7 LGBTQ+ athletes who came out & changed the game

Dame Kelly Holmes celebrating a victory
Dame Kelly HolmesPhoto: Screenshot

Coming out as an athlete is not easy. From fear of judgment and losing popularity, to pervasive gender stereotypes impacting self-worth, there’s a lot to contend with.

So, when athletes do come out, it’s something to commend. They not only show fans that it’s ok to be who they are, but they also break down barriers, start conversations and pave the way for future generations of athletes.

Let’s celebrate some of these LGBTQ+ sports stars who, just by sharing their truth, are totally worthy of gold medals.

Renée Richards

Renée Richards close-up
Renée Richards. Screenshot

Now an ophthalmologist, Renée Richards, 88, is a former tennis player who competed on the professional circuit in the 1970s. She became widely known after undergoing male-to-female sex reassignment surgery as one of the first out trans athletes.

Following her transition, Richards applied to participate in the US Open in 1976. She refused to take the required Barr body test, which would test her blood to find out her sex, and was rejected by the Open. So, she sued the United States Tennis Association for gender discrimination and won. 

Richards eventually retired from the sport in 1981 and has gone on to become an influential coach.

Ryan Russell

Ryan Russell Close-Up
Ryan Russell. Screenshot

Ryan Russell became the first openly bisexual person in the NFL – and in any major professional league – when he came out in an essay on ESPN in 2019.

“I feel as though this could be a step toward that future,” he wrote. “For myself, I’m not looking to be a symbol or media star. I just want to play ball for a team that knows me off the field and values me on it. I want to encourage teammates to be the same people they have always been. I want us to remain as close as family. I want to be able to dedicate my life to football without feeling like I can’t dedicate my life to truth as well.”

The 31-year-old has been praised by the Human Rights Campaign for “creating more space and opportunity for young LGBTQ people to dream big and to pursue their goals”.

He’s since penned an article for The Guardian, calling out the anti-trans laws being proposed across the United States, stating that “sport is one of the strongest conduits to help show society what it is capable of when we come together, but it has to be used for the better of all of us.”

Russell has also spoken about how coming out in the NFL has typically led to players finding themselves unemployed soon after.

He and his boyfriend, Corey O’Brien, have been going strong since 2019. They’re not afraid to pack on the PDA in public and on Instagram.

Dame Kelly Holmes

Dame Kelly Holmes celebrating a victory
Screenshot Dame Kelly Holmes. Screenshot

Dame Kelly Holmes is a retired British middle-distance athlete who specialized in the 800-meter and 1,500-meter events. She won gold medals for both distances at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. 

Despite her success, the running star battled inner turmoil for decades, waiting until 2022 to come out as gay at the age 52 due to fear of persecution.

Holmes hid her sexuality for 34 years after, since she served as a soldier in the Women’s Royal Army Corps in 1988 at the age of 17. It was then that she kissed a female comrade and realized her truth.

But same-sex relationships were banned in the forces, and she spent the following years fearing she could still be punished.

Since bravely coming out, Holmes has sparked important discussions on mental health and sexuality and feels happy for ‘the first time’ in her life. She has also said she’s been “living her youth” to make up for those lost years.

Adam Rippon

Adam Rippon performing
Shutterstock Adam Rippon

Adam Rippon is an American figure skater who launched his career at the World Junior Championships, winning in both 2007 and 2008. He went on to win the 2010 Four Continents Championships and the 2016 U.S. National Championships. At the 2018 Winter Olympics, he won a bronze medal as part of the figure skating team event.

Rippon is openly gay, having come out in 2015. Since then, he’s become a key figure in LGBTQ+ popular culture. He guest-hosted RuPaul’s Drag Race and appeared in Taylor Swift’s “You Need To Calm Down” music video. He was also included in Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2018.

The 33-year-old skating champ has also used his platform to call out harmful politics against LGBTQ+ people. He previously raised concerns about Vice President Mike Pence being chosen to lead the US delegation to the 2018 Winter Olympics opening ceremony due to Pence’s support of anti-LGBTQ+ laws.

Rippon has made numerous charity donations, like to The Okra Project, a charity aimed at helping underprivileged Black transgender people. And when Russian skater Alexei Yagudin called Rippon a ‘mistake of nature’ in response, he donated another $1,000 in Yagudin’s name.

What’s more, he criticized Beijing as the host city of the 2022 Winter Olympics due to its human rights record.

As for his personal life, Rippon is all loved up with his husband, Jussi-Pekka Kajaala.

Megan Rapinoe

LYON, FRANCE - 7 JULY, 2019: Megan Rapinoe of USA waves after the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup Final match between USA and Netherlands.
Shutterstock LYON, FRANCE – 7 JULY, 2019: Megan Rapinoe of USA waves after the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup Final match between USA and Netherlands.

Megan Rapinoe is an American professional soccer player. Her achievements are pretty much endless but to name a few, she won gold with the U.S. National Team at the 2012 London Summer Olympics, as well as the both the 2015 and 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Now 37, Rapinoe previously said she knew she was a lesbian by her first year of college and publicly came out in 2012.

In 2018, she and her partner, basketball star Sue Bird, became the first same-sex couple to cover ESPN’s The Body Issue.

Much like her accolades, her activism is extensive. One of her most notable acts was in 2016 when Rapinoe garnered national attention for kneeling during the national anthem at an international match in solidarity with NFL star Colin Kaepernick. She’s also previously stood in silence during the national anthem.

What’s more, Rapinoe was involved in the U.S. Women’s Soccer team’s successful fight for equal pay and against gender discrimination. She has done philanthropic work for GLSEN, and she is an ambassador for Athlete Ally, a nonprofit organization that focuses on ending homophobia and transphobia in sports.

Carl Nassib

Carl Nassib speaking at a preseason press conference
Screenshot/KVVU-TV Carl Nassib speaking at a preseason press conference

In 2021, Carl Nassib became the first active NFL player to come out as gay. He also spoke at the time about struggling with his mental health while coming to terms with his sexuality, donating $100,000 to The Trevor Project in aid of suicide prevention as a result.

In a video announcement during Pride Month, he said: “I just want to take a quick moment to say that I’m gay. I just think that representation and visibility are so important. I actually hope that one day, videos like this and the whole coming-out process are just not necessary, but until then I’m going to do my best and my part to cultivate a culture that’s accepting, that’s compassionate.”

The 29-year-old has been publicly supported by the NFL, Penn State, and current and former athletes since sharing his true self, later confirming his relationship with former Olympic swimmer Søren Dahl.

Billie Jean King

New York City, June 24, 2018 - Tennis legend Billie Jean King waves to the crowd as Grand Marshall of the New York City Pride Parade.
Shutterstock Tennis legend Billie Jean King participating as the Grand Marshal of the 2018 New York City Pride Parade.

If you know tennis, you probably know Billie Jean King. Now 79, she’s an American former world champion, having won 39 major titles: 12 in singles, 16 in women’s doubles, and 11 in mixed doubles.

Sadly, her coming out wasn’t necessarily on her own terms. In 1981, King was outed as a lesbian, and her publicists told her to deny the claim. But King decided to embrace her true self instead.

Reflecting on NBC News 44 years later, she explained: “I said: ‘I’m going to do it. I don’t care. This is important to me to tell the truth.”

“The one thing my mother always said, ‘To thine own self be true.'”

King has also since spoken about growing up in a homophobic household and struggling with an eating disorder as a result. At the age of 51, she was finally able to talk about her sexuality properly with her parents, saying she no longer had “regrets” after doing so.

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