A Brief History of Openly Gay Olympians

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Winter Olympics 2018 - US Gay Athletes from Community of Lights on Vimeo.

 

Watching figure skater Adam Rippon compete, it’s easy to forget that he’s on skates. His dramatic, sharp movements – and facial expressions to match–emulate those of a professional dancer, at once complementing and contradicting his smooth, unfettered movement along the ice. He hides the technical difficulty of every jump and spin with head-flips and a commanding gaze, a performer as well as an athlete. But there’s one thing Rippon won’t be hiding – this year, he and freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy will become the first openly gay American men to ever compete in the Winter Olympics. 

 

Gus Kenworthy Kissing Matthew Wilkas during Olympics

Gus Kenworthy Kisses his Boyfriend Matthew Wilkas During

the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea 

 

 

Gus Kenworthy Olympics Heads Shoulders1 1 2

Gus Kenworthy - Freestyle Skier US Team Winter Olympics 2018

 

 

“The atmosphere in the country has changed dramatically,” says Cyd Zeigler, who co-founded Outsports, a news website that highlights the stories of LGBT athletes, in 1999. “Two men getting married wasn’t even a possibility when we started Outsports. Now it’s a reality in Birmingham, Alabama. There are gay role models at every turn – on television, on local sports, and in our communities.”

 

 Carl Hester Equaestrian Great Britan 2004

Carl Hester — Team Dressage — Summer Olympics 1996 Atlanta

 

GuenterSeidel

Gunter Seidel US Equestrian Dressage Team  2004

 

Even so, the last time that the United States sent an openly gay man to any Olympic Games was in 2004, when equestrians Guenter Seidel and Robert Dover won bronze in team dressage. It was Dover’s sixth time representing the United States at the Olympics; during his second Games, in 1988, Dover came out, becoming the first openly gay athlete to compete in the modern Olympics.

 

Robert Dover Six Time Olympian 

 Robert Dover - Six Time Olympic Medalist

 

“I wish that all gay athletes would come out in all disciplines – football, baseball, the Olympics, whatever,” Dover has said. “After six Olympics, I know they’re in every sport. You just have to spend one day in the housing, the gyms, or at dinner to realize we’re all over.” Indeed, by the time Dover came out on the international stage, it was clear that gay athletes were competing and winning in all levels of professional sports. Seven years earlier, tennis star Billie Jean King was famously outed when a lawsuit filed by a former lover led her to publicly admit to having a lesbian affair. (King promptly lost her all her professional endorsements, but later said she only wished that she had come out sooner.)

Tom Waddell Founder of the Gay Olympic Games

 

In 1982, former Olympian Tom Waddell – who would die from AIDS at the height of the epidemic five years later – helped found the first Gay Games for LGBT athletes. 1,350 athletes competed.

 

 John Curry Figure Skater

John Curry Figure Skater Gold Medalist 1976 Winter Olympic Games

Insbruck, Austria 

 

But it was more than a decade earlier when an openly gay athlete first performed in the Olympic Games. Just not exactly during competition. English figure skater John Curry had barely come off the high of winning gold at the 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, when reporters caught wind of his sexuality from an article published in the International Herald Tribune. They cornered the skater in a press conference to grill him on matters most personal, according to Bill Jones’s Alone: The Triumph and Tragedy of John Curry. Curry acknowledged that the rumors about his sexuality were true, but when journalists asked prurient questions betraying the era’s misconceptions about homosexuality and masculinity, Curry fought back: “I don’t think I lack virility, and what other people think of me doesn’t matter,” he said. “Do you think that what I did yesterday was not athletic?” (It should be noted as well that homosexual acts were outlawed in the U.K. at the time.) But even though the competition was over for Curry, custom had it that medal winners were expected to appear in exhibition performances. There, in a fiery, unflinching athletic spectacle, Curry abandoned his usual lively routine of skips and hops for a stern technical masterpiece, making him the first openly gay athlete to perform on the Olympic stage. “When everyone had telephoned their story and discussions broke out in many languages around the bar, opinion began to emerge that it was Curry who was normal and that it was we who were abnormal,” wrote Christopher Brasher, a reporter for The Observer, in his coverage that year.

 

German Runner Otto Peltzer First Gay Olympian 1928 

German Runner Otto Peltzer - First Openly Gay Athlete 1928 

 

LGBT journalists and historians, including Zeigler and Tony Scupham-Bilton, have catalogued the many Olympians who were homosexual but competed in a time before being “out” was safe and acceptable. German runner Otto Peltzer, for instance, competed in the 1928 and 1932 Olympics, but was arrested by the Nazis in 1934 for his homosexuality and was later sent to the concentration camps. In more recent years, athletes have waited to come out until after their time in competition was over, including figure skaters Johnny Weir and Brian Boitano and American diver Greg Louganis. Louganis was long rumored to be gay, but didn’t come out publicly until the opening ceremonies of the 1994 Gay Games: “Welcome to the Gay Games,” Louganis said to the crowd. “It’s great to be out and proud.”

 

Amelie Mauresmore 

 Amélie Mauresmo - Among First Women to Come Out Prior to an

Olympic Tennis Competition

 

Though the early history of openly gay Olympians is dotted with male athletes, openly gay women have quietly gained prevalence in recent competitions. French tennis player Amélie Mauresmo is among the first women to come out publicly prior to an Olympic appearance – though, Zeigler added, whether an athlete comes out publicly is based in part on the prominence of their sport outside the Olympics. In 1999, a year before her first Olympic competition, reporters questioned her sexuality after an opponent called her “half a man” for showing up to a match with her girlfriend. Mauresmo’s casual discussion of her sexuality as an integral part of her life and dismissal of concerns that she would lose sponsorship represented a shift in the stigma surrounding coming out as an athlete. Fear of commercial failure still underpinned many athletes’ decisions not to come out, but Mauresmo was undaunted. “No matter what I do, there will always be people against me,” Mauresmo has said. “With that in mind, I decided to make my sexuality clear... I wanted to say it once and for all. And now I want us to talk about tennis.” Mauresmo still faced criticism for her “masculinity.” But her sponsor, Nike, embraced her muscular look by designing clothes that would display her strength, according to the 2016 book Out in Sport. Mauresmo went on to win silver in women’s singles in 2004.

 

 John Fennell Mens Single Luge

 John Funnell - Winter Olympic Athlete - 2014 Winter Olympics Sochi, Russia

 

At the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, 11 openly gay athletes competed, only one of whom – Australian diver Matthew Mitcham, who won gold and is a vocal LGBT activist – was a man. All six openly gay athletes at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver were women, as were all seven of the openly gay athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Both of the intervening Summer Olympics saw a greater turnout of openly gay athletes, but women still held the large majority. In 2016, four of the players on the U.S. women’s basketball team – Delle Donne, Brittney Griner, Seimone Augustus and Angel McCoughtry––were openly gay.

 

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Gus Kenworthy and Adam Rippon - Openly Gay Athletes

 2018 Winter Olympics - Pyeongchang South Korea

 

This accounting of course elides that sexual orientation is a spectrum. Olympians who openly identify as bisexual, for instance, are growing in number as well. Additionally, the International Olympic Committee, and the many governing bodies within, have made some strides when it comes to recognizing that gender is not binary, though policies for transgender athletes remain a thorny debate among officials and athletes. That being said, the IOC allowed pre-surgery transgender athletes to take part in the 2016 Rio Games.

 

 Winter Olympic Bubble

 

With this year’s Winter Games in Pyeongchang, Rippon and Kenworthy are the first openly gay American men to compete in the Olympics since the legality of same-sex marriage was established throughout the United States in 2015, and the cultural shift is apparent. While American tennis legend Martina Navratilova, who came out in 1981 but competed as an Olympian for the first time in 2004, has said that coming out in 1981 cost her $10 million in sponsorships, Kenworthy boasts sponsorships with Visa, Toyota and Ralph Lauren, to name a few. The skier also recently appeared in an ad for Head & Shoulders, with a rainbow pride flag waving behind him. “The atmosphere for LGBT athletes has changed quicker in past decade,” says Scupham-Bilton, LGBT and Olympic historian. “In the 20th century there was more homophobia in sport and society in general. As the increase in LGBT equality has progressed, so has acceptance of LGBT athletes.”

 

Russia gay activists protest

 

There’s one notable exception: Sochi 2014. The summer before hosting the Winter Olympics, in what many saw as an affront to gay rights activism, the Russian government passed a law prohibiting the promotion of “nontraditional” sexual relationships to minors. The United States used the Olympic platform as an opportunity for subtle protest, including prominent gay athletes Brian Boitano, Billie Jean King and Caitlin Cahow in its Olympic delegation, and protests were staged across the world. Despite the outpouring of international support, Canadian figure skater Eric Radford opted to wait until after Sochi to come out, citing his desire to be recognized for his skill, rather than his sexuality. He’s already made his mark at the Pyeongchang Games, where his performance with skating partner Meagan Duhamel vaulted Canada to the top of the team figure skating competition.

 

 winterolympics 700x525

 

Rippon and Kenworthy have used their newfound platforms to make statements on political issues. Rippon made headlines when he refused an offer to meet with Vice President Mike Pence due to disagreements with his stances on LGBT rights – which include past statements that appear to support funding gay conversion therapy. Kenworthy also criticized the Vice President as a “bad fit” to lead the United States’ delegation at the Opening Ceremony in Pyeongchang.

 Screen Shot 2018 02 10 at 6.18.57 AM

 

“There is pressure that comes with this responsibility and I feel I have a responsibility

tothe LGBT community now,” Kenworthy has said.

“I want to be a positive example and an inspiration for any kids that I can.” 

 

 

 

 

Political platforms and sponsorships aside, Rippon and Kenworthy ultimately hoped that by coming out they could live as freer, more authentic versions of themselves – and empower others to do the same. 

 

 

Eric Radford Canada

Adam Rippon (USA Bronze Team Medal) and Eric Radford (Canada Gold Free Skate Couples with partner Meagan Duhamel

 

Canada's Eric Radford becomes first openly gay athlete to win Winter Olympics gold: "So proud that Adam Rippon and I get to wear these medals and show the world what we can do! Both men's careers have taken off since they came out. Radford was first, coming out in December of 2014. Earlier that year, he and partner Meagan Duhamel won bronze in the world championships. In 2015 and 2016? They won gold.

 

 

Rippon came out in 2015, and won the U.S. championships. He made more and more podiums at events like the grand prix, and then after making the U.S. Olympic team, made the Olympic podium. The 33-year-old Radford, who hails from tiny Balmertown, Ontario, celebrated his success with Rippon after the two received their respective medals. 

 

Diver Matthew Mitcham 

Australian Diver Matthew Mitcham (Gold Medalist 2008)

 

Diver Matthew Mitcham 2008

 

Radford joined Australian diver Matthew Mitcham as the only openly gay Olympic champions to date. Mitcham earned gold in the 10-meter platform at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

 

 

US Olympic Athletes

 

 

Adam Rippon at the Oscars

Adam Rippon at the 90th Oscar Award Ceremony - March 4, 2018

 

Adam Rippon ESPN Cover

 

Adam Rippon ESPN

Adam Rippon - ESPN Body Issue 2018

 

Gus Kenworthy and BF Matt Wilkas Oscars

Gus Kenworthy and Matt Wilkas at the Oscars - March 4, 2018

 

 

 

Collin Martin Soccer PLayer

Collin Martin - US Professional Soccer Player Comes Out as Gay

 PRIDE - June 2018 

 

Collin Martin (born November 9, 1994) is an American professional soccer player who plays as a midfielder for Minnesota United in Major League Soccer. He is currently the only active openly gay athlete in MLS, also making him the only out man in any of the big five American sports leagues or any top-division professional men's national soccer league.

 

collin martin minnesota united gay flag

Screen Shot 2018 07 01 at 2.11.39 PM

 

“As we celebrate Pride night, I want to thank my teammates for their unconditional support of who I am,” Martin said in the statement. “In light of my experience as a professional athlete, I want to take this moment to encourage others who play sports professionally or otherwise to have confidence that sport will welcome them wholeheartedly.

 

Collin Martin and Jim in Florida

Collin Martin and Boyfriend 'Jim' in Florida

 

Collin Martin and Jim

 

June is Pride month, and I am proud to be playing for Pride, and to be playing as an out gay man.” “I’m proud that my entire team and the management of Minnesota United know that I am gay,” he said. “I have received only kindness and acceptance from everyone in Major League Soccer and that has made the decision to come out publicly that much easier.” 

 

Robbie Rogers

Robbie Rogers - First Openly Gay US Professional Soccer Player

 

Martin, 23, is the second openly gay MLS player. Former U.S. national team member Robbie Rogers came out in 2013 — a decision that led him to retire from professional soccer in England. Rogers returned to MLS for the Los Angeles Galaxy later that year and became the league’s first openly gay player.

 

Robbie Robert Playing Soccer

 

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Robbie Roger with Husband Greg Berlanti and Son Caleb