SPORTS HAVE ALWAYS HAD THE POWER TO BRING US TOGETHER. Even in the age of streaming television, we still gather to watch live sports events in the tens of millions, whether it's the Super Bowl or a match between Serena Williams and underdog Bianca Andreescu at the U.S. Open. Every two years, the Olympics gather the world's most elite athletes in a showcase of both competition and unity—and this year, the postponement of the summer games felt like an existential blow. To some, team colors are an identity. But for LGBTQ+ competitors, their identity as an athlete can be hard to reconcile with their identity—who they are, who they love, how openly they get to live—as a human being. Still, more athletes are coming out, with the dream that the arena they love will become a place for more out athletes to play and excel. For former pro baseball player Billy Bean, 56, the sport he loved became a prison; now he works within the MLB to make it safe and inclusive for players and fans alike. For football player Ryan Russell, 28, sports was a place to find family; he says it's an "injustice" for "people in the LGBTQ+ community or any minority community to feel alienated or excluded in the world of sports—a place that I think can be very just humanizing and very uniting." Celebrated duathlete, triathlete, and race walker Chris Mosier, 40, was finally living openly in his true gender identity; he fought the International Olympic Committee and won policy changes that would let him compete openly, too. Adam Rippon, 30, saw his greatest success on the skating rink when he started living authentically on and off it. And for boxer Patricio Manuel, 34, intersectional identity isn't an abstract concept—it's very personal. "As a Black trans man, it’s pretty hard not to talk about inequalities because they’ve been my direct lived experiences," he says; his victories in the ring are yet more victories in the long and hard and continuing fight for representation.
Before the kick-off to June Pride Month, Men's Health assembled the group to talk about identity in sports: as athletes; as members of the LGBTQ+ community; and as people whose experiences are providing a roadmap to greater representation. Below, we ask them: How far have we come, and where do we go from here?
MH: Let's start with introductions.
Billy Bean: My name is Billy Bean. I played for six years in Major League baseball, and I’m one of two major league players in the 151-year history of the MLB who have ever publicly disclosed that they’re gay. Glenn Burke was the first—he played in the ‘70s. I was outside of baseball for quite a while—that’s where I met Chris [Mosier] and so many in the community, when I finally stopped hiding and made myself more available to great mentors and learned about our history. Then I was asked to come back to work at the MLB as its very first Ambassador for Inclusion in early 2014. I’ve since moved up from that position to oversee most of the [Diversity and Inclusion] education of our players, to cultivate a conversation about respect and acceptance in the workplace, and to make sure our clubhouses, our front offices, and our game day experiences are respectful and inclusive for every MLB fan or stakeholder visitor.
Chris Mosier: My name is Chris Mosier. I’m a Team USA duathlete and triathlete, six times on the national team, and in January of this year I became the first transgender man to compete in Olympic trials in the gender with which they identify—that was in the 50 km race walk. In addition to being an athlete, I’m the founder of transathlete.com. I think about sports in two ways: I’ve always been a competitive person and it’s important for me to compete and fulfill my athletic dreams and desires; but I also recognize what an incredible platform it is to be an athlete. So I try to use my position as an athlete to speak out about trans inclusion and inclusion of nonbinary folks in sports, and to highlight some of the injustices and inequalities in our society that trans people, particularly trans women of color, face by just existing out in the world. I’ve helped mentor folks in the middle of lawsuits and fights for policy change. In 2015 and '16, I helped change the IOC policy on transgender athletes, which came as a direct result of my not being able to compete at that time in advance of the 2016 Olympics.
Ryan Russell: My name is Ryan Russell. I’m an NFL player. I was drafted in 2015 by the Dallas Cowboys. I was the first active NFL player to come out as bisexual. Since then, I’ve been working to educate myself on a lot of the issues that affect the LGBTQ+ community in sports and in general. I came out in August of last year, and I still have a lot of learning to do about the community that I’m a part of, and doing that is a big step for me in and of itself. And I’m working on being a part of LGBTQ+ advocacy and awareness in sports. I feel that football, specifically, is a great place to find family—I grew up with a single mother, just me and her, and football was how I found brothers. My teammates were family to me. I found my identity in sports. For people in the LGBTQ+ community or any minority community to feel alienated or excluded in the world of sports—a place that I think can be very just humanizing and very uniting—is an injustice. Outside of football, I’m a writer and a poet, and I published a book of poetry last year called Prison of Passion. I just love that type of storytelling, that type of creativity, and how it helps us connect through all of our experiences and to empathize with other people’s experiences.
Adam Rippon: My name is Adam Rippon. I’m a figure skater. I’m the 2016 National Champion and I won a bronze medal at the Winter Olympics in 2018 in the team event. When I went to the Olympics, myself and my friend Gus Kentworthy were the first male Winter Olympians to represent Team USA and while being out. I wasn’t really much of an activist, and I still don’t really consider myself an activist. I think I just have a big mouth. At the Olympics, I got in a fight with Mike Pence because…I guess who doesn’t? Then I found myself feeling that I could use my platform to bring awareness to different issues I cared about and to speak up for people, and I felt a lot of power in those moments. Like Ryan, I think that I’ve also learned so much more about the LGBTQ+ community as I’ve become more involved.
Patricio Manuel: My names is Patricio Manuel, but a lot of people know me as Cacahuete, which means “peanut” in Spanish. The reason I got that nickname is because my head’s so small! I would say that at my core, I’m a fighter, whether it’s in sports or in life, but in sports I’m a competitive boxer. I got involved in boxing back in 2002 when I was a teenager. At the time, I was undergoing a lot of trauma from gender dysphoria as well as something I like to call “racial dysphoria”—not in the Rachel Dolezal way, but as a mixed-race Black child being raised by white parents. For me, boxing was a place where I got to not only connect with, embrace, and be celebrated for my masculinity, but also a place where I was able to connect with communities of color, particularly Black and Latino communities within LA. I sucked at first, and eventually I got really good. I was a five-time national amateur champion. I went to the first-ever women’s Olympic boxing trials. I was always out as queer, but I didn’t really give myself the space to interrogate what my gender identity really was. It was after I was medically disqualified as a result of a shoulder injury during what was supposed to be the biggest moment of my life that I was really able to interrogate who I am as a person beyond being an athlete. I realized I’d been lying to everyone for a long time, I’d been lying to myself, and as someone who really thinks of myself as someone who embodies being a truth-teller, I realize that I needed to do the work to live my truth. That resulted in me deciding to medically transition in 2013. Since then I have not being willing to give up my sport and it's been a battle since then in order to make policy that puts theory into action for a sport that I think people had never imagined someone like me would even be in. I came back to the male division in 2016, first in the amateurs. I won my first fight, but have had to deal with fights falling through, injuries on top of that, and then in 2018 I was on the fight card of the Golden Boy Promotions fight out in the desert outside LA. I was really fortunate to have the support of Eric Gomez and Oscar de la Hoya from Golden Boy Promotions. I was able to turn pro and live out that part of my dream. I also don’t consider myself an activist; I consider myself a truth teller. As a Black trans man, it’s pretty hard not to talk about inequalities because they’ve been my direct lived experiences. But I’m privileged to know a lot of comrades, friends, loved ones, and my partner, who are all amazing leaders in the intersectional social justice space.
MH: How have you seen attitudes towards LGBTQ+ athletes change throughout your careers and experiences?
BB: I was in the big leagues; the culture was so far from where it is now and where it’s trying to go. When I was playing for the San Diego Padres [from 1993-1995], I was living a double life. My partner, he died of HIV-related causes the night before what would be my last season as a player. I was young, I expected to play a lot longer. But he had fallen ill, invisibly ill, probably two or three months prior to the start of that season. When we went to a doctor, he was diagnosed with HIV. I got tested and the results came back negative something like 10 days later—that’s how long it took in those days—and the doctor looked at me and said, “You’re going to become HIV-positive within the next 18 months because you’ve been exposed, so you need to prepare for that.” That’s where the world was in 1994 versus where it is now. I think I was so damaged by a lack of knowledge, a lack of understanding, and by the isolation of being closeted. My partner never met my family, I didn’t have gay friends, there was no internet in those days. I didn’t go to my own partner’s funeral because I had a game that day, and I had no way to explain why I would not want to go to the ballpark. It was like living on an island in self-imposed isolation. Like Patricio said, he’s able to be better when he puts positive love around him. It took me a long time to learn that lesson. After my partner died [in 1995], I decided that I didn’t belong in baseball. So I had over 15 years of pent-up energy when baseball called me back. I didn’t think baseball was ready for that in 2013 and they proved otherwise. It took great leadership and vision, but as everyone on this panel will tell you, athletes are influenced by the fellow athletes that they look up to. That’s why when LeBron James says something—not LeBron James’s manager, not his coach, but LeBron James—we listen. I think that baseball saw that athletes being visible and being able to express ourselves and our talent is how change happens.
PM: People make an assumption about boxing, in a lot of ways rightfully so, that it’s macho and homophobic. But I think I have an interesting perspective because I was respected in the sport prior to my transitioning. I was a five-time [female national amateur boxing] champion. I got a lot of feedback from people after they got comfortable with me again after my transition and realized that I was still me. They had thought trans people were crazy, but when they heard that I had transitioned, they though, “Wait, that’s a homie.” They knew how much I loved boxing because they had seen me show up every weekend for years to try and get a fight. They knew I was risking the thing I loved more than anything in order to be myself, that it was that important to me. So when I fought [my first professional fight after transitioning] on December 8, 2018, the most amazing thing was the numbers of top pros, top coaches, people who didn’t know me, who came up and said, “We want you to know we’ve been following your story and we want to see you get what’s yours.” And, similar to what Billy said, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Golden Boy Promotions is a company founded by a fighter—not someone who was around fighters, not someone who managed fighters, but someone who had competed in the sport. Ultimately, there’s a respect between people who get in the ring, and they thought I deserved that chance. So I think in a sport that’s often seen as being stuck in the mud and really not progressive—and, yes, does have a long way to go—I think my example and the way I was embraced shows that there has been a lot of growth.
MH: Did you ever fear that there was no way to come out and still continue your career in the sport you love?
RR: That was my life less than a year ago. I had so many things I was battling but what it boiled down to for me was that I love football, at the time I loved football more than I loved myself, and I was willing to give up anything for football. Of course you’re not going out, not drinking, not partying. So I kind of filed a part of my identity into that simple box of just another sacrifice I was making. But really the sacrifice I was making was my happiness, my own self-worth, my future and my hopes of someone loving all of me and of me loving all of myself. I got to the point where I realized that who I am deserves to be acknowledged, respected, heard, and seen. And to do it as an active NFL player was a big thing to me. I suffered a horrible shoulder injury in 2018, and my team at the time, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, cut me because they just didn’t know where my health was going to go. One thought in my mind at the time was that I could retire right then and just live my life. I could come out and do whatever I wanted outside of the limelight of the NFL. But then how long would it take for someone else to come out in the sport? How long would it take for someone else to refuse to compromise who they are for what they do?
Everyone wants to know how we can get more out players in the NFL. The goal isn’t necessarily to have more professionally players come out. The goal is to have more out players going into sports—to have more out players included in their local sports teams and in their schools’ sport leagues, and to be seen as equals, as just players and human beings. And the way you do that is by changing sports culture for the youth. The great part about being a team is that, yeah, you have your name on the back of your jersey, but the identity that really matters is the logo or the team colors—the whole. The NFL and professional football in general have a long way to go. But I've had great conversations with teammates about this at the professional level, I’ve had great conversations with coaches, and I think the NFL is going to start to show up in some great ways for the community.
AR: You know, Ryan, I couldn’t agree more with the mentality that getting more out professional athletes comes from having more LGBTQ+ youth feel like sports is a safe space for them to be more involved. I think figure skating does attract some LGBTQ+ youth because there is this arts element to it, there’s a lot of self-expression. But when I was growing up, there was still so much internalized homophobia. As you practice, it’s very common for officials to come and monitor you and make sure you’re all on track. They would give us insights into what other judges may think of our performances, how we could better prepare ourselves for a competition. I’m a very tough competitor but growing up I was always told that I was too “soft.” They’d tell me, “Don’t skate like a girl,” or, “You have to butch it up.” They basically said everything they could without saying, “Don’t be so f**gy.” It made me feel like I was weak, like I wasn’t strong enough. I was already trying so hard to not seem gay because, you know, when you go to school and everybody already thinks you’re gay, you don’t want to be gay. You don’t want to be the stereotype of what everybody already thinks of you. So you try so hard to overcompensate.
I feel really lucky because in my career, I had a renaissance. I had a chance to go to the Olympics in 2010, and it was a very outside chance that I would qualify. It was so outside that a lot of people to have had to get really hurt for them to put me in! I didn’t qualify. Then in 2014, I was 24 years old, which was prime age to go, but I just didn’t skate well. I didn’t qualify, I didn’t do well enough to make the team. At 24, it felt like the end. I felt like my Olympic dream was over.
But then I decided I was going to put it all out there, I wasn’t going to give a shit, I was going to do whatever I could to be my best, and when I walk away, I’d know I gave it my all in the end. Suddenly I was skating better than ever. But there is this unspoken rule that you can be gay, but you can’t let anyone know you’re gay because you don’t want to offend the fans or the judges from more conservative countries. And I thought, I know what I like watching. I like watching somebody, whether they’re queer or not, enjoying what they do. I decided that if I was going to continue to skate, I had to do it my own way, if somebody’s going to judge me differently because I’m gay, that’s on them. But after all the comments I had gotten that made me feel like being gay made me less-than or weaker-than, when I came out, I found the most success that I’d ever had. I won my national title after coming out.
I felt so powerful and in control because I wasn’t hiding anything from anyone. I would go into practices and be direct with my coach about what I wanted to accomplish because I felt comfortable in my own skin. So I came out for almost selfish reasons; I just wanted to have the best experience I could. I wanted to do it for my ten-year-old self. I’ve had so many young skaters, boys and girls, approach me to share their own experiences and their identity within the LGBTQ+ community. I feel like we are headed in a direction where skating can be a safe space. I think people always assumed it was, but there had always been this blanket of homophobia around it.
CM: Adam, what you said about doing it for your ten-year-old self really rings true for me. I always say that I want to be who I needed when I was younger. That’s why I’m out, why I continue to compete, why I speak up so loudly for youth athletes. Like Ryan said, the way we can change sports culture is by changing youth sports. We need to make it a safer place for young people to feel like they can fully show up as themselves and play the sports that they love and not have to compromise their identity.
We’ve all thought, Can I be gay or trans and be an athlete? But it’s not an either-or. You can be both and you can succeed in both areas of life. I was assigned female at birth, raised and socialized as female, grew up playing girls’ and women’s sports all the way through college. After college I got into running, and then I got into triathlon, and I started my career as a female athlete. Gay athletes worry about whether they’ll lose sponsors, or lose their contract, or that a team won’t draft them. Trans athletes have all of those fears, too, as well as fighting policy battles with the IOC and with USA Boxing and with USA Triathlon and all the different organizations that govern the races and games that we’re a part of. I delayed my transition for over a year and a half, knowing all that time that I was trans and wanting to come out, wanting to transition socially, wanting to transition medically, but just being terrified of losing my ability to compete in the sports that were such a big part of my identity.
I knew that in this day and age, when you come out on the internet, you’re forever the transgender athlete, the gay baseball player, the bisexual football player, whatever. So I knew that was going to be a big step. Particularly in 2010, because I didn’t know any other transgender athletes who were competing in a high level in sports. I saw some college athletes who were making social transitions but there was nobody that I saw who was doing what I wanted to do. My hesitation was wondering if it was even possible and it took a mindset shift to know it is possibly—it just hasn’t been done yet. And to take that big leap of faith. Within a couple of years after my transition, I made my first national team, then I got two national championships last year before the Olympic trials.
It goes back to what Billy said—visibility is a powerful tool for social change and the more that we can be out, those of us who feel comfortable being out, we really are setting the example for those young kids. For me, June 4 marked 10 years on testosterone, so I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on this. I went from not seeing anybody who looked like me to now having conversations in a Facebook group of transgender athletes that I mentor online, getting messages every day from young trans kids or from their parents. I’m not the first trans athlete—trans people have been in sports for a long time—but the more that we talk about being here and demanding respect and demanding our place, the more that people can feel empowered to fully be themselves, the more trans and gay and bi and queer athletes will come after us.
PM: I want to add one thing real quick because I realize I have to call myself out on this: when I say that there isn’t enough representation, I mean in male sports in particular, because women’s sports have had out gay athletes for a long time. There are so many out queer people who identify as lesbian or gender non-conforming or trans [in women’s sports] and unfortunately because of the way female athletes are scrutinized, there is a whole other conversation there. We’re seeing more intersex athletes and there’s a whole conversation of where intersex people fit into this equation. But I just wanted acknowledge that female athletes have been leading the charge in this area for a very long time.
MH: The language we use has power—whether it's the negative power of being called "soft" or the positive power of simply being referred to with the correct pronoun. How can we change the way we talk about identity in sports to help make it more inclusive?
AR: Language is so important. I was told I was “soft,” and I knew what the subtext was. When I was young, I didn’t realize the kind of power that we all hold within ourselves. People don’t have the power to make us feel anything—we give them that power. If someone called me soft, I allowed them to make me feel that I was “soft” because I was gay. I gave that person that power. I didn’t know any better when I was 18, but as a I got older, I realized that I was in control of my own narrative. So when I would do pre-interviews before a competition, I would just say that I was the most consistent skater, I was the strongest mentally, I was the most beautiful skater anyone’s ever seen. I stated it like it was fact. Even saying that I was “America’s sweetheart.” Do I truly believe I’m America’s sweetheart? No! Give me a break. But for some 28-year-old queer kid from Scranton, Pennsylvania, to call himself America’s sweetheart, all of a sudden I wasn’t a gay athlete anymore. I was America’s sweetheart. Eventually commentators would say things like, “Adam will be up here in the results because he’s the most solid skater. He never makes any mistakes. He’s so tough.” I realized I was in charge of the language they used about me. When someone called me soft, that was on them, I shouldn’t have listened. So I think it’s important that young athletes learn that they’re in charge of their own narrative, that they have power over how they want to be perceived by the world.
PM: I think anyone who goes against the norm has to rally within themselves. Because we’re already creating a narrative that is outside the mainstream. But as a trans person, being acknowledged as who you are is so incredibly important. The LA Times followed me for a while, and I actually said to them at the time that I identify as “transmasculine.” My identity now is that I’m a man who happens to be trans. So when people say “first professional trans boxer,” I correct them with “first professional male boxer who is trans.” But I didn’t know that I could have the power to say “I am a man” until other men started calling me a man. My partner always jokes that I’m like the straightest straight person they know. I’m politically queer, but I see my orientation as straight, like so many of the men in the gym who identify as straight. I got affirmation from them—“You’re my dude”—without me even seeking that affirmation. That’s when I realized I had the power to claim my identity fully. Never once as a child did I not think I was a boy. But the way society chips away at you, it programs you into believing something that isn’t your truth. And that’s why it is so important to have allies who exist outside of our identities, who affirm that they see us for who we are. It’s very, very, very important, especially for a trans person, to have someone say, “I see you. Your identity is valid. Fuck anyone who thinks otherwise.”
After I transitioned, I couldn’t go to my regular gym due to the transphobia there. I used to drive 70 miles a day to train at a new gym because I didn’t really know where to go. One day a member there said to me, “You’re family to us.” Then I kept making the journey up there so that I didn’t have to constantly explain myself. The team I train with now, I don’t have to correct my pronouns with them. They challenged people who try to speak against me. “If you have a problem with Pat, we’re going to throw hands.” One day, one of the coaches accidentally called me “she.” Not on purpose. It was just an accident. And my head coach corrected him and said “he.” He told me later, “It’s not all your responsibility. He fucked up, he owned it.” All the coaches now, if you call me “she,” they’ll constantly be like, “he, he, he.”
BB: On this panel there are three individual athletes and two team athletes. Ryan and I, we were both subjected to the whole universe of team sports, which is complicated because other people have to decide that you are picked to be in that room. It’s very stressful, right Ryan? So you’re always self-evaluating. A reason why athletes don’t come out is because the minute you get in room, you realize how hard it is to stay in there. So I truly believe that having examples of other players who have managed it helps. Ryan, maybe you saw Jason Collins and that empowered you, and you knew that you could tell one or two people on your team and feel loved and feel valued. I never got into that space.
If I could have watched this panel when I was a player, I would have played longer. It’s such a beautiful thing to see how everybody is so fierce in their own space. I grew up in an environment where I didn’t have that ability to overcome. I was living in a space where I was so uncomfortable with my sexual orientation. Then I remember I came back to baseball [as Ambassador for Inclusion], I was asked to address a major league clubhouse. Everyone was between 22 and 26, all millionaires, and I thought I was going to throw up. I was initially just going to talk about my playing experience—but I’d become very close friends with Judy and Dennis, Matthew Shepherd’s parents, and all of a sudden I just thought about speaking for Matthew and I felt this power. I finally came to this moment, kind of like what Adam felt, where I was able to take control of the narrative. I had been done playing for a long time, but it galvanized me to be part of a greater good, to not feel that internalized homophobia or shame that paralyzed me as an athlete.
RR: Just like Billy was saying, in football, it’s hard to stay in the room. You have a 53-player roster, only 46 guys dressed, 11 guys on the field at a time. And the whole nature of professional sports is they’re constantly looking for someone better than you, they’re always evaluating everything that you do. And we’re already under that kind of pressure as queer athletes—we’re already evaluating how we walk, how we talk, what we’re showing people. But I realized, if you work hard to get a seat at the table and you don’t come to the table as a Black man or as a queer man or as a man that happens to be trans, then what is the point of you being at the table? We are always being told nowadays to shut up and be an athlete. But I didn’t get to be a professional football player by just being a football player. I got there as a Black man, I got there as a bisexual man.
The verbiage of homophobia and misogyny are often so integrated in sports culture, especially in football culture. “Don’t throw like a girl.” “Don’t be a bitch.” The first time I ever held a football, it was in was in a game called “smear the queer.” I didn’t know at the time what a queer was, I barely knew what the fuck a football was, but I knew that if I had the football, I was the queer, and that was bad. But in college, I was in a locker room where I felt very supported. I came out to my best friend at the time in Purdue, and in general, I knew my boys had my back. I love how all the people who have something to say about “locker room talk” have never been in those locker rooms. What locker room have they been in? We’re talking about game, we’re talking about strategy. Yes, I hid who I was. That was my decision—when I first walked into an NFL locker room, no one told me that I couldn’t be this, or I better not be that.
But there is still so much in football culture that needs to change, and I hope that people start seeing it and start tearing it apart, so we can address the language we use that's wrong or repressive and target those things without necessarily dragging down the whole sport.
BB: I think one of the things we have to do in baseball is to strengthen the understanding of why creating a more respectful culture is so important. Think of when women reporters first started coming into clubhouses and the way guys would just sexualize them immediately. The leadership had to demand better of its players. People ask when a player comes out, “Does this make the sport more accepting?” No, it puts a lot of pressure on the shoulders of one athlete. There will be an athlete that’s up to that task one day soon, I hope. But my philosophy is we need to bring the culture into a place where a young athlete won’t mute who they are when they’re a freshman at Purdue—they’ll just be Ryan and then Ryan will go to the NFL. And there will be a mutual journey from inside and outside towards the middle.
CM: Ten years ago when I started doing this sort of advocacy work, we were battling homophobic slurs in sport in general. There was the time where “that’s so gay” or “no homo” was the response to everything. But in the last ten years we’ve seen a couple of really high-profile athletes make mistakes, say homophobic slurs, and be penalized for it. We’ve seen leagues take action, we’ve seen fines distributed, we’ve seen their apologies. I think now we’re at a point, in 2020, where people know better. I don’t think anyone can claim ignorance to the fact that homophobic slurs are hate speech.
So what’s the next step in our movement? I think it’s creating the kind of change where everyone feels safe and respected in showing up authentically as themselves. When I came out, what I was worried about was: “Will I be able to get a sponsorship?” “Will I be able to compete on a team without being harassed?” I went to my second national championship race in North Carolina shortly after they passed a bill that said trans people couldn’t use the restroom in accordance with their gender identification. I was really nervous about going. I showed up at that race, and I was standing in line to get my regulation bib, and somebody said, “Are you Chris Mosier?” And, honestly, I jumped. I was terrified. I turned around thinking I was going to be attacked at my own race. Fortunately it was somebody who had seen my story and was there to show support. But I think that fear exists. I totally agree with what Adam said earlier, that I can’t control what other people say, I can only control my reaction to it. But there’s only so much that I can do to not give them power. When there’s a persistence narrative that trans people are monsters, or that we’re being deceptive, or that we don’t belong in our sport, it’s a lot to bear. So I think we need athletes who can be out, allies who use appropriate language and shut down inappropriate language, but we also need the media to help change those false narratives and perceptions.
MH: Would it be accurate to say that you all see your locker rooms or your teams or the internal world in your sport a safe space, with the pressure to stay in the closer coming more from the outside world?
BB: I disagree actually. Individual athletes definitely need sponsorships from corporate America. But I think most team athletes are more concerned about the respect they’re gonna have in that room. Coming out, especially in male team sports at the highest level—is more of a business decision right now than a personal, emotional one. If Chris is the fastest triathlete in the United States, he will be invited to that race. But you could be the greatest football player or baseball player ever, and if nobody wants to be around you, or if athletes are uncomfortable, those are considerations. That’s why players move every year from team to team. So I think for team sports, that’s why it’s sometimes easier just to keep it about what you do have in common: football, hockey, basketball, or baseball.
RR: To Billy's point about just being respectful: I never thought any of my teammates were homophobic. I never thought me coming out to them would be harmful for me, or they would hate me, or necessarily even look at me differently. But also, as a teammate, I felt like my responsibility was for the team. In a sport like football, the word "distraction" comes up. Of course, I don’t control media, I don’t control what they run, I don’t control the questions they ask, but in a sports environment, being a "distraction" means not being a good teammate, supposedly. If we’re preparing for a rivalry game that week, I don’t want anyone on my team—or myself—to have to field questions about my sexuality. We should be talking about the opponent; we should be talking about the sport; we should be talking about preparation. Being who I am and being an out player—yes, I want LGBTQ+ youth to see that and feel empowered by that, but I also don’t want this to be a day-to-day topic while I’m at work trying to do my job for my team.
Hiding my truth was of course a business decision—it was about making sure I can provide for my family; it was about limiting distraction from my teammates—but it wasn’t necessarily about what I thought my club or my teammates would think. Am I worried about fans saying hateful shit? No. That is football. You hope that your home stadium is packed full of fans to say some bullshit to your opponent. But there is responsibility—you can say ‘Hey, you suck,’ but you can’t say, ‘Hey, you’re an F-word’ or ‘You’re an N-word.’ That’s on everybody. That’s on fans. That’s on ownership. That’s on players.
MH: Pat—during your match, there were some people who were booing in the stands. How did you deal with that?
PM: What’s funny is them booing made me more viral. So thank you! I just keep constantly turning it back and using humor—humor has been a pretty big defense mechanism. But let me tell you this: Those fans were booing, but there wasn’t anyone saying shit when I was walking around that arena, because they’re cowards. I remember very distinctly, there was an older white gentleman, screaming, red-faced, pointing at me going, "Liar, liar, pants on fire!" And I’m just like, You can’t even come up with a good joke! At least give me something. Give me some sort of an insult to work with! Keyboard warriors love to say stuff too. And I’m like, ‘You know where my gym’s at!’ You can come see me. I will spar you. No one has showed up.
MH: Tell us about a rewarding moment in your career that came from your visibility in sports.
AR: I retired two years ago, so I’ve had two years to reflect on moments that have filled me with the most pride. You know, when time passes, the results matter less and less—it’s really the experiences you’ve had with friends, and the interactions that you’ve had with different people that you’ve met. I was on a skating tour right after the Olympics, and I met this little girl. She came up to me—she was very cute—and wanted to take a picture. Maybe five minutes later, a woman who came up to me. It was her mom, and she was crying. She said, "Our daughter wasn’t talking to anybody at school. She had no friends, she wasn’t talking to anybody in our family, and we knew that she was really depressed, and she saw you at the Olympics, and she wanted to learn everything about you." And when she did, then she came out to her family and said that she was gay. It’s still one of the most surreal experiences. You don’t always realize that what you do can help a lot of other people.
BB: I would echo the same thing. Glenn Burke died 25 years ago, and I wrote an article recently for the anniversary of his death, a letter to him about how sports has changed, and how he was a part of that change. It’s a process; it’s grinding every single day. Some days it feels impossible or you get set back because someone hurt your feelings. I get attacked on Twitter more than probably anybody in baseball because people aren’t comfortable with change. So when you’re rewarded with a comment from someone sharing that you've influenced their life in a positive way, that is the greatest feeling in the world.
RR: My biggest off-the-field moment would be the day after I came out publicly through my article in ESPN. My manager forwarded me an email from a father in Texas, a single father with a son. I didn’t grow up with a father—my biological father was not in my life, and my stepfather passed away. To read this email from a father who suspects that his son is in the community somehow, saying that he read my story and that it encouraged him to have a conversation with his son—a conversation that I will never have with my father—was the moment that leveled me up to know I’m doing the right thing.
CM: I had a really epic 2016. I made the national team, challenged the International Olympic Committee [gender] policy, got that policy changed, got sponsored by Nike, had my own Nike commercial in the Rio Olympics, posed naked in the [ESPN Magazine] Body Issue. So there was this huge moment of visibility, and with that came this flood of young people into my Instagram DMs, and I formed some mentoring relationships with some of these young people who just wanted to be seen. There was a particular 10-year-old and his mom who were communicating with me quite a bit. I was in the Nike "Be True" ad, and there was a billboard in San Francisco right by the Pride route—a huge billboard at the top of a building in Union Square—and I got a message from this kid that said he was on a family vacation and was driving through San Francisco and saw me up there, and he started to cry in the car. To see somebody who looked like him on a billboard for Nike just so amazing for him. It was so raw for me to think about when I was a kid and what it would have meant for me to see that billboard. There are so many moments like that where simply being who you are allows other people the possibility to live.
For the trans community, visibility is really is a matter of life or death. Because there are so many of us who don’t see a reflection of ourselves, who are told that we don’t deserve dignity or respect, that we shouldn’t be called by our appropriate pronouns—even in death. There was a Black trans man, Tony McDade, who was killed by the police and was misgendered in the reports about his death. It’s the ultimate fuck-you to be misgendered as a trans person in your own obituary. Like Adam said, the accomplishments in competition go away, but being able to have these conversations with these kids is always just so incredibly powerful.
PM: I feel like I have to get one athletic one out of the way. For me, it was actually my first amateur win. I had been off for over four years. I had transitioned, I had lost my team, which was my family for 10 years. And that first fight, I’m pretty sure I got my nose broken in the first round. There is this part of me as a fighter that I’ve always really loved: You go into that space, and you just go deep, and you pour it on when there’s nothing really left. That guy was pouring it on, I was pouring it on, and I won. I was a badass female fighter, but I was worried that I couldn’t carry that over into the male division. And I think me winning that fight, and winning it in the dramatic way it happened, reminded me that I’ve been myself all along, and that was really, really important to me.
After my first pro fight, I was completely overwhelmed with the media exposure. I also was really annoyed at being distilled into "this trans boxer." There is something particular about being a Black trans man. I’m mixed race—my mom’s white—but I don’t agree with the narrative of I’m biracial, I’m mixed. Because the way racial constructs are built in this country, I’m Black. I’m predominantly of African and Irish heritage. I come from people who were enslaved but survived. That is my heritage. I will always put that first, and that’s what people see. To be a Black trans man and be able to say, I am Black, I am a man, and, yes, I happen to be trans, and I’m still a fucking fighter, I get to claim that bit of history as a Black man. And that’s very important to see in this country, especially at this time, especially after watching a Black trans man get murdered by the police and then get misgendered. To know that I get to say I’m a part of Black history is something that I can smile about.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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