So often when I talk to a gay athlete about the decision to come out publicly, they have a concern that it will look like they’re trying to get attention for themselves.
In reality, they’re usually just trying to be their true selves and help others. Yet the perception that they’d declare their sexuality for their own gain is often a sticking point.
I always tell them the same two things. Sure, some people will think that. You can’t please everyone, as they say.
Yet the people you’re doing this for — the bisexual high school football player in Texas, the lesbian college basketball player in Iowa... or the gay skier in Colorado — will know otherwise. Those people will read your story, and it will help them find their own courage.
A couple days after coming out publicly, gay former elite-level skier Hig Roberts has underscored all of that. In a new Instagram post, Roberts talks about life living in the closet even after accepting himself for who he was at a young age.
“I remember acknowledging that I was gay with ease when I was a young and immensely competitive boy,” he wrote. “However, as I grew older and embarked on my professional athletic career, this confidence with my existence slowly wilted and eventually died.”
He said notions that he was “the only gay one” in skiing haunted him. With so few out gay male athletes across the elite levels of sport, and few men publicly out at any level of any skiing discipline, the possibility of being out and proud — his natural way of being — simply faded away.
It’s one of the dynamics we talk about all the time: Courage is contagious. It’s Outsports’ tagline. From 20 years of reporting on LGBTQ athletes, we’ve found that every story of an LGBTQ athlete inspires others to be their true selves, and without those stories it becomes that much harder for others to find their own freedom.
To be sure, Gus Kenworthy was a popular out gay skier with Team USA (now Team Great Britain) for the last five years, though in a different discipline (Roberts competed in alpine, Kenworthy competes in freestyle). Roberts had one Olympic-level athlete in an adjacent ski competition to relate to. One.
If there had been just a couple gay male alpine skiers who were publicly out in and around the U.S. training facilities, it could have been a totally different path for Roberts. Someone to talk to. Role models. A community.
Yet without those out people in his sport, he didn’t see it. It’s one of the issues hockey now faces, with so few out athletes at any level of the sport, and exactly zero out men currently or formerly playing in the NHL. With no role models, people stay quiet.
Sadly, despite mountains of evidence, some people continue to tell gay athletes they will face rejection from people in their sport and in their lives. Yet we know from years of experience that, when athletes come out in high school, college and pro sports, they are widely accepted by those around them.
Of course, not everyone has a positive experience, and that’s where the fear comes in. There are stories of athletes facing problems, though we know of very few. Some LGBTQ youth are also still thrown out of their homes by family for coming out, which is absolutely awful and terrifying.
Yet the acceptance we see today at every level of sport is remarkable and higher than almost anyone gives credit.
Every personal story that an LGBTQ person in sports is willing to tell helps open people’s eyes to the naturally familial, team-oriented, supportive nature of sports.
“Not long ago I would read stories like mine with both excitement but also in fear that this point of strength seemed impossible,” Roberts said. Those stories he read — on Outsports and beyond — helped lead the way to his coming-out interviews with the New York Times and Out magazine.
Roberts’ story, which has been covered by both LGBTQ and mainstream media, will be read by thousands of others. Some of them will share their stories publicly — be it in Instagram posts, or stories on Outsports or other media — and those stories will in turn be read by other LGBTQ athletes. And on and on.
Like dominoes, each story leads us to a place of truth, where LGBTQ athletes see the support they will receive, and the support they each receive grows.
Courage is contagious.
And as we’re learning more and more, acceptance is contagious, too.