Coming out to win

Prof. Steven Mock from the department of recreation and leisure studies recently performed research on how sports affects the LGBT movement. He found that sports increase the well-being of gay and lesbian athletes. The involvement of the LGBT in sports teams makes gay athletes feel better about their sexual identity, and helps them accept themselves in their everyday lives.

Mock’s research team surveyed adults before and after they participated in sports leagues organized by the LGBT community. The research found that LGBT-focused sports is especially helpful for people that have experienced discrimination and harassment stemming from homophobia.  The research shows how sports play an important part for people, socially and emotionally, giving them a forum to express their identity and feel embraced.

The results comes at a time when gay and lesbian athletes in professional sports are finding the courage to come out, and to break the stigma around LGBT athletes playing in major leagues.

The often forgotten tennis pro Martina Navratilova broke the ground for the LGBT civil rights movements in the 1980s. The Czech native came out in 1981 after becoming a U.S. citizen, facing the ignorance, harassment, stereotypes, and homophobia with courage and class.

The tennis legend did all the talking on the court, winning 18 grand slam titles before stepping away from her successful singles career. Navratilova became a pioneer for the LGBT civil rights movement not only by breaking down stigmas and stereotypes, but showing, by dominating in her sport at the highest level, that sexual orientation does not determine success or failure.

The efforts of Navratilova paved the way for today’s LGBT pioneers in men’s team professional sports. From Jason Collins, the first openly gay player to play in the NBA, to Michael Sam, one of the highest regarded players in college football, and likely to become the first openly gay player to play in the NFL. The courage that it took for these athletes to come out would not be possible without the efforts of Navratilova.

Now Collins and Sam face different challenges in breaking the stigma and stereotypes of gay men in “manly” professional sports locker rooms. Collins displayed courage by coming out in the last act of his long career, but a player like Sam — who has the potential to be an elite performer in the NFL ­— might open the floodgates for other gay athletes who are living in the closet in fear of being themselves. 

Just like Navratilova, Sam might be the first elite gay athlete in a pro sports team to show that sexual orientation and gender behaviour stereotypes have no bearing on how good an athlete can be in their sport.


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