The acceptance of Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual and Transgender (LGBT) athletes in the US has been a gradual process. As far back as 1920, there have been athletes who secretly identified as LGBT, but who never fully came out to society. Society often harassed and discriminated against those who had the courage to admit to being sexual different and the false stigma was often too great for many to openly identify their sexuality. It wasnt until 1975 before a professional athlete openly admitted to being gay. In his biography, professional football player David Kopay came out as being a homosexual (Logo, 2016). Up until Kopay, no LGBT individual had publicly announced their sexual orientation. Despite Kopays courage it was not until 1982, when the State of Wisconsin passed a state law that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and it would be a full seven-years before the Commonwealth of Massachusetts followed (Griffin, Pat 2).
The LGBT movement in sports has been bolstered by a significant increase in individuals outside the field who have gained acceptance in the workplace while identifying as LGBT. As an increase in recognition of being LGBT gains traction in mainstream society, more athletes are embracing their sexuality. Since Kopay confirmed his homosexuality in 1975 and Billie-Jean King, the first prominent female gay athlete, announced her gender identity in May of 1981, there have been many professional athletes that have come out as being LGBT, however, most of them came out after their professional careers ended. Only in the last five to ten-years has there been an increase in athletes at the height of their career publicly announcing their gender identity.
Athletes who play individual sports have been more forthcoming with identifying with their sexuality. In comparison there have been fewer athletes actively participating on a team who have announced their sexual identity, but early on met with strong resistance. For example, in 1988, British soccer player, Justin Fashanu came out as being gay while playing for his team (ESPN.com, 1998). However, Fashanu was highly ridiculed and ultimately took his own life ten years later. In addition, there have been many Olympic athletes who have come out while training or participating in the Olympic Games. Greg Louganis came out in public during the 1994 Gay Games in San Francisco and divers David Pichler and Patrick Jaffrey competed in the Atlanta games. However, these athletes did not participate in what is consider professional male dominated sports; NBA, NHL, NFL, MLB and MLS teams.
Glen Burke may have been the first to play on a professional sports team as a gay man back in 1976, but society was not ready for change at the point and Burke was not fully recognized as a gay athlete. It is generally accepted that Jason Collings of the Brooklyn Nets was the first openly gay athlete when he came out in April 2013 (Buzinski, J). Following Collins, there were others Robbie Rogers, a professional soccer player and Michael Sam of the St. Louis Rams to name a few. Many thought that this would be the beginning of a stream of male professional athletes coming out as being part of the LGBT community. However, in 2018, there have been nearly no openly admitted gay men playing professional sports.
On the other hand, male dominated collegiate sports go as far back as the early 1900s to find the first outwardly gay male athlete. In 1912, Cal-Berkley track and field star Hubert Stowitts openly admitted he was gay, yet over 100-years later, there have been only SEVEN male collegiate football players that have come out as being gay or bi-sexual (Buziniski, J), even this low number is considered to be perhaps a swinging of the pendulum.
A lot of people assume that because youre playing a sport like football that theres assumption that its a very masculine sport, and obviously it is, but it doesnt mean that my teammates wont be accepting of someone who is gay, (Jake) Bain said. It shows how the tide is turning. (Buziniski, J)
On the flip side, woman athletes, both professional and collegiate, have been ahead of their male counterparts in openly identifying while still playing. In collegiate athletics, 8% of woman identify themselves as being lesbian/transgender compared to just 3% of male athletes (Rankin S. and Merson, D, 5). This may be due to the false conception, that all woman who play sports, professional and collegiate, are lesbians, forcing female athletes into outwardly declaring their sexuality, either heterosexual or lesbian, far ahead of men. For instance: Sheryl Swoopes of the WNBA, identified with being a lesbian as early as 2005-8-years before Jason Collins. Following Swoopes, there have been many high-profile female athletes that have come out as being lesbian including; Brittny Griner, Megan Rapinoe, Abby Wambach and Seimone Augustus.
Since the beginning of professional and collegiate sports competition, teams have been primarily male or female. There are more examples of transgender athletes in collegiate sports than professional, for instance, Kye Allums, identified as female and played womans basketball for George Washington University in 2010 and Ryan LaVigne was a rower for the Lewis and Clark womans crew team in. Professionally, it wasnt until Harrison Brown of the Buffalo Beauts played in a game for the NWHL in October 2016, that the first transgender athlete played on a professional team (Perez, AJ). There is not however, a lengthy list of females identifying as men playing on collegiate mens teams, primarily due to the misconception that females cannot play with men. Despite the gender split that still exists on teams, and similar to their gay male counterparts, transgender athletes have found success in competing in fields that are considered individual competitions. For example; Renee Richards played professional tennis as a transgender female, Mianne Bagger played on the LPGA and Chris Mosier competed in the triathlon. Perhaps the most famous transgender athlete is Caitlyn Jenner, but Ms. Jenner did not come out as female during her competitive years (LGBT Ranker).
The acceptance of LGBT individuals is and has moved faster in mainstream society than it has in professional and collegiate athletics. Individuals identifying as LGBT have been granted many civil rights in the last decade, including the right to marry and serve in the military (those identifying as transgender and serving in the military is currently being challenged by the Trump administration). The popularity of President Obama and his pro-LGBT agenda may have been a key breakthrough in setting new societal norms (Kian, Anderson, Vincent and Murray, 2). Despite the growth of acceptance in society, professional and to a lesser extent collegiate athletes, have remained silent as to their gender identity. Both professional leagues and the NCAA have written non-discrimination policies towards LGBT, but this has not aided in the speed to which athletes have come forward.
Predicting the future is a slippery slope. But, the Millennial and Gen-X generations have been on teams and competing with and against LGBT individuals virtually all their sporting lives. These two generations do not know a society without a competition that does not include a teammate that is gay, lesbian, bi or transgender. As these two generations move from high-school to college to professional athletics, it may be safe to say that more and more who identify as LGBT will feel safe in acknowledging their gender identity. It will not be considered out of the norm to be a LGBT athlete, male or female and be on a professional or collegiate team, it will just be normal.