It’s one of the biggest questions in LGBTQ athletics: Why are there so many more out elite women athletes than men?
With Wednesday being National Girls and Women in Sports Day, it seems like the perfect time to revisit the widely discussed topic. I asked two elite out female athletes, WNBA champion Natasha Cloud and NWHL Players’ Association director Anya Packer, to share their views.
The numbers clearly spell out the disparity. In the 2019 Women’s World Cup, there were more than 40 openly gay players and coaches; however, there were no openly gay athletes or coaches at the 2018 Men’s World Cup.
The imbalance remains stark throughout professional team sports: The WNBA is led by multiple out stars, including Sue Bird and Elena Delle Donne, while Jason Collins has been the only openly gay active player in NBA history. The NHL has never had an openly LGBTQ player, but the NWHL features several, and accommodated transgender player Harrison Browne.
At the 2016 Summer Olympics, there were a record 56 out athletes, and 45 were women.
For Cloud, who started exploring her bisexuality during her second season in the WNBA, the difference comes down to support — or at least the perception of it.
“For me, it’s really hard to know when you’re looking at other men’s leagues, we know some of ya’ll are part of our community, and all I can do is try and create safe spaces and create that allyship,” she told me on my podcast. “I can only hope that things change for them, so that they can embrace and live out their truth, and be happy—be truly, truly happy.”
While the coverage surrounding LGBTQ male athletes often traffics in fear and sensationalism — such as the series of British tabloid stories about closeted Premier League players — we find the actual experiences of out male athletes are usually positive. At the pro level, Collins was widely supported in the NBA, and Robbie Rogers played five seasons in the MLS. Michael Sam was out to his teammates at the University of Missouri, and selected in the 2014 NFL Draft (there were a record-setting eight openly gay or bi college football players in 2019).
More recently, pro soccer player Collin Martin’s teammates forfeited a match after he was called a gay slur, costing themselves a playoff berth. A couple of months ago, three academic researchers studied 60 coming-out stories published on Outsports, and found gay male athletes are almost universally accepted by their teammates — though they’re usually afraid to come out. That speaks to the perception problem.
One of the possible explanations for the disparity in environments is what’s taught at the youth level. Earlier this year, Martin called on male youth sports to be inclusive. Casual homophobia is still widespread throughout locker rooms and playing fields.
Packer, who’s made LGBTQ inclusion a priority at the NWHL, says the league’s efforts can’t be impactful without youth coaches buying in.
“A little girl might see Rebecca Morse and say, ‘I want to be just like her, she’s got the rainbow no-name stick, she’s playing with this very clear LGBTQ inclusion,’” Packer said. “But if we’re not making the safe space for that athlete in their youth organization, that player is going to stop right there.”
There’s little doubt LGBTQ female athletes feel more comfortable being themselves. A recent BBC survey found 68 percent of elite women athletes feel they can be more forthcoming about their sexuality than men. Just 6.5 percent of respondents said they think their sexuality has negatively impacted their athletic prospects.
Packer says women athletes are used to being underdogs, so they recognize the power in sticking together.
“I think female athletes have this superpower where they are able to appreciate what it’s like to be on the outskirts,” she said. “Anybody who’s in a marginalized community can feel at home with that.”
Those of us in marginalized communities know the power of support. Most of all, that’s the message Cloud would like to share with closeted athletes, male or female: You are loved.
“Once you come out, you are so supported in every facet,” she said. “You are not alone. Understand there is a community that will love you, that will embrace you, that will take care of you, that will have your back so that you can live out your truth so you can feel safe and protected and secure.
“That’s what I learned after I came out. There’s this beautiful community that loves me and accept me for being me.”