As women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe gets set to retire from Seattle’s OL Reign, Pride Source is taking a look back at some other LGBTQ+ athletes who have drawn attention (for better or worse, in some cases) to their respective sport.
Rapinoe, who came out as lesbian a decade ago, has been in the headlines several times over her career, from taking a knee in support of Colin Kaepernick to going up against Major League Soccer in the name of gender-equitable pay for women. She’s also been outspoken about trans athletes competing in sports.
Rapinoe’s position has put her at odds with many, including lesbian tennis legend Martina Navratilova, who has been openly anti-trans when it comes to the matter. Rapinoe recently called out transphobia — and Navratilova — in a new feature in Time magazine.
“When Martina [Navratilova] or Sage [Steele, an ESPN anchor] are talking about this, people aren’t hearing it just in the context of elite sports,” Rapinoe said in the story. “They’re saying, ‘The rest of my life, this is how I’m going to treat trans people.’”
Earlier this year, Rapinoe, an Olympic gold medalist, was recognized at Time’s Women of the Year gala. Upon accepting her award, she dedicated it to the trans community.
“It’s particularly frustrating when women’s sports is weaponized,” Rapinoe told Time. “Oh, now we care about fairness? Now we care about women’s sports? That’s total bullshit. And show me all the trans people who are nefariously taking advantage of being trans in sports. It’s just not happening.”
These seven game changers have left their marks on both their sports and the wider conversation about LGBTQ+ athletes.
Billie Jean King
Tennis legend Billie Jean King was the first women’s tennis player to come out. But it wasn’t exactly by choice. King spoke to NBC News back in 2017 about how she was outed by a former lover in 1981. It was a different world back then, and King could have easily denied the accusation. Instead, she bucked her lawyer and publicist who advised her to do just that.
King, however, decided to confirm it and come out publicly.
“I said: ‘I’m going to do it. I don’t care,'” she told NBC News. “’This is important to me to tell the truth.’ The one thing my mother always said, ‘To thine own self be true.’”
When NBC News asked if, looking back, she’d have done anything differently King was blunt.
“I’d come out earlier.”
Sadly, the Michael Sam experiment did not go as planned. The All-American and Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, Sam was poised to become the first out player to play for a professional football team. Heads rolled when Sam was captured kissing his boyfriend after receiving the news that he had been drafted by the NFL’s St. Louis Rams.
This made him the first out gay player to be drafted by the NFL. But before he could realize his dream, Sam was released by the Rams during the final preseason roster cuts. He went on to spend time on the Dallas Cowboy’s practice squad but was eventually waived.
Today, Sam plays for the Barcelona Dragons in the European League of Football. He never realized his dream of actually being the first out gay man to play in the NFL. Still, he made quite an impact on the sport.
If you’ve watched the world news in the past year or so, you’ve undoubtedly heard the name Brittney Griner. The two-time Olympic gold medalist and six-time WNBA All-Star plays for the Phoenix Mercury made headlines when she was detained in a Russian airport and arrested for smuggling cartridges containing less than a gram of medically prescribed hash oil in her luggage.
Griner was in Russia playing basketball for the Russian Premier League in the WNBA off season. Her stay was involuntarily extended when she was found guilty in a Russian court and sentenced to nine years in prison. She was eventually released as part of prisoner exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Today, she’s back with the WNBA and as popular as ever. Time magazine named her 100 of the most influential people in the world. What she does next — perhaps a memoir — is eagerly anticipated.
Another of Time’s 100 most influential people — this time from 2018 — Adam Rippon is a figure skater who won a bronze medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Prior to that, Rippon won the 2010 Four Continents Championships and the 2016 U.S. National Championships.
Rippon’s trophies don’t stop at figure skating. He also won season 26 of “Dancing with the Stars,” the popular ABC television show. On it, he danced with partner Jenna Johnson and was impeccable. Following these wins, Rippon, who came out in 2015, became an important activist for the queer community.
Rippon guest-hosted season 11 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” Ruveal livestreams in 2019. The same year, he also appeared in Taylor Swift’s “You Need to Calm Down” music video, which would go on to win the MTV Video Music Award for Video of the Year.
OK, before you say anything, Caitlyn Jenner was included in this list after careful consideration. True, she’s been about the most anti-trans so-called trans activist we’ve ever seen. She’s on the wrong side of just about every queer issue, and her life of extreme privilege has endeared her to few. However, Caitlyn, who in 1976, many years before she began transitioning, won a Gold medal for the decathlon at the Summer Olympics in Montreal, went on to become something of a media celebrity.
Rumors of her transition began after she started obviously altering her appearance on the Kardashian clan’s reality show. But no one was expecting to see her on the cover of Vanity Fair photographed by none other than Annie Leibowitz. The shoot and her 20/20 interview marked the first time a lot of people actually saw a trans person. And even if the trans person was an anti-queer Republican, still, the exposure was priceless.
Jason Collins played in the NBA for 13 years, albeit with eight different teams. He was the 18th overall pick in the 2001 NBA draft. At the end of the 2012-2013 season, Collins came out publicly as gay. In February 2014 he signed with the New Jersey Nets, making him the first publicly gay athlete to play in any of the four major North American pro sports leagues.
In an interview earlier this year with Sky Sports, Collins spoke about how the culture in the NBA has changed since he played.
“When I first came into the league back in 2001, the language was completely different,” he said. “You could even say [homophobic] things in press conferences. That started to change in 2007 and 2008. They started fining people, a minimum fine was $50,000.
“There were superstars in the league who got caught using that language and were fined,” Collins went on. “If the superstars can get fined, then everybody can get fined. And that’s when the culture started to shift.
In 2022, Lia Thomas made headlines when she became the first openly transgender athlete to win an NCAA Division I national championship in any sport after taking first in the women’s 500-yard freestyle event. Thomas told Sports Illustrated that she began to question her gender identity near the end of high school. By the end of her first year of college, Thomas came out as trans to her family. She began using her new name on New Year’s Day in 2020.
“In a way, it was sort of a rebirth,” she said. “For the first time in my life, feeling fully connected to my name and who I am and living who I am. I am Lia.”
In February 2022, CNN described Thomas as “the face of the debate on transgender women in sports,” and in March 2022, Sports Illustrated described her as “the most controversial athlete in America.”