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Ryan Russell made NFL history when he came out as bisexual in 2019. Since that time, the three-year veteran who’s played for the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers has used his platform to raise awareness for LGBTQ visibility in sports. And he's not stopping anytime soon.
In a candid sit down with Yahoo Life, Russell opens up about his life since coming out — long story short: he doesn’t regret a thing.
“To me, visibility is hope,” Russell explains of Bi Visibility Day, a day aimed to raise bisexual awareness, celebrated every year on Sept. 23. “I think it should be readily available for everyone, no matter who you are, how you look or who you love.”
“To go from someone who did not see a lot of visibility, and in turn did not have a lot of hope, to now, hopefully being visible and being a beacon of hope, even if it is the combination of so many trials and tribulations, now I understand why I went through them and why they happened. And that feels good,” he says. “I feel unstoppable. like I could do anything.”
Russell, who is currently a free agent, recently partnered with Encircle, an LGBTQ Resource Center that provides life-affirming therapy, programs, and services to the LGBTQ community — something he says is crucial to social acceptance and progress.
“Education, I think, is always the first hurdle,” Russell says. “The understanding of bisexuality is so different for everybody because the definition of bisexuality has changed and grown so much, especially when we evolved conversations around gender and nonbinary people.”
According to the Bisexual Resource Center, bisexuality is an “attraction to more than one gender,” and this attraction could be “physical, romantic, and/or emotional. Additionally, bisexual people “may experience different kinds of attraction to different genders, and their attractions may change over time.”
In recent years, thanks to an active bisexual community on social media, society has learned more about the nuances of bisexuality and its intersectionality across all genders, identities and other forms of expression — including that bisexuality is not tied to any specific gender, and can encompass nonbinary folks and trans people, as well.
Yet, despite a recent Gallup poll showing that 5.6 percent of U.S. adults identify as LGBTQ (the vast majority of which, 54.6 percent, identify as bisexual) there continues to be a well of systemic biases and conceptions around bisexuality — that bi men are gay men in denial and that bi women only hook up with women to attract straight men, for example.
“Historically, I think for a lot of people, my family and myself included, bisexuality was about two genders. It was about men and women,” Russell says. “I understand now that bisexuality, for me and my definition, there is an attraction to my own gender and genders outside of my own. It has opened up conversations to include everyone who at one time not only did their sexuality seem valid, but also their gender identity and who they actually are.”
“I think for men, it's like you get hit with almost this triple whammy, for lack of a better term,” he continues. “You’ve been taught at a young age that the most important thing about your male identity is your masculinity. So if you feel a need to protect it, instead of nurturing it or allowing you to experience your femininity or allowing whatever to come to you naturally, you begin curating things of masculine figures instead of letting genuine creation come from within who you are in your own soul.”
“You can't really be understood or understand anyone else until you do the work, until you empower yourself with knowledge,” he adds. “I think one of the things that bisexual people across the board, I think, face is feeling as though we need to defend our sexuality — that may have been a hurdle I've had, but also a hurdle that I haven't jumped because I don't do that. Like, I don't feel the need to validate my sexuality for anyone. You ask me a question, I tell you, we move on.”
Russell's message continues to resonate in sports due in large part to a slow outpouring of LGBTQ athletes fearlessly coming out.
Before Russell, Michael Sam, defensive end with the Rams and on the Cowboys practice squad, came out in 2014 and became the first out player to be drafted in the NFL. Earlier this year, The Bachelorette star Colton Underwood, formerly with the Chargers, Eagles and Raiders, also came out as gay. And in June, Carl Nassib of the Raiders came out, becoming the first out gay active NFL player in history.
Furthermore, a record number of LGBTQ athletes competed at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics — and that number is expected to grow in the following years as the Olympics committee works to evolve their own policies.
Since announcing he was bisexual, Russell says people have thanked him for “blazing a trail,” which he takes to heart.
“Before coming out, I battled with feeling invisible,” he says. “I battled with telling my family. I battled with waking up and feeling proud and happy just to be me instead of, you know, wanting to change things and wanting to portray a certain image and being very thoughtful on what other people saw instead of how I felt and how I do it myself.”
“Life is so much more fulfilling once you come out,” he adds. “It's like, OK, you came out. Now what? You gotta live the rest of your life. What else are you going to do for your community, for society, for humanity?”
Within the sports world, he says the reaction has been incredibly supportive.
“It's been what I've always wanted it to be, which is the acknowledgement, the love and the support, but also the normalcy, which might sound crazy," he explains. "But as an athlete, especially as someone who's dedicated their whole life to reaching a certain spot, you're with your peers and people have sacrificed. You don’t want things to change. You don't want anything to take away from the game that you all love and that you've all worked hard for. So it's great to see my teammates acknowledge me and respect me, but also just treat me how they have always treated me.”
Looking ahead, Russell is “really excited for a future” where queer athletes will be able to play the sport they love without compromising their own personal happiness.
“For a lot of my young childhood, I felt very alone and very isolated, not just in my identity and not just in growing up as a Black man in Texas, but also the physical kind. My mother worked three jobs and went to school to provide for me. It was just me and her a lot of the time,” he says.
But, “once I found sports” Russell says, "I realized the power in synergy. I realized the power in bringing different people together and letting them empower each other, letting them educate each other, letting them be that force. I realized that the same ability and accomplishment that I felt in a team, I wanted to feel that everywhere. I want to feel that in my family. I want to feel it in my workplace. I want to feel that just communing with people on the street.”
“We're all here together, you know, in our lives. We're here together and we're supposed to do it together,” he says. “I've been in a crisis and I've had people help me. I've gotten through it because of other people and I want to be there to do that for others as well.”
For this year’s Bi Visibility Day, Russell hopes that people willing to learn about bisexuality will do so with “an open heart,” to “lead with love,” and to “come willing to learn and understand.”
“We need action to change things,” he adds. “Conversations are great but I think the next step is action.”