Gay Athletes Go Public

Three weeks ago, Orlando Cruz signed up for a Twitter account and sent out his first message: 25 words, first in Spanish and then English, that changed his sport forever.

"As a boxer, I am proud to tell the world that I have always been and always will be a proud Puerto Rican gay man," the fighter, nicknamed "El Fenomeno," tweeted October 3.

With that tweet, Cruz became the first openly homosexual fighter in pro boxing. His reasons for coming out were unambiguous. "The gay community should have the same rights as the heterosexual community," Cruz, whose family lives in Miami, told the Los Angeles Times. "I want to be part of that movement to make that happen here."

Though homophobia is far from extinct, the tide of public opinion seems to pull inexorably against bigotry. Last year, Congress repealed Don't Ask, Don't Tell, allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. Following a string of highly publicized suicides, schools across the country began taking an aggressive stance against bullying.

Yet in 2012, none of the four major American sports has ever seen an active, openly gay player like Cruz. Pro sports are truly America's last closet.

The ever-shifting struggle over gay rights in sports has often centered on South Florida athletes, from diver Greg Louganis's landmark decision to come out two decades ago to Miami Heat legend Tim Hardaway's cowardly homophobia to Cruz's brave move.

More recently, pro athletes have done more than try to eradicate bigotry in their games; they've become the public faces for their communities' LGBT struggles, from a punter on the Minnesota Vikings to the captain of the Florida Panthers.

"We're all equal, and we need to give everyone an equal chance," says Brian Campbell, who won the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy for sportsmanship while leading the Panthers to the playoffs last year. "As an athlete, you should want to play against the best regardless of their color or sexual orientation or anything else."

It wasn't until the 1970s that retired pro athletes began coming out; in 1975, three years after leaving the Green Bay Packers, David Kopay became the first openly gay ex-NFL player; tennis legend Billie Jean King was outed via a lawsuit in 1981, and the next year, former Oakland A's outfielder Glenn Burke became the first Major League Baseball player to announce he was gay.

Louganis, the former University of Miami star who became an international superstar by taking four gold medals in consecutive Olympics, may have made his biggest splash in 1994, when he announced not only that he is gay but HIV-positive.

"Greg coming out made a huge difference to the gay community," says Fawn Yacker, project director of the Last Closet, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that aims to make pro sports more welcoming to gay athletes. "He was such a household name that it may have been a shock at first, but the reaction was, 'Wow, I liked that guy, and he's gay.' It started a conversation."

Even with retired players increasingly taking the leap, intolerance has stubbornly hung on in pro sports.

Take the case of Esera Tuaolo, who spent nine years with five NFL teams. He regularly witnessed fistfights in the locker room over players calling each other gay, and coaches sometimes joined in the hazing. It was enough to make him contemplate suicide. Tuaolo came out in 2002 after hanging up his cleats.

"It was part of my life," he says today. "That was my career. Everyone makes sacrifices in their life. For me, I had to sacrifice part of my humanity."

A few years after Tuoalo's retirement, Hardaway, the Heat legend, went on a homophobic rant on live radio just after former Orlando Magic center John Amaechi became the first former NBA player to come out.

"You know, I hate gay people, so I let it be known," Hardaway said. "I don't like gay people, and I don't like to be around gay people. I am homophobic. I don't like it. It shouldn't be in the world or in the United States." (He later apologized.)

For fans, hearing the controversial debate played out so publicly in a single week was unprecedented, says Cyd Ziegler, cofounder of Outsports.com, a gay-friendly sports website. "Professional sports took a jump in our culture then," Ziegler says. "They saw both sides in that one week... I think ever since that moment, the progress of gay equality in sports has sped up a lot."

Today it's generally agreed that sports culture is more accepting of homosexuality, and the evidence is in the headlines. Last year, Phoenix Suns President Rick Welts came out, and former University of Miami football star Michael Irvin appeared on the cover of Out magazine, opening up in an interview about his gay brother. Former Pittsburgh Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy also came out as gay this year, as did retired Seattle ­Seahawk Wade Davis — the fourth NFL player to come out after retirement. And teams across the professional sports gamut are releasing It Gets Better videos with anti-gay-bullying messages, inspired by alt-weekly sex columnist Dan Savage.

"I think the last year has seen a tipping point for a variety of reasons," says Dan Woog, author of Jocks: True Stories of America's Gay Male Athletes. "Everybody was sort of waiting for an athlete to come out in one of the major sports, and what happened instead was a lot of activity on the straight-ally front."

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9 comments
chipahoy
chipahoy

You have got to be kidding me? Maybe he was dropped on his head as a child.

PatJ_Pips
PatJ_Pips

@BurkieYCP pretty sure at least 90% of nhl fans will be very supportive of the nhl player that comes out

LukeOwens
LukeOwens

Hmmmm. You said, "Yet in 2012, none of the four major American sports has ever seen an active, openly gay player like Cruz." Ever hear of David Kopay? Major League football player who came out in 1975, played for the 49ers, Lions, Redskins, Saints, and Packers. He even wrote a book about being a gay football player, "The David Kopay Story". This is not to denigrate Mr. Cruz in any way; as much as I am against the sport of boxing, he has gained high respect for his actions in coming out and continuing to pursue his dream. I merely wanted to set the record straight (you should pardon the expression).

anon
anon

i'm very happy to have someone like brian campbell playing in south florida. let's go panthers!! as soon as the lockout ends anyway.......

Will_Collie
Will_Collie

@BurkieYCP I think that time is coming. Too bad that it would be newsworthy in today's age.

BurkieYCP
BurkieYCP

@PatJ_Pips Even higher. 99%, easily.

PatJ_Pips
PatJ_Pips

@BurkieYCP awesome! So proud of the nhl players regarding this topic. Wish someone would come out so others would find the courage as well

 
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