How many current professional athletes are gay? An intriguing question, which for many reasons we'll probably never find answers.
Here are just a few good ones to consider…
From early on in high school sports, most athletic adolescent boys tend to seek out the weak in gym class to pick on and give verbal and physical abuse. To them anyone who didn’t play sports were sissies and fags to be beaten up in school parking lots in front of their friends. So it was no wonder that openly gay pro athletes are rarely heard of, or from.
After learning of Mark Bingham’s story (the gay rugby player who helped bring down Flight 93 before it hit the U.S. Capitol), I wondered what other sports pros, out of the approximately 4,000 active in the U.S., had the guts to face the inevitable judgment and fan hatred by coming out.
I was appalled to discover most had to wait until after their careers were over. There’s no doubt in my mind that in all corners of professional athletics from boxing to football, the ranks are full of gays. You’ve just never heard of them. This also includes the ranks of coaches, owners, or general managers.
The most plausible reason would be constant speculation of an opposing team’s sexuality as an insult among sports fans, some of which comb the web and enter discussion boards not only for information, but to start damaging rumors. A good example of this would be when sportswriter Skip Bayless publicly (and unfoundedly) speculated that Dallas Cowboys' quarterback Troy Aikman was gay.
More examples can be found in professional sports athletes like Dave Kopay and Esera Tuaolo (football), Martina Navratilova, and, of course, Billie Jean King (tennis). Unfortunately, because of the overzealous religious influence imposed on the U.S. recently, American athletes have suffered whether they actually were gay or not. The best illustration of why more don’t come out is shown by just looking at what Magic Johnson went through in 1991, when he summoned the courage to announce that he had AIDS. Suddenly his fans didn’t care that he had a death-sentence disease. No, they were more obsessed in gasping repeatedly, “Magic’s Gay!?!” Which, of course, he wasn’t.
An example of how misguided hatred of gays in sports can affect the athletes themselves comes in the form of 6'6", 275-lb offensive lineman Ed Gallagher, who played at the University of Pittsburgh from 1977-79.
In 1985, after years of fighting homosexual urges, he gave in and slept with another athlete. The gut wrenching decision to finally admit to himself that he was gay was too much for him and two weeks later he tried, and failed, to take his own life by leaping off Valhalla's Kensico Dam on March 1, 1985. The attempt left him a paraplegic. In an interview afterward, he said that he couldn’t resolve his inner conflicts of what he’d always been taught a sports athlete was supposed to be versus his sexual urges. So rather than face his own self-loathing and the expected judgment of his fans, he decided to end his own life. He later went on to found “Alive to Thrive.” He died May 4, 2005, of a heart condition.
Here is an honor roll of brave men and women who deserve respect for not only being honest with themselves and their fans, but whose lives were nearly destroyed because of that honesty.
Roy Simmons was an offensive guard between 1979 and 1983 for the New York Giants and Washington Redskins. He came out on The Donahue Show. He is one of only three NFL pros to acknowledge his homosexuality.
Back in 1975, David Kopay, a running back in the NFL between 1964 and 1972, came out of the closet three years after he retired. His 1977 autobiography, The David Kopay Story, became an instant best seller and flew off the shelves as sports fans got their first glimpse of a gay football star.
Kopay’s first lover was Washington Redskins all-star tight end Jerry Smith. From 1965-77, Smith caught 421 career passes and scored 60 touchdowns. He remained in the closet until he died in 1987, even after his affair was revealed in Kopay’s autobiography. Despite the revelation, he was voted one of the 70 greatest Redskins of all time in 2002.
In baseball, former As/Dodgers outfielder Glenn Burke is credited with being one of the inventors of the “high five.” Glenn came out in a 1982 Sports Illustrated article — three years after he was released from his contract with the As. It was rumored that he was traded to the As because Dodgers management suspected he was gay. The hatred and depression of ending his career at 26 led to drugs and he wound up a street person in the San Francisco Bay area, dying alone and broke in 1995.
Other needless past tragedies include:
“Big Bill” Tilden was considered a tennis legend and a much sought-after celebrity in the 1920s. In 1949, he was declared one of the most outstanding athletes of the first half-century by the National Sports Writers Association. He won seven U.S. clay court titles, seven U.S. Opens, three Wimbledons, six U.S. doubles championships, and holds the Davis Cup record for 11 appearances in a challenge or final round. Behind the scenes, Tilden wasn’t careful with his “secret” and, in his celebrity and fame, thought he was secure with his fans’ support. He began intimating to his close friends that he was gay and soon after, a behind the scenes conspiracy began to discredit him and ruin his reputation. In 1953, he died dirt poor in a one-room walk-up apartment, alone and forgotten.
In 1988 Justin Fashanu, was a British star soccer player. Bigots began spreading rumors that he had an ongoing sexual affair with two British cabinet ministers in an attempt to ruin both their careers. His career and self-worth were so devastated that 10 years later they found him in an abandoned garage in East London; the 36-year-old athlete hung himself after an obsessed fan in Maryland claimed he assaulted him. The charges later were proven false.
On the other hand there have actually been some semi-happy endings:
Esera Tuaolo, veteran of the Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, and Atlanta Falcons appeared on an October 2002 episode of HBO's Real Sports. Upon seeing this, San Francisco 49ers' running back Garrison Hearst was quoted as publicly announcing “I don’t want any faggots on my team,” and later had to apologize for it. Before making peace with the negative reactions, Tuaolo had considered suicide after bouts of depression and intense loneliness. Fortunately, with the help of some of his former teammates, a concerted effort of the gay and lesbian community to stand by him, and his lover, Esera now leads a happy life.
Does anyone not know the name Martina Navratilova, the tennis great who came out as a lesbian in the New York Daily News in 1982?
Billie Jean King has been a household name for decades, and rightfully so. Billie won 20 Wimbledon titles, helped found the Women’s Tennis Association, was named the Associated Press’s Woman Athlete of the year in 1967 and 1973, named Sports Illustrated’s 1972 “Sportsperson of the Year,” and Time Magazine’s Woman of the Year for 1976. In front of 30,472 cheering fans packing the Houston Astrodome and 50 million TV viewers, she beat tennis hustler and former champion Bobby Riggs in what was billed as the tennis “Battle of the Sexes.” She was forced out into the Gay Rights forum when her ex-lover sued her for “Galimony,” which, fortunately, didn’t seem to hurt her career at all.
According to an April 12, 2005, Sports Illustrated poll, sports fans are far more accepting of lesbians in sports than gay men. Overall though, in the same poll 86 percent of Americans think openly gay male athletes should be able to play in team sports. However, the poll went on to say that 68 percent of respondents think it hurts an athlete’s career to be openly gay.
With rare exceptions these days, most overseas gay men have found acceptance in the world of sports. Voted fourth in “Total Sport’s” 10 Toughest Men Of Sport list, popular Australian rugby star Ian Roberts came out in 1995, while still currently at the top of his macho game. He’d played front rower in 85 games for South Sydney, over 100 in Manly, and, at the age of 23, was the highest paid rugby league player in the world. The other players on the North Queensland Cowboys shrugged his revelation off as no big deal and his fans followed suit. In a 1996 interview, Roberts is quoted as saying:
"I take offense at the old locker room argument which assumes a man cannot, in any circumstances, control his urges. Any self-respecting human being can respect the rights and ways of another human being. The idea, then, that gays can convert, or want, heterosexual guys, is ludicrous. We want to play the game, not the field."
Despite expectations of a drop in his popularity, Roberts has several well-paid endorsement contracts. He’s even posed nude in a gay magazine, with no ill effects to his career, becoming a sex symbol “down under” for both men and women, and has gone on to a successful acting career after retiring from sports.
Greg Louganis is arguably one of the best male divers of all time, winning four gold medals between the 1984 and 1988 Olympics. His career ended after famously hitting his head on a diving board at the '88 Olympics, forcing him to reveal he had AIDS out of concern for the other athletes. His autobiography, Breaking the Surface, and subsequent movie have made him a legend and a sought after celebrity.
In 1968, army physician Tom Waddell came in sixth at the Olympic decathlon. He and his lover Charles Deaton were thrust into the spotlight in 1976 by being the first gay partners to appear in the “Couples” section of People magazine. Tom went on to form plans for the “Gay Olympic Games”, stirring up controversy and lawsuits because of the use of the word “Olympics” in the title. Renamed the “Gay Games,” they first took place in San Francisco in 1982 and since then have grown to feature officially recognized athletic events and record holders, and it boasts participation of thousands of gay and straight registered athletes every four years. Laughably, many straight athletes entered thinking they’d have an easy time of it, only to be proven wrong, then later joined because of the challenge.
A gold medallist in the 800-meter freestyle relay at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, Bruce Hayes came out of the closet at the 1994 Gay Games, winning seven gold medals there and setting several recognized master’s swimming records.
Bob Paris from Indiana won the 1983 Mr. America and Mr. Universe bodybuilding titles. He went on to marry his long-time lover Rod Jackson, changing their names to Jackson-Paris and appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show to discuss it after coming out of the closet in the July 1989 issue of Ironman magazine. He went on to write several books including his autobiography Gorilla Suit: My Adventures in Body Building in 1997.
24-year-old Dutch swimming sensation Johan Kenkhuis, a silver metal winner in the Athens Summer Olympics in the four-man 100-meter freestyle relay, came out in 2004 by mentioning to the press that his boyfriend of four years would be watching him compete. In all, nine other athletes came out of the closet during the games in support. For him, it wasn’t a big deal, nor was it in his homeland where gays have been treated equally for decades.
It’s refreshing to see that in other parts of the world the only thing that matters is how you do your job, perform your task, or excel in your sport.
If only that were the case in the sports world here in the United States, but sadly it's not.