Editor’s Note: Ashley Carter is a triathlete who competed in the Women’s Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, earlier this month.
After crossing the finish line in Kona on Oct. 14, Carter produced a Progress Pride flag and raised it above her head in celebration.
She posted an image of the moment to Instagram, and in her story she tagged Jack Bristow who had spoken to Outsports the previous week about his wish to see more LGBTQ visibility in triathlon.
After seeing the posts, Outsports reached out to Carter to learn more about her journey in the sport, and in sports media. This is the first time she has shared her story publicly.
By Ashley Carter:
The idea to raise the Progress Pride flag on the finish line in Kona started with my own research and teaching.
A lot of my work as an emerging scholar focuses on advocating for equality in sports and sports coverage, specifically for LGBTQ+ athletes and individuals.
I felt like a hypocrite for hiding that part of myself, while advocating for a sea change. I thought, “I’ve got to do something.” That’s when I decided to pack my flag for my next race.
I actually had the flag in my back pocket in June when I competed at Ironman Coeur d’Alene in Idaho, but I came face-to-face with mental health issues while on the course and ended up with a DNF.
There were a lot of emotions that day, some of them stemming from my own struggles with identity. However, a little voice in the back of my mind was persistent, saying “you can’t continue to advocate for LGBTQ+ people if you’re not even living your own truth.”
When I found out that I would be competing in Kona, I saw it not only as an opportunity to make a personal comeback, but to also make a stance for LGBTQ+ rights, especially because it was the World Championship.
Equality in sports and media looks a lot different for LGBTQ+ people. It’s not like sports journalists can actively identify LGBTQ+ athletes based on looks or the gender categories they’re pushed into, which puts the responsibility on us to come out and say, “hey! Here I am. I’m queer, and I’m ready to share my story.”
For some, that’s no easy feat, and that’s because coming out of the closet is a delicate process that we will go through for the rest of our lives. Not everyone handles it with hugs and support either.
Halfway through the Ironman in Hawaii, I had doubts about holding the flag up when I crossed the line, but I remembered what Jack Bristow had said in his Outsports interview: “Visibility in sport for under-represented minorities is important. For the LGBTQ community, it needs people to be out… the easiest way to do that is with the rainbow flag.”
At the end of the day, it didn’t matter what other people thought about my Pride flag. Raising it high was important to me, and it was important for other queer athletes too.
When I first read it, I felt it was something that perfectly summed up my life. At the same time, I saw it as an opportunity to forgive myself.
From job interviews to Christmas at mom’s house, most of us (queer folx) have experienced a situation where we feel the need to mask a part of ourselves to not only make life easier, but also to survive.
For some of us, there comes a day when you realize that you can finally stop living to survive, and just be you, but there are others who still need our support.
Holding up a Pride flag while crossing a finish line and acknowledging that part of you is a step in the direction we should be heading. The more we do it, the less LGBTQ+ individuals have to hide who they are in fear of the world’s rejections.
A deafening silence
So far in my triathlon journey, being gay hasn’t really come up. I think people, and by people I mean my Instagram followers, assume that I’m straight. That is, until my recent post.
In their defense, it’s not like I’ve been extremely open about it, but there’s a reason for that.
For one, there aren’t many openly gay athletes in the sport, and two, the athletes who are out, still face discrimination. For example, the running world has been quick to adopt a non-binary category, but no one has advocated for this change in triathlon.
Rach McBride, one of the fiercest athletes in the field, who also happens to be non-binary, made history when they won Boulder 70.3 last year, but that wasn’t the headline.
Another setback is the lack of data. If 7% of the population is gay, then it’s safe to assume there are plenty of gay athletes in triathlon, but where are they?
In terms of my experience, I can say that it’s scary coming out in a sport where you feel like you are one of maybe five people. And because no one is engaging in important conversations about being LGBTQ+, there’s a fear that you’ll lose relationships, be rejected from a team, or even trolled online.
Jack said he was disappointed that triathlon hasn’t engaged much with Pride or similar inclusion initiatives and I agree with him that it’s a shame.
You feel that sense of solidarity from other endurance organizations and brands such as the New York City Marathon or Brooks Running Company. Even my local Turkey Trot is gayer than Ironman — and that’s saying a lot.
Time to accelerate
I mentioned how for those working in sports media who want to report constructively on LGBTQ+ representation, it requires a willingness from athletes to share their stories.
As a writer and researcher who also competes at a high level, I welcome that visibility and I also appreciate that help is needed from athletes to facilitate it.
Whether it’s by holding up a Pride flag, publicly supporting LGBTQ+ charities, or engaging in online conversations, the goal needs to be that we get a little louder — forget the imposter syndrome, forget the haters, and get it done.
Another thing that would help is sponsorships or endorsements that demonstrate allyship. I’d like to see more brands saying clearly, “we support you, no matter who you love.”
As much as I love organizations like Outsports, we need the big players to get involved in conversations about LGBTQ+ equality in sport too. In triathlon, I’m talking about Professional Triathletes Organization (PTO), Ironman, and athlete influencers with larger platforms.
We need to know that our sport is safe and that it welcomes us, no matter how unique we are.
Originally from Savannah, Ga., Ashley Carter is currently studying for a PhD in journalism at University of Colorado Boulder, where she also works as a teacher assistant. She is a part-time writer for Triathlete.com. You can follow Ashley Carter on Instagram.
Story editor: Jon Holmes.
If you are an out LGBTQ person in sports and want to tell your story, email Jim Buzinski (email@example.com)
Check out our archive of coming out stories.