might want to take pride in his accomplishments.
Despite having an article about Atlas on Outsports previously, when I saw Brian Bell’s article about him last week I had no recollection of who he was. And if I didn’t know who he was, neither did 95% of the Outsports audience or the readers of NewNowNext, PinkNews and the other LGBTQ pubs that used the term.
His signing is historic and worthy of celebration in part because he is publicly out as a gay man.
Calling Atlas a “gay wrestler” is like calling Randy Moss a “former Patriots wide receiver.” Yeah, that’s about three seasons of Moss’ life, but they’re a newsworthy three seasons. The descriptor describes just a part of him.
Or calling Jackie Robinson the first “black Major League Baseball player.” It describes an historical part of Robinson’s life and tells a reader why news about him is important.
The same is true of calling someone a “gay athlete.”
Despite all of this, given Atlas’ apparent personal aversion to the term, I’ll certainly try to respect that in my writing about him.
Creating a future for LGBTQ athletes
While some people complain that we haven’t moved past pointing out the sexual orientation and gender identity of LGBTQ athletes... we haven’t. Coaches can still be fired in many places for being LGBTQ. Some young athletes still hide in fear.
Yet I would hope we’d be at a point that when someone gay in sports does something newsworthy or inspiring — and a headline describes them as a “gay athlete” — we wouldn’t have to defend using that basic descriptive term.
Greatness in competition — and greatness in knocking down barriers for minorities in sports — don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Given Atlas’ recent addition to WWE, he has the opportunity to be remembered for his wrestling skills and his willingness to inspire young LGBTQ athletes like himself. I’ll be cheering for him every step of the way.