LGBTQ People and Sports
*This section was created as a collaboration between GLAAD, Athlete Ally, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the Inclusion Playbook
In recent years, we’ve seen increased media coverage at the intersection of athletics and LGBTQ equality. The coming out of prominent athletes including U.S. Olympic and professional soccer star Megan Rapinoe, NFL player Carl Nassib, WNBA star Layshia Clarendon, WNBA star and 5-time Olympic gold medalist Sue Bird, Team USA triathlete/duathlete Chris Mosier, NFL veteran Ryan Russell, former Olympic gymnast Josh Dixon, Luke Prokop in the NHL and others, including college and high school athletes, has driven national attention to these conversations.
On the foundation set by LGBTQ sports pioneers such as Billie Jean King, Jason Collins, Greg Louganis, Esera Tuaolo, Billy Bean, Wade Davis, Gus Kenworthy, and Johnny Weir, today’s LGBTQ athletes, fans, coaches, staff, and other leaders in the world of sports and athletics are more comfortable being out in the media.
In November 2021, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) issued a new framework of guidelines to encourage the inclusion and safety of all athletes and their right to participate without fear of discrimination or harm to their health and dignity, including LGBTQ athletes. According to Outsports, at least 185 out LGBTQ athletes participated in the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 (which took place in 2021), including the first out transgender and nonbinary Olympians, Laurel Hubbard of New Zealand, Alana Smith of the U.S., and Quinn of Canada, to qualify. In total, 56 out LGBTQ athletes won at least 32 medals, many using their platforms to speak up for LGBTQ people around the world. At least 22 out athletes also competed at the Paralympics in Tokyo. GLAAD, Athlete Ally, and Pride House Tokyo released a guide to Covering LGBTQ Athletes at the Olympics and Paralympics.
LGBTQ athletes belong in sports and are driving progress at all levels. For decades, prominent LGBTQ athletes have been competing and, alongside their allies, pushing sports to be a more inclusive space. Today, many coaches, managers, athletes, staff, and athletic organizations are working to demonstrate and operationalize their commitment to LGBTQ inclusion. Discourse at the intersection of LGBTQ equity and sports is certainly gaining visibility and prominence, but to describe it as a “new” or “hot” topic misrepresents LGBTQ history in sports.
Allow players to play. It is important to recognize the significance of out LGBTQ athletes to their sport, but first and foremost, LGBTQ athletes are athletes. Do not make the mistake of ignoring an athlete’s experience — their sport, performance, schedule, training, nutrition, team, and other things — to solely focus on their experience as an LGBTQ person.
Sports are more than out pro athletes. While out pro athletes are certainly one source, there are coaches, administrators, retired players, student athletes, fans, and fellow teammates who support out pro athletes, and may be well-poised to be interviewed. Media should consider additional voices to speak to the state of LGBTQ inclusion in sports, instead of just the few out professional athletes. Communications departments representing the team are best suited to put media in touch with interviewees, versus direct contact with an athlete over their social media profiles.
Not all LGBTQ athletes have the same experience. While sporting spaces have made progress in terms of LGBTQ inclusion, this progress is not always felt equally by all members of the LGBTQ community. Systems of racism, sexism, misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, biphobia, and colonialism construct additional barriers for LGBTQ athletes who hold multiple marginalized identities. Harmful policies, attitudes, and discourse about LGBTQ people in sports is often aimed with precision at transgender people, people with intersex traits, people of color, people from non-Western countries, women who do not fit conventional norms around femininity, as well as men who do not fit outdated norms of masculinity. (To learn more about how athletes with intersex traits have been treated in sports, contact interACT. See below.)
Acknowledge and respect gender and sexual orientation diversity in sports. Athletes, coaches, staff, fans, and others in sporting spaces have diverse identities that should be represented respectfully in reporting. Nonbinary athletes, such as WNBA star Layshia Clarendon, exist on sporting teams — even as they navigate binary sports leagues. Do not conflate transgender and/or nonbinary athletes with intersex athletes; while they face similar, intertwined discrimination, they are distinct communities. As always, ask people about their identities, experiences, names, and pronouns they use, and any other information that is important to accurately and authentically represent them in your piece.
Young LGBTQ athletes face unique challenges participating in sports. Young LGBTQ people can be put in challenging positions as they navigate understanding themselves as LGBTQ while searching for supportive spaces. While a 2021 study showed an overwhelmingly positive response to high school and college athletes who came out to their teammates, other studies show massive reluctance to coming out or to playing at all. More than 80% of LGBTQ youth athletes are not out to their coaches and many report experiencing anti-LGBTQ attitudes participating in youth sports, according to a 2018 HRC study. That same study found that LGBTQ youth participate in sports at a much lower rate than their non-LGBTQ peers.
Anti-LGBTQ activists are targeting transgender athletes, especially youth. In 2021, nine states (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Montana, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia) passed laws banning transgender children from participating in sports. Major medical associations, including the American Medical Association, denounced such legislation as harmful to the physical and social-emotional health of all young people, especially for trans youth already vulnerable to being ostracized at school and in society. There are risks to cisgender athletes as well, as some bills require invasive anatomy screenings and costly testing. There have been documented cases of false accusations against girls based on unfounded suspicions about their bodies, or haircuts. When writing about transgender youth playing sports, keep in mind that youth sports are typically not about elite competition. In many ways we treat youth sports differently than we approach elite collegiate, Olympic, and professional competition. Trans and cisgender youth play sports to be with their friends, to be healthy, and to learn lessons about teamwork and sportsmanship.
Transgender athletes face uninformed opposition. Negative stereotypes and feelings about so-called “advantages” transgender women have are not based in science, facts or evidence. Sport governing organizations like the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and the National College Athletics Associate (NCAA), as well as the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF), have looked at the science associated with medical transition and made clear statements in support of the right of transgender athletes to participate in a way that is fair, equitable, and respectful to all. When writing about transgender athletes, do not let your piece be driven by uninformed social commentary. Use up-to-date expert legal and medical knowledge about transgender people and include the voices of transgender experts and/or trans athletes. Take care to write about transgender athletes in a holistic way — not simply focusing on clinical debates about hormone levels and normal distributions.
Do not pit transgender women athletes against cisgender women athletes. Transgender women athletes are women athletes, and women’s athletics is not a zero-sum game. There is no evidence that suggests transgender women have advantages or benefit from them in women’s sports. The NCAA, the Olympics, dozens of states and sport governing bodies have studied and implemented policies to include transgender athletes with no negative impact to cisgender athletes. In fact, states that have policies including transgender girls actually have more girls participating in sports. High profile women in sports, including pro soccer star Megan Rapinoe and pro basketball coach Cheryl Reeve have spoken out in support of transgender women athletes. Dozens of women’s rights organizations also point to actual and real threats to women’s sports that do not receive adequate attention, such as pay inequity, inferior facilities, lack of visibility, and lack of funding at both the high school and women’s professional level sports.
LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws and LGBTQ inclusion in athletics
On and off the field of play, LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws are critical to the LGBTQ sports community. All athletes should be able to bring their whole selves to the sport they love. Many LGBTQ athletes, along with LGBTQ coaches and fans, face discrimination in their everyday lives in key areas such as employment, healthcare, housing, and public accommodations. Adding LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws, especially on the federal level (via the Equality Act), would protect and promote LGBTQ inclusion in significant ways. It would protect LGBTQ coaches, players, and fans from employment discrimination; protect against discrimination of coaches, players, and fans at sports events; and help create more pathways for LGBTQ youth to safely participate in athletics. See Nondiscrimination laws for more.
Treat anti-LGBTQ comments or actions from professional athletes, managers, and coaches as you would similar remarks by other public figures. Just as an anti-LGBTQ statement, law, or policy would receive negative coverage outside of sports, keep an eye on how discriminatory attitudes manifest in sports. Discrimination towards LGBTQ people in and around sports should be examined, including both the person using discriminatory language and the person they were addressing who allowed it without challenge. Both behaviors contribute to unsafe environments for LGBTQ people.
Please reach out to the below organizations — or GLAAD (firstname.lastname@example.org) — to learn more and connect with spokespeople:
interACT (to learn more about athletes with intersex traits)