Wedding bells rang for two sets of teammates in 2013. In England, members of Great Britain’s bronze medal winning field hockey team, Kate Walsh and Helen Richardson, tied the knot this September. They invited their entire team to the wedding but no word on whether they avoided what the couple called the “‘cheesy’ guard of honor with hockey sticks.” In October, many members of the USWNT traveled to Hawaii to celebrate the wedding of Abby Wambach and Sarah Huffman. The Western New York Flash teammates have been a couple for years but their wedding served as Wambach’s official coming out to the media.
There are as many ways to come out as there are LGBT people in the world and this year several athletes come out in their own distinct ways. Two-time Olympian Caitlin Cahow, who is retired from competitive ice hockey, came out this year in an interview in which she stated that she waited this long to come out simply because no one ever asked her before. Perhaps as athletes become more comfortable sharing their sexuality with the world, the sports media needs to adjust how it interacts with athletes and start asking more questions about an athlete’s personal life. As Cahow suggests, there are ways to give an athlete an opportunity to speak about her girlfriend/wife/partner without flat out asking an athlete if she is gay.
Brittney Griner graduated from Baylor and was selected with the first pick in the WNBA draft. After being selected by the Phoenix Mercury, she promptly became the first top pick to come out. She spent much of her free time during her first season speaking out in favor of LGBT rights. She has been candid about the bullying she has endured do to her height, her deep voice, her masculine-of-center style, and her skills on the basketball court. She told Robin Roberts that at the end of her career she would most like to be known as a person who helped to end bullying. Watching such a young athlete be so confident and comfortable in who she is has been a joy. She will hopefully have many years in the league and continue to change women’s sports for the better.
Professional soccer player, Sarah Huffman came out in July as part of her announcement that she was joining the organization Athlete Ally to help end discrimination and homophobia in sports. Her wife, Abby Wambach, came out to the media after her wedding to Huffman. However, she was quick to note that she wasn’t in the closet prior to her wedding. Because she and Huffman have lived their lives openly, Wambach never considered it necessary to come out to the media. We have heard a similar sentiment from other athletes, including Wambach’s USWNT teammate Megan Rapinoe, that they are not “in the closet” simply because they have never made an official declaration to the media about their sexual orientation. This year, Wambach, the 2012 FIFA Player of the Year, broke Mia Hamm’s mark for the most goals in international competition.
While NBA player Jason Collins’ announcement that he is gay was a Sports Illustrated cover story, the acknowledgement that the top goal scorer in the world’s most popular sport is a lesbian caused barely a ripple in the news cycle. Perhaps, this is because Wambach downplayed its importance. Perhaps, this is because her wedding merely confirmed what many have known for years. Or perhaps it’s indicative of a double standard in sports regarding LGBT athletes. Yes, firsts such as Collins coming out matter a great deal, but I find it hard to believe that if a top men’s soccer player came out by wedding his longtime boyfriend it would have been met with such a collective shrug.
The issue of athletes being out has taken on greater importance in light of Russia’s new anti-LGBT laws and the Sochi Olympics beginning in February. Russia passed a law that makes it illegal to speak positively about LGBT relationships. As this advertisement shows, the law is broad enough that out athletes at the Olympic Games could be jailed under the law. Protests have cropped up in this country and elsewhere. The presidents for France and Germany will not attend the Games. The U.S. will send a delegation that will include out athletes Billie Jean King, Caitlin Cahow and Brian Boitano but which does not include the President, Vice President, the First Lady or Dr. Biden. Many organizations have called on the IOC to denounce Russia’s anti-gay laws and to ensure that out athletes will be free from harassment and prosecution. While an athlete coming out in this country is sometimes big news, the presence of out athletes at the Olympics takes on even greater significance in the face of Russia’s crack down on LGBT groups and individuals. It will be fascinating to watch how both the athletes and the media navigate under these insane laws and whether there are any iconic moments, like that of Jesse Owens winning gold at the 1936 Berlin Games under Hitler’s gaze, or of John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising their gloved fists to the sky on the podium in Mexico City.
It has been a year full of wonderful sports stories from lesbian and bisexual athletes. 2014 looks like it will start with a bang in Sochi. We will have to wait and watch to see what happens.
Happy New Year everyone!