Why is it hard for athletes to come out as gay?

Written By Kayla Sterner, Co-Sports Editor

In 2023, it is no secret that there are gay athletes in the major sports industries, but why are there such few athletes out of the closet? The WNBA undoubtedly has the most openly LGBTQ+ athletes and that is partially because society is more accepting of females that identify as lesbian or bisexual rather than a male that is part of the same community.

As of 2022, 41 active players in the WNBA identified as members of the LGBTQ+ community, making that nearly 30% of the league. In contrast, there are no active NBA players that identify as gay, trans, etc. Male athletes are more worried about being labeled “feminine” and how being gay might contradict their stereotypical “tough” and “hyper masculine” identity as an athlete. 

It can be challenging to come out of the closet when the media has all eyes on you, especially when anyone with access to a social media account can bring you down. Constantly reading messages of hate surrounding your identity can make you feel ashamed to be yourself and cause you to wear a mask, which can result in worse athletic performances. Gay athletes become isolated from others and get pushed into their own out-groups. 

 It gets even more complicated when you are worried about how your teammates and coaches will react. Will they still feel comfortable with me in the locker room? Will I still get playing time? Will they start calling me names? Will they still hang out with me, or are they going to think I have a crush on them?

Sports are full of homophobia and transphobia, whether fans and participants will admit that or not. It is rare to go to a sporting event and not hear a fan yelling a slur or using “gay” in a derogatory way. For those at the high school level, it is common to hear such phrases as forms of trash talk. In a 2019 international study from “Out on the Fields” and “OutSports,” 54% of male athletes admitted to using homophobic slurs in the past two weeks and 69% said they had heard teammates use slurs. 

Even though the statements aren’t always intended to seriously impact the receiver, words can hurt. It makes it seem as though members of the LGBTQ+ community are not welcome in sports because of repeated microaggressions. When you are young and figuring out your sexuality the last thing you need is people making you feel ashamed for something you cannot control.

 Per the combined study from OutSports and Out on the Field, 73% of bisexual, gay and straight people believed it was not safe for LGBTQ+ people to come out in youth sports and 80% of the people partaking in the study said they have seen or experienced homophobic behavior in sports. 

For girls, sports such as softball, rugby and basketball are already stereotyped as “full of lesbians,” and that label alone can be enough to stop someone from playing the game because they do not want to be “outed” or stereotyped. 

When this behavior is ever-present at a young age, LGBTQ+ athletes are less likely to continue sports and quit before reaching the collegiate level. Everyone deserves to enjoy athletics and be themselves while doing what they love.