(Warning: this article mentions topics that can be sensitive to readers, such as homophobia, racism, transphobia, and discussions of mental health.)
Former Penn Stater Carl Nassib made history on June 21 when he became the first active NFL player to come out as gay.
He came out through a heartfelt post on his Instagram as he posted a video of himself along with text about his decision to come out. “I just think that representation and visibility are so important,” Nassib said.
In the same video, Nassib announced he’s making a donation of $100,000 to the Trevor Project, an organization focused on providing suicide prevention resources to LGBTQ+ youth.
Nassib’s announcement was supported by fans, athletes, and organizations worldwide— such as the NFL and the Penn State community.
The NFL shared on June 22 that they would match Nassib’s donation to the Trevor Project, and claimed they are “committed to year-long efforts around diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
Current Football Head Coach for Penn State, James Franklin shared on Twitter that he was inspired by Nassib’s contribution to make a $10,000 donation to the Trevor Project.
“I was proud of Carl when he led the nation in sacks, but I’m even more proud of him now,” Franklin said.
Nassib’s coming out gave more visibility to a conversation that perhaps shouldn’t be a conversation we’re still having in 2021: the role of LGBTQ+ athletes in sports.
The sports industry is, unfortunately, one that still caters for a male, cisgender, and heterosexual audience. According to Unesco, 40% of all sports participants are women, but only 4% of sports media coverage is dedicated to women’s sports. Organizations such as Just Women’s Sports are working hard to change these numbers.
Meanwhile, bills that restrict the participation of transgender women in sports are being voted and approved across the United States, making the lives of transgender athletes even more difficult.
Thus, anyone who is willing to fight against the cisgender and heterosexual male stereotypes associated with sports is brave, and they deserve to be recognized.
Inspired by Nassib coming out, I’ve gathered a list of some of the most influential LGBTQ+ athletes who have used their platforms in the sports industry to fight for equality and make history.
- Billie Jean King
I can’t talk about LGBTQ athletes who made history without mentioning Billie Jean King (also known as BJK). She is one of the most famous tennis players in history— not only for her (many) athletic accomplishments, such as her victory in the “Battle of Sexes” (which she played against Bobby Riggs in 1973), but also for her fight for women athletes and LGBTQ+ rights.
She was outed by a former lover in the early 1980s, which led her to lose all her endorsements in 24 hours, as she told USA Today. However, it also led her to become a fearless fighter for LGBTQ+ rights.
Her fight for LGBTQ+ and women’s rights brought her recognition beyond the sports world, and she was the first female athlete to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.
BJK is one of the most important names in women’s sports and LGBTQ+ activism. There’s no doubt that the doors she opened back in the 1980s continue to impact and inspire LGBTQ+ athletes to this day.
She is one of the most important names in the fight for equal gender pay in sports, and she is also famous for being one of the first female athletes to be open about her queerness.
- Renee Richards
This American tennis player is a pioneer when it comes to transgender people in sports. Before she transitioned into a woman, Renee had a career competing at the US Open Men’s Single Tournament.
Though she tried to push it back, Renee came to terms with her gender identity in the 1970s, and in 1975 she had gender realignment surgery.
She moved to California after her surgery and didn’t plan on playing tennis professionally anymore, but once she had her previous identity outed the USTA (United States Tennis Association) said she couldn’t compete in official tournaments.
“I never planned to play professionally as a woman. But when they said ‘you’re not going to be allowed to play,’ that changed everything,” she told BBC in February 2021.
She had a year-long battle with USTA for the right to play in the women’s tournaments. With the support of Billie Jean King, she won the battle that would allow her to play tennis in the women’s tournament.
- Kye Allums
Basketball player Kye Allums made history in 2010 when he became the first transgender athlete to play for a NCAA Division I team. Ever since coming out, Allums has been using his voice to advocate for transgender athletes.
He travels to high schools and colleges to share his story, talk to students and, as he told GLAAD, “start conversations that nobody wants to talk about.”
His project “Am I Enough?” encourages queer youth to share their stories so they won’t feel alone in their struggles. In 2015, Allums earned a spot in the National Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame.
“I often feel that I have to try twice as hard just because of the color of my skin. (…) And then you say ‘I’m gay’ on top of that. It just seems like oppression on top of oppression on top of oppression. It just stems from how society is. (…). Being trans, Black and an athlete, I kind of just want to take everything one at a time.” -Kye Allums
- Megan Rapinoe
Megan Rapinoe has been with the USWNT (United States National Soccer Team) since 2006, and she is undoubtedly one of their fiercest players.
Throughout her career, she’s been known for standing up for what she believes in— either by kneeling for the national anthem in support of Colin Kaepernick in 2016, or speaking out against the new bills banning transgender athletes from participating in school sports in 2021.
Her activism got even more attention in 2019, when Rapinoe was asked if she was excited to visit the White House and said “I’m not going to the f*cking White House,” which struck a nerve on the then-President Donald Trump, who said Megan should “win first before she talks” (which she did, a few matches later).
Rapinoe came out in 2012 and has since then been using her voice to advocate for LGBTQ+ athletes and other minorities in sports.
- Tyler Wright
In December 2020, the two-times World Champion Surfer Tyler Wright made history not only by being the first woman to ever win a Championship Tour event at Pipeline, in Hawaii, but also by doing so while wearing a progress flag on the sleeve of her jersey.
On an Instagram post,, Wright wrote that she hopes to “encourage others to embrace exactly who they are and to feel safe, expressing that in a way that is best for them. (…) Surfing is for everyone.”
Wright is constantly using her position in the surf industry to support movements such as Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ+ rights, and gender equality.
- Schuyler Bailar
Schuyler Bailar, an American swimmer, is the first openly transgender man to compete on a NCAA Division I men’s team, and the first transgender athlete to do so for all of four years in college.
He was originally recruited as a member for the women’s swimming team, but he was offered a spot on the men’s team after he transitioned in his gap year— Bailar was given the choice to compete on either team, and he chose to compete for the Harvard men’s swimming team.
Ever since his graduation in 2019, Bailar has been giving speeches about his experience and providing mentorship for LGBTQ+ youth. He uses his Instagram page to share information about current issues, such as bills targeting LGBTQ+ youth and anti-Asian hate, and to advocate for different communities.
- Ryan Russell
Ryan Russell is a former NFL player, who played for the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After a shoulder injury in 2017, Russell hasn’t been signed again. In 2019, Russell came out as a bisexual man in an interview for ESPN.
“Today, I have two goals: returning to the NFL, and living my life openly. I want to live my dream of playing the game I’ve worked my whole life to play, and being open about the person I’ve always been. Those two objectives shouldn’t be in conflict. But judging from the fact that there isn’t a single openly LGBTQ+ player in the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball or the NHL, brings me pause. I want to change that — for me, for other athletes who share these common goals, and for the generations of LGBTQ athletes who will come next.” –Ryan Russell to ESPN, 2019
He has since been using his platform to give more visibility to LGBTQ athletes and the challenges they face; for example, he started a YouTube channel with his boyfriend Corey, “Corey & Russ.”
He is one of the many athletes who has been showing support to Carl Nassib after the player came out, and he is using this momentum to further advocate for more visibility to queer athletes in the NFL and every other sports league.
- Chris Mosier
In 2015, Chris Mosier became the first transgender man to represent the USA in international competition, when he earned a spot on the Team USA Sprint Duathlon men’s team. He has since fought for new, more inclusive policies from international sports institutions.
In 2020, he became the first openly trans man to compete in an Olympic trial, however he was unable to finish the race due to an injury.
Since coming out, he has been a frequent face in sports campaigns. In 2016, he was featured on a Nike commercial that debuted during the Rio Olympics. In the same year, he was the first trans athlete to be featured in ESPN: The Magazine’s Body Issue.
He is the founder of transathlete.com, “a resource for students, athletes, coaches, and administrators to find information about trans inclusion in athletics at various levels of play.”
“And I think that feeling, of being able to represent the country as an athlete and as a person with a trans identity, is really important for me. It feels like a really big moment for me in my athletic career, and I know it’s a big moment for trans inclusion in athletics.” Chris Mosier on earning a spot on Team USA, for ESPN.
- Robbie Rogers
Former soccer player Robbie Rogers came out in February 2013, in a blog post where he also announced he would be retiring. However, a few months later Rogers went back to playing professionally and joined the LA Galaxy soccer team.
When he played his first match for the team on May 26, 2013, he became the first openly gay man to play in a major sports league in the U.S.
On his return to professional soccer, Rogers said he did so because he felt like a coward.
“These kids are standing up for themselves and changing the world, and I’m 25, I have a platform and a voice to be a role model. How much of a coward was I to not step up to the plate?” he told USA Today in 2013.
He has been advocating for LGBTQ rights since he came out, and in 2015 he earned a spot in the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame.
- Jason Collins
Like Robbie Rogers, Jason Collins also came out in 2013. However, as a former player for one of the most popular leagues in America, the NBA, his coming out gained much more attention than Rogers’.
He came out in the cover story of Sports Illustrated magazine, on May 6, 2013. His words that kicked off the story will be a part of LGBTQ+ history forever: “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m Black. And I’m gay.”
His decision to come out received support from names such as Kobe Bryant, Michelle and Barack Obama, and the former NBA commissioner David Stern. In addition, his story for Sports Illustrated generated record numbers for the magazine’s website— Mashable reported that SI.com drew 3.713 visitors on the day the story was published, which was a groundbreaking number in 2013.
When Collins signed with the Nets in February 2014, he became the first openly gay man to play for of the four major American leagues, and second openly gay man to play for a major professional sports league in the USA.
In 2013, he was one of the first names to be inducted into the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame.
- Layshia Clarendon
Basketball player Layshia Clarendon is the first WNBA player who openly indentifies as non-binary and transgender, as well as the first athlete to undergo top surgery while still active.
Clarendon came out as trans and non-binary in December 2020, and the athlete had been using she/her, they/them, and he/his pronouns before that.
It was in January 2021, however, that they announced that they had undergone top surgery. Her announcement was received with the support of her team, New York Liberty, and the WNBA players’ unions.
Clarendon has been one of the most prominent voices in the fight for trans rights, especially the rights of trans athletes. Much of his activism and fight consists of trying to find a place for nonbinary athletes in sports, a world that is built on binary and gendered restrictions.
- Amazin LêThi
Viatnamese bodybuilder Amazin LêThi was left in an orphanage by her mother when she was born, and didn’t have an easy life after that.
Adopted by an Australian family, LêThi was the only Viatnamese child in her classroom; she was constantly the target of racist attacks from her classmates and even her teachers.
The bullying she suffered in her childhood led her to pursue bodybuilding when she was only a child as an escape mechanism, and this sport would be something that would stay with her throughout her adolescence.
As a young adult, LêThi was homeless for a while, and her mental health had reached a state so critical she was contemplating ending her life.
According to her, it was rediscovering her passion for sports that helped her survive her darkest days. LêThi’s journey led her to follow the path of health and fitness expert, and she later became the first internationally published Viatnamese health and fitness author.
On top of her work as a fitness expert, LêThi became one of the most influential voices when it comes to East Asian LGBT people in sports and media. She was responsible for organizing the first “Spirit Day” collaboration with GLAAD and the White House, for example.
“Spirit Day” is only one of the many incredible things LêThi has done for the LGBTQ+ community, as she continues to use her voice to fight for equality.
It’s surprising that in 2021 we still see the words “first gay man” or “first LGBTQ+ person” at all, but these who take the first step are opening up a path for thousands who will come after them.
The sports industry is one that is not very welcoming to those who don’t conform to heteronormative standards, but the people listed above are some of the athletes whose name will be marked in history as those who are fighting for change and using their voices to make a difference in the sports industry.
We celebrate Nassib’s decision to come out, and the work of other advocates that came before him. It takes courage to be who you are, especially in an industry that is not very welcoming to those who are different.