I would just like to preface that I am not advocating any political stance. Nor am I suggesting that athletes that aren’t straight should be forced to be spotlighted. Some athletes use their fame as a platform for their beliefs and advocate for certain rights or views. Others may prefer to try to keep their private lives private. This is simply my opinion of which athletes have had the biggest influence.
10. Abby Wambach
For years the most famous name in all of women’s soccer was Mia Hamm. After her retirement, Abby Wambach became the biggest name in the sport. Two Olympic gold medals and a victory in the 2015 Women’s World Cup are some major accomplishments. She scored 184 goals in 255 international appearances which made her at the time the all-time international goal scorer in either men’s or women’s soccer (she has since been passed by Canada’s Christine Sinclair). Wambach personally chose to draw little attention to the fact she was lesbian. Perhaps fellow teammate Megan Rapinoe also being a lesbian shifted the attention. There is an argument that instead of being known as a lesbian soccer Abby was simply a women’s soccer player who happened to have a wife.
9. Carl Nassib
Carl Nassib is the first openly gay athlete that played in the NFL. Former defensive end for the Las Vegas Raiders (released this year, his release saves the Raiders $8 million on the salary cap over the next two years). He was a rotational player and not the most stellar statistically this past season. The Raiders signed pro bowler Chandler Jones so the release of Nassib seems purely about football and money and nothing to do with his sexual orientation. Noteworthy after remarks that led to ex-head coach Jon Gruden stepping down this season after he made comments that were anti-gay (particularly about Michael Sam).
8. Michael Sam
He entered the NFL draft in 2014, two years before Carl Nassib did, being the first openly gay man to do so. The spotlight was on him and the media had cameras the entire draft at his home. Not because he was a spectacular athlete who was going to change a team but solely because he happened to be gay. Sam was projected as a 6th or 7th round draft pick (the NFL only has 7 rounds in the draft) and was drafted late in the seventh round by the St. Louis Rams (now the L.A. Rams). He lost out on a roster spot being outplayed by teammate Ethan Westbrooks and was subsequently cut. He was added to the Dallas Cowboys practice squad but ended up being cut again before ever playing in an NFL game. He did however join the Canadian Football League. His brief stint in the CFL at least saw him play and he made history as the first openly gay athlete to play in a CFL game.
7. Sheryl Swoopes
In 1993, she won the NCAA women’s basketball championship for Texas Tech, the same year she won the Naismith College Player of the Year award, the Honda Sports Award, named WBCA Player of the Year and Sportswoman of the Year (team category) by Women’s Sports Foundation. Swoopes is also a 4x WNBA champ, 6x WNBA All-Star, 3x WNBA MVP along with several other accolades. At the international level she has three Olympic gold medals and four Basketball World Cup for Women medals (2 gold, 2 bronze). Although, Swoopes had married a man, Jordan Jackson, with whom she had a son, she came out as gay in October 2005. She is the first woman to have a Nike shoe named for her and was the first player announced to have signed to the WNBA. While she is much better known for her professional achievements, she did come out as gay nearly 17 years when the LGBT community had less support and gay marriage was legal in just one state.
6. Tom Daley
A recent gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics for synchronized diving with Matty Lee along with three other Olympic medals and success in World Championships in diving has garnered Daley fame and attention. Daley, who is openly gay, has made it his personal mission to try to stop countries where LGBT is punishable by death to be prevented from competing in the Olympics. Daley said “I think it’s really important to try and create change, rather than just highlighting or shining a light on those things.”
5. Greg Louganis
Another Olympic athlete that had both a platform as an LGBT activist and a platform for diving. He won gold medals in both springboard and platform in consecutive Olympics in 1984 and 1988. What makes Louganis different from others on this list is that he was HIV-positive. Rumors circulated about Louganis being gay years before he publicly came out. He was featured on the Wheaties box in 2016. He also had an autobiography that spent five weeks at #1 on the New York Times Best Seller list. He is a gay rights activist, HIV awareness advocate and has worked often with the Human Rights Campaign.
4. Megan Rapinoe
Not only making history as part of team U.S.A. winning both the FIFA Women’s World Cup and Olympic Gold in Women’s soccer but after over half a century of Sports Illustrated having its famous Swimsuit issue, Megan made history as the first openly gay woman featured. Rapinoe told the magazine “I think it’s really quite a bold statement by Sports Illustrated to be honest because it has been seen as sort of this magazine only for heterosexual males. . . I think our view is still way too narrow of gay people in general. Stereotypes still very much persist and they are just such incomplete views of who we really are as people, so I think for that reason it’s really important to just continue to push those boundaries.” Rapinoe and her girlfriend Sue Bird became the first same-sex couple to be featured on the cover of ESPN’s Body Issue. She is an advocate for LGBTQ rights. She also knelt during the national anthem in solidarity with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kapeernick, who has continued to be a voice protesting racial inequality and police brutality. “Being a gay American, I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties,” she said.
3. Caitlyn Jenner
Before being known as a transgender reality TV star, Caitlyn Jenner (who then went by Bruce Jenner) was considered one of the best athletes in the world in the 1970’s. On July 30, 1976 they won gold in the men’s decathlon at the Montreal Olympics. Jenner had a score of
8, 617 points in the event which set a new world record. The fame they have accumulated from both sports and the Keeping Up With the Kardashians reality TV show makes them one of the biggest names in the LGBT community. Going from the cover of Wheaties to the cover of Vanity Fair and even being awarded at the Glamour Women of the Year 2015 for her work in transgender awareness and advocacy. It is hard to argue against the reach Jenner has had. While every athlete on this list is famous, Jenner is truly a huge celebrity and whose actions and words are far reaching.
2. Martina Navratilova
No one, in men’s or women’s tennis has the Grand Slam titles (59) that Navratilova does. She is without a doubt one of the best (possibly the best) tennis athletes ever. Martina chose to come out as bisexual in 1981. Since then Navratilova has re-identified herself as a lesbian. She has charitable involvement with animal rights, children who are underprivileged and gay rights. Martina was part of the lawsuit against Colorado’s Amendment 2. In 1992 voters approved the Amendment that stated: “Neither the State of Colorado, through any of its branches or departments, nor any of its agencies, political subdivisions, municipalities or school districts, shall enact, adopt or enforce any statute, regulation, ordinance or policy whereby homosexual, lesbian or bisexual orientation, conduct, practices or relationships shall constitute or otherwise be the basis of or entitle any person or class of persons to have or claim any minority status, quota preferences, protected status or claim of discrimination.” This went all the way to the Supreme Court in the 1996 case of Romer v. Evans. The Court ruled 6-3 in favor of gay rights. This decision set a precedent for future cases such as Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) that struck down state bans on same-sex marriage and overturned Bowers v. Hardwick (1986) that had banned certain sex acts between consenting adults. Martina spoke before the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation which had an estimated million marchers making it the 2nd largest protest in American history at the time behind only Earth Day which had 20 million. In 2000 Navratilova was the recipient of the National Equality Award from the Human Rights Campaign (the same group Louganis worked with), the nation’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group and political lobbying organization.
1. Billie Jean King
One of the four Grand Slams in tennis, the U.S. Open features the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Arthur Ashe and Louis Armstrong have stadiums named for them but Billie Jean has the whole center. King’s influence started well before she came out as a lesbian. In 1971 she and husband Larry decided to have an abortion. At the time abortions were illegal in many states. The Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade didn’t happen until a couple years later. That year King would go on to win 17 tournaments including the U.S. Open. King first fought for women’s equality. Former #1 Men’s tennis player Bobby Riggs challenged women’s tennis Margaret Court to a match that he won 6-2, 6-1. King then accepted Riggs’ challenge of a match dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes” with a worldwide viewership of 90 million people. As Riggs had made many sexist and chauvinistic remarks publicly King had an added reason in playing Riggs whom she beat in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. In 1981 King was outed. At the time she called it a mistake but later said “who turns being outed into a way to burrow deeper into the closet?” After battling a palimony lawsuit King saw endorsements deals go away. In the first two months she lost half a million dollars in endorsements. TV commercials featuring her weren’t used, Wimbledon pulled out of a clothing deal, she lost a contract with Murjani Jeans and another Japanese fashion deal. King wrote that when she received a letter from Charleston Hosiery terminating her contract. The “chief executive called me a ‘slut’ in a letter when he fired me” she stated. In 2009 King received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Then President Barack Obama said to King regarding the Battle of the Sexes match: “you don’t realize it, but I saw that match at 12. Now I have two daughters and it has made a difference in how I raise them.”