Black history is vitally connected to LGBTQ history.
You can’t tell the story of the LGBTQ community in the sports world without focusing on the numerous out Black athletes who shattered glass ceilings and broke barriers to create a better environment for the players who followed them.
We owe these trailblazers a debt of gratitude. In celebration of Black History Month, Outsports is looking back at some of the most important Black LGBTQ athletes who accomplished “firsts” in their respective sports.
These are a sample of the Black sports figures who helped light the path for the rest of us to follow.
In the midst of his NBA career in 2013, Collins etched his name in the history books by becoming the first male athlete in one of the “big four” pro sports leagues to come out as gay while still an active player. After writing his coming out narrative as a Sports Illustrated cover story, Collins went on to play one more season for the Brooklyn Nets.
By doing so, he also proved that a pro athlete doesn’t need to be a star in order to find employment in the sports world. That’s not throwing shade either — Collins demonstrated that he could exist as his true self comfortably in the NBA as a role player. And the ability to live an honest life should never be predicated on points per game. Today, Collins remains one of the most respected voices for LGBTQ inclusion in all of sports.
Until the former SEC Defensive Player of the Year went professional in 2014, no pro football team had ever selected an out gay player in the NFL Draft. That changed when the St. Louis Rams drafted Sam with the 249th pick and all eyes turned to see how he would be accepted by the league.
The verdict on that was incomplete as Sam unfortunately never played a down during the regular season. After being cut by the Rams and the Dallas Cowboys, he briefly suited up for the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League. The NFL wouldn’t see an active gay player during a regular season game until Carl Nassib came out in 2021.
After ejecting star point guard Rajon Rondo during a 2015 game and enduring a homophobic tirade in response, NBA referee Billy Kennedy took a profoundly brave step and came out in a Yahoo Sports interview one week later. At that moment, he became the third referee or umpire in the “big four” leagues to come out publicly.
In sharing his true self with the sports world, Kennedy boldly declared, “I am following in the footsteps of others who have self-identified in the hopes that will send a message to young men and women in sports that you must allow no one to make you feel ashamed of who you are.” Kennedy is still an active referee today and recorded an emotion-filled response to the Colorado Springs shooting on the @NBACares Twitter account last November.
While Burke never came out publicly as gay during his 1976-79 MLB career with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland A’s, he broke barriers by establishing himself as a popular member of the clubhouse and refusing to hide his true self from his teammates. In so doing, he became the first known gay player in MLB and the first LGBTQ athlete to play in a World Series, starting in center field for L.A. in Game 1 of the 1977 Fall Classic.
And if you like it when baseball players express their emotions on the field today, you can thank Burke for introducing the high five after back-to-back home runs with Dusty Baker. With Burke’s help, gay culture brought some zazz to baseball and made the grand old game significantly more fun to watch.
Similar to Burke, Amaechi never publicly discussed his sexuality during his NBA career but also did not let his surroundings prevent him from living the gay life he wanted, even with the added degree of difficulty of playing in Utah during the early 2000s. After his on-court career ended, Amaechi revealed he was gay in his 2007 memoir “Man in the Middle” and thus became the first former NBA player to come out of the closet.
In addition to paving the way for Jason Collins, Amaechi has led an exemplary life. After retiring from basketball, he earned his doctorate, became an accredited psychologist, founded a psychology-based consulting firm, and was honored by Queen Elizabeth II as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2011.
After transferring to the University of Massachusetts while he was still in the closet in 2013, Gordon’s then-boyfriend posted an Instagram pic of the two of them outside a gay bar. His teammates noticed the photo and some of them began talking smack to him about it in the locker room. In the heat of the moment, Gordon denied being gay and retreated into a period of isolation and depression.
Later with the help of several LGBTQ sports figures, he gradually began to accept himself. During a team meeting in the spring of 2014, he came out to his teammates, becoming the first out gay player in NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball. The emotional moment catalyzed Gordon’s peers to apologize for their harassment and accept him for who he was. Gordon went on to play one more season at UMass before finishing his college career at Seton Hall and he also became the first college basketball player to play in the NCAA Tournament with three different schools.
Despite being encouraged not to discuss her sexuality while starring at Baylor, Griner came out as lesbian shortly after being picked first overall in the 2013 WNBA draft. She went on to become one of the most dominant LGBTQ players of all time, winning two Olympic gold medals, eight All Star berths, and the 2014 WNBA Championship.
Griner also broke a barrier and became a symbol for the acceptance of LGBTQ athletes when she signed an endorsement deal with Nike after being drafted, setting a precedent as the first out lesbian to ink a deal with the iconic shoe company. This summer, Griner will be returning to the WNBA after being held captive in a Russian prison and will hopefully receive the hero’s welcome she deserves.
By 2005, Swoopes had established herself as a dominant force in the sports world, winning four consecutive WNBA titles from 1997-2000 and three Olympic gold medals. Then that year, she was hired as a spokesperson for lesbian-friendly Olympia Cruises and came out publicly with her then-partner, establishing herself as the most decorated and prominent out athlete in the world at the time.
Although Swoopes later broke up with her partner and eventually married a man, that doesn’t change her status as an LGBTQ history maker and a momentous barrier breaker for our community in the sports world.