Christina Kahrl was afforded the privilege of relative privacy when she decided to publicly come out as transgender in 2002. She says that would not be possible today.
As the co-founder of Baseball Prospectus — one of the Bibles for sabermetric wonks — Kahrl was known in baseball circles. Still, she was able to come out to friends, family and colleagues without an ensuing media circus.
But even as a public figure on the self-described “Z list,” Kahrl says she’s been insulted on Breitbart and other anti-trans publications. She didn't have to experience that blowback when she was still settling into her identity.
“If you’re anybody who’s anybody and you come out in today’s world, boom: Fox is going to have something to say about it, and that you’re the downfall of western civilization and everything that’s evil about people,” she said. “It’s ridiculous and unfortunate, but it’s hard these days. It was hard then, but it’s hard in a different and far more scary way today.
Public figures who come out today may find themselves used as the latest prop in our intensifying culture wars. That wasn’t necessarily the case earlier in the millennium, when social media was still in its infancy.
The United Nations has described hate speech in the digital world a “critical obstacle for LGBTQ people.” Anti-LGBTQ hate crimes are on the rise in the U.S., which the Southern Poverty Law Center largely attributes to policies and rhetoric of the Trump administration.
“It’s not about you,” Kahrl said. “It’s about other people who have already had their minds made up.”
For Boston-based sportswriter Steve Buckley, who publicly came out as gay in 2011, social media would’ve caused him to approach the matter with more apprehension.
“I think I would have gone into it with a lot more trepidation, because of social media,” he said. “That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have done it. But I would have steeled myself for the negative commentary that comes. I could put my favorite meatloaf recipe on Twitter, and someone is going to call me a Nazi or something. It’s just the way it is.”
I’ve experienced blowback as a young openly gay sportswriter, and some of it has been personal. But I have also encountered an incredible network of support that would’ve been invisible to me without social media.
Up until recently, there was an utter dearth of open LGBTQ sports figures — including sports columnists. The Internet, for all of its toxicity, has brought people together.
“Are there more avenues for support today than there were then? Absolutely,” Kahrl said. “Are there more trans people who you can turn to and lean on? Absolutely. And that’s all wonderful. Thanks to the web, that sense of community is there.”
Social media also gives openly LGBTQ writers larger platforms, and with that, comes more visibility. Last week, Jeff Rueter of The Athletic, who recently publicly came out as bisexual, covered the Collin Martin story.
Rueter and another openly LGBTQ writer, Meg Linehan, co-wrote a comprehensive breakdown of the incident. Their platforms, and willingness to talk openly about their sexualities, gave their perspectives more weight.
“The fact that I had come out exactly a week prior, and people were aware this story would be handled by two queer writers, that might have made it, I wonder if it made the story a little more impactful,” Rueter said.
The same can be said for openly gay Seattle Times journalist Stefanie Loh, who wrote a popular feature story on power couple Sue Bird and Megan Rapinoe two years ago. There is power in an openly gay people in sports writing about each other.
While Loh never officially announced her coming-out, she’s been more vocal over the years, and more likely to post casual references about her personal life on social media.
She didn’t feel comfortable doing that in 2007, when she was just starting her career, and society was not as accepting as it is now. Two-in-three Americans now support same-sex marriage, according to Gallup.
“I got more comfortable with it, and more established with my career where I could be like, ‘If you won’t talk to me because I’m gay, I’ll find somebody who will,’” Loh said.
But social media amplifies the loud and venomous minority. It also serves as a microscope.
When you publicly come out, it’s there for everybody to see. Conversely, Kahrl got to be patient.
At first, she refused many media requests, including a spot on the revival of the tabloid news show “Hard Copy” on NBC.
“I knew what they would to my story,” she said.
Now, publicly out trans people are not as free to call their own shots. If you show up on the pages of some anti-trans group on Facebook, it is out of your control.
“It’s just such a fractious environment, and so many people feel they’re supposed to have an opinion,” Kahrl says.
To combat the hate and misinformation, Kahrl has become active in the LGBTQ community, serving as a board member for Equality Illinois, and working on an array of trans issues.
She’s determined to use her platform to give back. She is the role model she didn’t have.
“I had the privilege of picking my time, and since my professional situation was relatively stable, I could transition, get comfortable with it in my own skin, and finally start reaching out,” she said.