It’s a pretty good rule of thumb that anytime an active NFL player comes out, it’s a great week for LGBTQ sports.
Indeed, when I heard the news about Carl Nassib on Monday afternoon, one of my first thoughts was, “I’m living through sports history.” I could sense the magnitude of the moment because it might have been the first time this lifelong baseball fanboy was happy to see the NFL dominate the news cycle in June.
But it was also special because Nassib’s coming out announcement was taking place just one day after another important LGBTQ sports story. And taken together, these pieces of news represented two of the most important pillars of our community’s push for equality: representation and activism.
On Sunday, Ashlyn Harris led her Orlando Pride teammates in a public display of support for the transgender community. While the national anthem was being sung before their match, every Pride player donned tie-dyed shirts bearing the message “Protect Trans Kids.”
Following the match, Harris, who is lesbian, delivered a rebuke of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the trans athlete ban he signed into law on the first day of Pride month:
“This sport has given me so much. It’s given me a place to call home. Truthfully, it saved my life. And I just feel really sad that our governor is attacking these children and telling them they can’t play this sport, which for us is a place where everyone belongs. It’s an inclusive sport, everyone’s safe, everyone is seen, everyone is accepted for all their individualities and their differences. Our team is heartbroken and we need to make actionable steps.”
The story of Harris and the Pride’s criticism of their transphobic governor didn’t get nearly as much public attention as Nassib’s coming out. For one thing, the NFL is America’s sports behemoth. And for another, as history has shown, sometimes women need to defeat literally every other country on the planet to get noticed by ESPN.
Nonetheless, the significance of Orlando’s work should be self evident, regardless of how much spotlight the media gives it. If DeSantis is going to mark the beginning of June by channeling his inner JK Rowling, it’s only appropriate that the fight to defeat his agenda is being led by a team called the Pride.
Less than a day after Harris stood up for the trans community, Nassib shook up the entire LGBTQ sports universe in the best possible way. One of the things that struck me about his Instagram announcement was the admission that, “I’m a pretty private person so I hope you guys know that I’m not doing this for attention. I just think that representation and visibility are so important.” If he did nothing other than make this statement, Nassib would still go down as one of the most important gay trailblazers in sports history.
To see Nassib’s coming out become the biggest story in sports followed by wave after wave of unequivocal support from JJ Watt to Julian Edelman to Saquon Barkley to Roger Goodell underscores everything he said about representation and visibility.
As Nassib later posted, it took him 15 years to get to the point where he was ready to share his truth with the world. Thanks to his bravery in becoming the face of LGBTQ participation in the NFL, it probably won’t have to take that long for anyone who wants to follow in his footsteps.
Representation and activism have gone hand in hand to bring the LGBTQ community to where it is today. In fact, you can make a good argument that the joy underscoring Nassib’s representation is made possible by the activism of figures like Harris. While it has gotten better for some of America’s LGBTQ population, it’s vital to remember that others are still living in crisis and we still need to put in the work to uplift them as well.
As Harris’s post-match comments indicated, she understands that it’s her job to make sure others in our community get to someday experience the joy of representation too:
“I want [the transgender community’s] stories to be told. These trans children have names and they have stories and they need to be told...Hopefully, we can tell the stories of...these women and girls out here who are just trying to find a place where they belong, and a team that sees them how they see themselves in the mirror.”
As we celebrate Nassib, his coming out also serves as a reminder that our fight isn’t over. Nassib is donating $100,000 to The Trevor Project. Harris and the Pride are working with Equality Florida to push back against DeSantis’s transphobic agenda. Additionally, Harris has expressed hopes to develop a local sports community with an emphasis on creating a safe space for transgender kids.
The fact that both Nassib’s and Harris’s stories happened within 24 hours makes me thankful for both of these athletic role models. I’m grateful for Nassib for giving our community someone we can justifiably celebrate for his bravery and his example. And I’m also making sure to remember Harris’s powerful words and actions which emphasize that we must continue pushing for inclusion in the hopes that someday, every LGBTQ person can live through a similar moment.