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We’ve got a name, and we play the games

Karleigh Webb looks back on claiming her name and finding her voice, and how others have done the same in sports.

On this day three year ago, I affirmed myself on my terms, like many LGBTQ people in sport have since
Dawn Ennis

2022 marks five years out and proud for me, but this particular day stands out.

On May 23, 2019, I walked into a probate court in Connecticut, met by a dear friend and former Outports managing editor Dawn Ennis, for a meeting with a judge that would change my life.

It was anti-climatic really, 20 minutes of signing papers and legal explanations. But I left with something I, and many transgender people like me, want and treasure in the journey.

I left with something that truly reflects who I am — The name I chose.

Like the pine trees linin’ the windin’ road. I’ve got a name, I’ve got a name Like the singin’ bird and the croakin’ toad. I’ve got a name, I’ve got a name And I carry it with me like my daddy did. But I’m livin’ the dream that he kept hid. - “I’ve Got A Name” by Jim Croce, 1973

A few days later I was taking the field in a softball tournament representing my local league, and keeping an eye on someone else claiming their name and their dream.

That was the weekend CeCé Telfer, then a senior at Franklin Pierce University, turned the 400-meter hurdles final at the NCAA Division II Outdoor Track and Field Championships into an emphatic, wire-to-wire declaration.

There is power in self-determination, even in the face of doubters. It’s been stated that Croce’s interpretation of “I’ve Got A Name” came from that desire to pursue a goal on one’s own terms.

I was thinking of this song when I watched Jake Daniels’ interview with Sky Sports last week.

“I want people to know the real me and lying all the time is not what I wanted to do and it's been a struggle,” the 17-year-old goal-scorer for Blackpool FC of the English Football League Championship said. “Now, I’m ready to be free and be confident with it all.”

It’s been three decades since an out player was on the pitch in the highest levels of the professional English game, but Daniels moved forward saying “it is time.”

This sounds a lot like “Moving me down the highway. Rollin’ me down the highway. Moving ahead so life won’t pass me by”.

In the time since making that step forward in 2019, 124 athletes, coaches and sports journalists, and officials have written their coming out stories to Outsports.

Since Telfer’s history-making balmy night on the track in Texas, two other student-athletes have joined her as transgender NCAA All-American student-athletes. One of those athletes — Lia Thomas — also joined Telfer on the roll call of national champions.

Baltimore Ravens v Las Vegas Raiders
Carl Nassib made the Raiders and then on the opening Monday night, he made a big play to close the door on the Ravens
Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images

Each of the “big five” men’s professional stick-and-ball sports in the U.S. have had an active player come out now (even if a couple of the biggest leagues have not). One of those, former Las Vegas Raider defensive end Carl Nassib, made NFL history as the league’s first out active player. He also made the key play that set up the Raiders opening-weekend overtime win over the Baltimore Ravens.

The WNBA was once reticent to publicly embrace its LGBTQ players and fans. This season the league is more than 20% LGBTQ and out, and many of that 20% are among the marquee faces of the league, including its reigning MVP and a veteran who was voted the league's greatest player of all time.

There was the Summer Olympics and Paralympics in Tokyo, and the Winter Olympics and Paralympics in Beijing, that collectively saw approximately 260 out LGBTQ athletes take part. There were instances were athletes saw the extensive Outsports list of out Olympians and took their opportunity to go public. One of those, Australian trampoline gymnast Dominic Clarke, sent us a message directly: “Hey! I’m another openly queer athlete competing in the Olympics, if you want your numbers up.”

The Summer Olympics, Summer Paralympics and Winter Olympics each saw the highest levels of LGBTQ participation and success in their history. “Team LGBTQ” brought home a historic feast in each Games, including 33 medals won at the Summer Olympics last year.

Athletics - Olympics: Day 9
Raven Saunders won silver, but how she wants to make a different to LGBTQ people is golden
Photo by Fred Lee/Getty Images

For me, two pieces of that impressive number stood out.

USA shot putter Raven Saunders took home silver a proclaimed she wanted to be an out role model.

“I knew that there was a whole group of people that would identify with me, that aren’t in a position to openly be themselves or celebrate themselves.” she stated on an appearance of Five Rings To Rule Them All last December. “For me to accomplish something as momentous as that, there’s no way that I was going to care what somebody sitting on the couch eating potato chips thinks of me at that moment.”

The Olympic Games-Tokyo 2020
Tom Daley’s coming out in 2013 was touchstone, and the fuel towards gold in 2021
Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

“And I carry it with me and I sing it loud. If it gets me nowhere, I’ll go there proud.”

British diver Tom Daley won the gold medal he’s worked for since he splashed on the scene at age 14 at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Daley, like Daniels, boldly affirmed his truth in his teens and stressed what coming out meant as a champion years later.

“When I was younger I thought I was never going to be anything or achieve anything because of who I was,” Daley said after winning gold in men’s synchronized diving in Tokyo. “To be an Olympic champion now shows that you can achieve anything.”

Daley’s words echo the mantra that grew louder since that special day in court for me. A few weeks after, I was writing my first article for Outsports. I’ve been privileged to see this evolution up close.

Sports was long seen as off limits to anyone who wasn’t straight and cis. Regrettably some in and out of sports would like to keep it that way.

An emerging generation of athletes, coaches, journalists and allies are sending a different message: “They can change their minds but they can’t change me. I’ve got a dream, I’ve got a dream.”

That dream and the push for change is what I saw in the San Diego Loyal’s actions two years ago when an entire team backed a gay teammate and stood against homophobia on the field. They changed a lot of minds, including mine.

I see a different message in the hundreds of college and Olympic athletes who raised their voices and put their names to the convictions as Thomas was dealing with “anonymous” barbs against her.

That change is surging with every Pride Night. Every affirming coach yields another safer locker room. Each pioneer lifts up the next one from the platform, to the cage, to the links. Each Team Trans Hockey, each TRUK United FC, shows what’s possible for those seeking to follow.

The dream doesn’t just live in the generations to come. A 19-year-old Daley coming out inspired a then-34-year-old Ken Schultz to step into his own coming out.

A twenty-something Telfer, and a pushing-50-like-me Valentina Petrillo, inspire me to push out the door to work out, or hit the terminal and keep writing.

The common thread is that each, and many others, claim their name and claim their courage, and such courage is contagious.

“Moving me down the highway. Rollin’ me down the highway. Moving ahead so life won’t pass me by.”