As stigma surrounding gay athletes has diminished, men remain reluctant to come out.
An estimated 50 LGBTQ athletes from around the world will compete during the 2016 Rio Olympics.
It makes these 2016 games, quite literally, the gayest Olympics in modern history with more than double the number that Outsports reported participating in the 2012 games.
What does this tell us? Nothing, really. It’s not as though there’s been some recent flood of gay and bisexual athletes into the world of elite sports over the past four years. Rather, it’s far more likely that LGBTQ athletes have been part of the Olympics all along, just closeted.
That we’re seeing such an increase in the number of out athletes is a testament to an overall increased acceptance of LGBTQ people. Obviously, the level of acceptance can vary wildly by country, but for the most part, things are going in a pretty positive direction. After all, being able to be true to yourself is a good thing, whether you’re an athlete, accountant, or astronaut.
Four of the 12 members of the U.S. women’s national basketball team are gay.
Elena Delle Donne, Angel McCoughtry, Brittney Griner, and Seimone Augustus are four of the greatest basketball players in the world. They also happen to be gay. In the world of women’s basketball, coming out of the closet is treated as pretty minor news.
“It’s been normal,” Delle Donne told USA Today in reference to the public reception she got after coming out in early August. “Nothing crazy. Obviously a couple of people wanting to talk about it here and there. A lot of support. It’s been really nothing too crazy, which is great. That’s where I hope our society moves to, where it’s not a story. It’s normal.”
Delle Donne (#11) and McCoughtry of the United States run up the floor against Serbia during the Rio 2016 Olympics. Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images.
This is a stark contrast to the men’s team. Not only are there zero out gay men on the men’s national team, but there aren’t currently any in the NBA as a whole.
Of the NBA’s 450 players, zero publicly identify as gay or bisexual. In the league’s history, just one player, Jason Collins, has come out while still an active player. Collins, who came out as gay in 2013 after more than a decade in the league, retired at the end of the 2013-2014 season.
Collins (#98) of the Brooklyn Nets celebrates after making a basket during a game against the Denver Nuggets in 2014. Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images.
While it’s true that there aren’t any publicly out gay or bisexual players currently playing in the NBA, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
Statistically speaking, it’s highly unlikely that the league is without at least a few gay or bisexual players currently holding roster spots across the league. There are bound to be at least a handful out there.
“As a player, I’ve been that person where it’s really hard to come out. It’s super hard. You’re just not comfortable with it. You’re worried about not being accepted, being rejected, being cast out. It’s tough. It’s really tough.” – Brittney Griner, WNBA
In 2013, NBA hall of fame player Charles Barkley told radio host Dan Patrick, “Everybody (in the league) has played with a gay teammate.”
Former player John Amaechi (#13) came out as a gay man long after his NBA career ended. Photo by Jess Kowalsky/AFP/Getty Images.
Why is there such a disparity in the stigma surrounding gay athletes between men’s and women’s sports? That’s what some of the top women’s players want to know.
“I would love to see more (come out) on the men’s side, more players feel comfortable to come out,” Griner told USA Today. “But I also understand it because as a player, I’ve been that person where it’s really hard to come out. It’s super hard. You’re just not comfortable with it. You’re worried about not being accepted, being rejected, being cast out. It’s tough. It’s really tough.”
Griner of the United States and Maimouna Diarra of Senegal play during the Rio 2016 Olympics. Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images.
“I would love to see that (sort of support in the NBA), if there are any (gay men). No one should have to hide who they are,” Delle Donne added.
Delle Donne reacts to a call against Serbia at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images.
When it comes to LGBTQ visibility in sports, women historically have been further along than men.
“Female athletes have been ahead of the men in terms of coming out publicly for years,” Cyd Zeigler of Outsports said in an e-mail. “Part of that is that there are more lesbian and bisexual women in elite-level sports than there are gay and bisexual men. That means not just more athletes and coaches to come out, but also a larger support structure within the sport for LGBT women than the men. Plus you have an overall broader cultural acceptance of gay and bisexual women than men have.”
Zeigler, who pretty much wrote the book on LGBTQ athletes, thinks it’ll only be a matter of time before male athletes catch up to women in terms of coming out.
The good news is that by all indications, the NBA appears to be fully supportive of future gay or bisexual players.
Between its handling of Collins’ coming out and the 2017 NBA All-Star game, the league is putting together a pretty LGBTQ-friendly appearance. After the state of North Carolina passed a law that many had labelled anti-LGBTQ (specifically, it targeted transgender individuals), the league warned that without substantial changes to the law, they would have no choice but to pull the game, slated to be played in Charlotte, from the state. The state didn’t make the necessary changes, and in July, the NBA announced that it would follow through on its threat, moving the game to another city.
“While we recognize that the NBA cannot choose the law in every city, state, and country in which we do business, we do not believe we can successfully host our All-Star festivities in Charlotte in the climate created by HB2,” the league said in a statement.
Larry Tanenbaum presents Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan a jersey signifying Charlotte as the host city for the 2017 All-Star game in February 2016. Months later, the league stripped the city of the game in response to the state’s anti-LGBTQ law. Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images.
Hopefully, as time goes on, stigma surrounding gay athletes will continue to diminish. No one should have to hide who they are.
Collins will not go down in history as the only NBA player to be out as gay during his career. The question is whether the next athlete to follow in his footsteps is already in the league or not.
Seton Hall’s Derrick Gordon became the first out gay NCAA Division I men’s basketball player when he came out. Photo by Rich Schultz /Getty Images.
In the meantime, maybe the men could take a lesson or two from the ladies.