Coming out day is a day in which people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer come out to their friends and family. It’s also a day where people can celebrate their sexuality and be proud of who they are.
Coming Out Day is a day that was created by the Human Rights Campaign to celebrate the courage of those who have come out as LGBTQ. The first coming out day was held in 2002, and it has been celebrated every year since then.
For members of the LGBTQ+ community, the phrase “coming out” reflect a virtually universal experience, and frequently a defining event. On October 11, in honor of Coming Out Day, ESPN talked with 17 out athletes from across the globe about their experiences.
Athletes from Argentina to Australia, America to Africa, and a variety of other countries gave information of their quest for identity, why they came out publicly, and how their lives have altered as a consequence.
Here are some of the questions that each athlete was asked. You can also read their complete interviews in Spanish and Dutch, as well as this feature.
What was it like for you to “come out to myself”?
Luke Prokop, NHL prospect: There was a lot of questioning, and it took a long time. Seeing how far we’ve come in the world and the steps we’ve taken has helped me feel a bit more at ease. I just made a huge leap of faith and believed in myself. I first came out to myself, and subsequently to my friends and family. It was difficult to keep it hidden. Being in hockey, locker-room chatter is extremely common, and it’s something I didn’t want to discuss. I tried to keep my distance from the subject of discussion. It was difficult for me to get through those four or five years.
Olympic skateboarder Alana Smith: It was probably the most difficult, particularly growing up in a family where emotional availability was limited. I had to find things out on my own since we didn’t really talk about anything. “Wow, I feel this way about everyone,” I said, “and I’m not sure whether it’s normal.” I began searching up individuals [on the internet] and discovered that [being bisexual] was not a problem. Being non-binary was also a journey in and of itself. I was thinking to myself, “I don’t always feel like I’m on one end of the spectrum or the other. Maybe I’m feeling both ways on certain days.” In-between is a good match for me. The process of finding out who I was was certainly a struggle.
Collin Martin, a footballer: I’d known I loved boys since elementary school. When you repress something for so long, you lose sight of how it will become a reality in your life. So I dealt with my sexuality as “How am I going to make this work?” or, more specifically, “How am I going to marry a woman and have kids and not allow this to be my reality?” throughout middle and high school. Not only was I having trouble with teammates, but I was also attending to church on a daily basis and worrying how much I was sinning simply by being myself. There are many levels to this. My family was very supportive, although they were unaware that I was homosexual. I didn’t really start to [come to terms] with my sexuality until I graduated from Wake Forest [University].
Ian Roberts, a rugby league legend: I’d always known [being homosexual] wasn’t accepted by society, so I kept it hidden. In my early twenties, I came out to my parents for the first time. For the first five or six years after I came out, I didn’t have a nice connection with my family, but my parents eventually warmed up to me. My father was completely accepting of the LGBTIQ+ community by the time he died [seven years ago]. I’ll never forget sitting at the table with my girlfriend and mother as my father read a newspaper. We were discussing marriage equality in Australia when he laid down his paper and turned to us, asking, “Why shouldn’t you be able to marry the person you love?” He took up his newspaper and resumed reading. To get to that point, my father had to go a long way.
Ian Roberts, Brittney Griner, Charlie Martin, Sebastian Vega, Merel van Dongen, and Dutee Chand, clockwise from top left. ESPN created the illustration.
Did you have a particular purpose for becoming public with your private life rather than keeping it private?
Olympic diving champion Greg Louganis: When I was in my early twenties, I came out to my friends and family, but not to the press. Because the dive team is tiny and we travel worldwide, many in USA Diving were aware of my gay orientation. “It’s wonderful to be out and proud,” I said as I welcomed the competitors to the 1994 Gay Games. That was the moment when I made my public debut. I came out at that time because I was getting ready to release my book, “Breaking the Surface,” in 1995, and I needed to start becoming comfortable talking about my sexual orientation in interviews. I was also coming out about my HIV status, an abusive relationship, depression, and a learning disability. That was a first step toward being able to discuss who I was as a complete person.
Brittney Griner, WNBA star: It’s a terrible feeling to feel like you’re not being true to yourself and looking in the mirror and not like what you see. I didn’t want anybody to be in that situation. I’ve never had somebody that I could look up to who was, like, enormous. As a result, I wanted to be someone others looked up to. Everyone who contacts me says, “You helped me, you inspired me,” and I believe that is more important than basketball. Any prize is greater than a gold medal. Because I’ve been there, knowing that you helped someone from feeling sad or having bad thoughts is a great feeling.
Charlie Martin, an endurance racer: I thought it had a lot of potential. I believe that racing, particularly in such a male-dominated sport with little apparent diversity, is severely deficient in tales that might inspire and educate others. “Doesn’t it irritate you when people perceive you as ‘trans racing driver Charlie Martin’?” some people ask. It doesn’t, because the power of visibility is more essential than my saying, “Yeah, it’d be great if I wasn’t prefixed as trans.”
Dutee Chand, an Olympic sprinter, said, “I had confided in my mother and older sister about my love for a girl and my wish to marry her a year before it became public.” When my connection with my sister became strained, she threatened to reveal [information] about my same-sex relationship to the media, which she did out of hatred for me. The local press ran articles about me, and it eventually became national news, so I decided to stand out for myself.
Katie-George Dunlevy, paralympian: I don’t speak about it very frequently because it’s [typically] irrelevant, but as time passes, I find myself thinking, “Actually, if it gives hope to someone out there, then I should.” Also, since I’m handicapped and feminine, I have three requirements: I’m handicapped in sports since I’m partly sighted, and I’m also out. I’d be delighted to discuss it with you. I’m not screaming it from the rooftops, but I’m also not concealing it like I used to.
Has coming out had any effect on your job or opportunities?
Phuti Lekoloane, a footballer, says it had a detrimental effect on his career. Because of my sexuality, several clubs have closed their doors in my face. It has struck me hard and taken a lot away from me. “How are we going to accommodate you?” the query was, “since we don’t think our players will be happy sharing rooms and showers with you and going to camp with you.” Another time, the team’s owner informed me that my sexuality was against the team’s values, and that having a homosexual soccer player on the squad wouldn’t look good.
Griner: Before I became pro, I told myself that if I had to alter how I look or dress, I’m not interested. They can have it if I have to put on a lot of makeup or seem extra feminine simply to obtain an endorsement or appear in a commercial. I’m not going to sell myself out for a buck, fame, or anything else.
Basketballer Sebastian Vega: I saw a significant difference in my confidence on the court, not in terms of technique. I was truly enjoying everything that was happening to me, something I hadn’t been able to do before since there were always obstacles, things within my mind, and ghosts that prevented me from enjoying things. “Seba, you look different, you seem so joyful and wonderful on the court,” several reporters, teammates, and acquaintances told me.
Dutee Chand of India is the current women’s 100m champion and has participated in the 2016 and 2020 Olympic Games. She says she wants to be a part of the squad for Paris 2024. Getty Images/Lintao Zhang
What has changed in your sport in terms of the LGBTQ+ community throughout the course of your career?
Merel van Dongen, a footballer, says: “We’re becoming more open about our relationships; we don’t believe it’s something you should keep to yourself anymore.” It would be fantastic if it could happen in men’s football. As a great soccer player, women’s football may be an example of transparency about who you are and who you love when it comes to football as a sport. In men’s football, on the other hand, you can’t be yourself. Men may learn from women that it doesn’t matter who you are, as long as you’re a professional.
Olympian in volleyball Douglas Souza: The LGBTQ+ community in Brazil has long been active, particularly in women’s volleyball. Everyone always has a soft spot for the national team and the club leagues. What’s changed, I believe, is that with the rise of social media, there are now hundreds of groups discussing the players. We now have greater room to express ourselves.
Ramsey Angela, Olympic athlete: It may seem strange, but I’ve just been aware of the [LGBTQ+ sports] group since last summer. I was aware of its existence, but I never paid attention to it. At the very least, I’m more conscious of what the letters signify now. We conducted a training camp in Shiba, near Tokyo, before heading to the Olympic Village. Thanks to an article in Attitude magazine, I awoke one morning with a few thousand new [Instagram] followers. “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa
What is the most gratifying, and maybe surprising, aspect of being outside?
Michelle Heyman, a Canberra United footballer, received a letter from a young girl during a game who was attempting to come out to her parents and needed guidance. She posed the following questions to me: “How did it turn out for you? Do you think my parents will despise me? Do you think they’ll still like me?” Then, at the next home game, her mother approached me and told me about her [daughter’s] coming out, and how happy they were to have my support. Sharing a meaningful and lovely moment with a fan and her parents was a true honor.
Collin Martin: A buddy of mine told me, “You have the potential to have a far greater effect. It’s wonderful that you’re supported, and I believe you should let others know. There aren’t many individuals like you… you have to come out.” And I know that seems easy, but when it’s just you, you don’t think that way. You don’t believe your actions will have an effect on others. It was something that really astonished me.
Chand: I’m comfortable holding hands with my spouse in public. We used to stand on opposite sides of malls, parks, and streets before I came out. We can now travel together without worrying about what others may think of us. The unexpected aspect has been the outpouring of support I’ve gotten from individuals all around the globe. My image has been on the covers of major publications, I’ve been invited to a couple of India’s most popular TV programs, and the LGBTQ community has been supportive of me.
Out sportsmen from a range of sports share their own experiences with the most surprising advantages of coming out.
What advise would you provide to those who are having trouble figuring out who they are?
Adam Rippon, an Olympic figure skater: Nobody gives a damn. I know it seems irrational, but no one truly cares. That shouldn’t make you unhappy; it should make you feel free, since the only one who truly cares about how you feel and interact with the rest of the world is you, so concentrate on what you like rather than trying to please others. Simply ask yourself the following questions: What do I enjoy? Is this anything I like? Is this something I’d want to put on? Do I want to speak with this individual? Is this individual attractive to me? Ask yourself just the most basic questions and don’t make it any more difficult than it has to be.
Charlie Martin (Charlie Martin): If you don’t have anybody in your life with whom you feel comfortable sharing your ideas, counseling may be an option to consider — having someone objective assist you discover solutions to your concerns. Not everyone transitions; it’s sometimes a matter of choosing to live as the identity with which they are most at ease. It may be intimidating, and you may feel compelled to make significant changes in your life. Starting with minor changes, like as altering your name, pronouns, how you dress, and how you style your hair… The greatest approach to get started is to do little things, and it’s a fantastic way to discover what feels comfortable to you without putting yourself under pressure.
Smith: One of the things I’ve had to learn is that I’ll never stop growing as a person, and that rushing to labels isn’t essential since it’s such a difficult, lengthy, and powerful process. It’s OK to take your time. It is OK to express yourself and attempt new things. Try on the T-shirts until you find one that suits you. If you change, don’t be too harsh on yourself; it happens.
Adam Rippon, a former figure skater, won bronze in the team event at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. At the Games, he was one of three out athletes on Team USA. Getty Images/Maddie Meyer
What were your worst- and best-case situations while you were contemplating coming out in your mind? And did any of these things happen?
Lekoloane: Because of the country’s LGBTQ+ homicides, I was afraid for my life. It’s a common occurrence. I’m afraid to go out because you never know when they’ll come after you. That is the one thing that makes me nervous.
Chand: I’d previously waged a hard fight over the hyperandrogenism rule to win the opportunity to race again, and I didn’t want to waste it. The best-case scenario would be for me to compete in the Tokyo Olympics and no longer have to conceal who I am. My career has not suffered as a result of my coming out as I had feared. I could race in Tokyo and then return to my beloved.
Roberts: I have one buddy who I’ve known since I was a teenager, he’s my age, and we grew up partying together in the 1980s and 1990s. He came out to his family when he was in his twenties, and they haven’t talked to him since. “Oh my goodness, it still occurs, you’re my age, you’re 55, and your parents aren’t talking to you,” it struck me in the face when I saw him three or four months ago.
Have you ever felt obligated to serve as a role model or an advocate for the LGBTQ+ community? Is it something you’re willing to accept right now?
Lola Gallardo, a footballer, says she feels at ease since she hasn’t changed who she is. It occurs on its own when you aren’t playing a part or pushing anything to happen. I’ve never been under that sort of stress, but I like being someone that others can look up to and who can make their lives a little bit simpler. I’m extremely proud of my life narrative, and I hope that everyone else was as well.
Rippon: I’ve never felt obligated to be a role model because I don’t believe I am one, but if I can do things that inspire others, that’s fantastic. I believe I arrived here because I learnt to concentrate on things that were really genuine to me. I’d speak about it if there was anything I wanted to talk about. I would speak out if I thought something wasn’t quite right. I would go out of my way to make sure that someone understood how much I appreciated what they done. I’d just attempt to empower others in that manner. I hope that’s something people took away from my sports life and athletic career. I hope it has motivated them, but I’m not sure whether I am a role model.
Louganis: One of my concerns when I came out with my HIV diagnosis was that I would become the poster boy for the disease. That wasn’t what I intended, but in a way, I did give it a face and made it more visible. That, I thought, was a good thing. I didn’t want that sort of attention, but I discovered that stepping into it can be very powerful and impactful. When I deal with children, I urge them to develop the skills necessary to become their own heroes. If we keep moving ahead in that direction, we will have lived a life to be proud of.
Lucas Benicio, Lucie Bertoldo, Kyle Bonagura, Bethan Clargo, Pablo Cormick, Lindsay du Plessis, Sjors Grol, Emily Kaplan, Alex Kirkland, Niamh Lewis, Kathleen McNamee, Susan Ninan, Jean Santos, Leonard Solms, Josh Weinfuss, Lucas Benicio, Lucie Bertoldo, Kyle Bonagura, Bethan Clargo, Pablo Cormick, Lindsay du Plessis, Sjor
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