Not long ago, like in 2012, coming out in sports was big news.
By 2014, you had to do something really outstanding to make headlines. You had to be an NBA player, like Jason Collins—and then you had to sign a contract with a big-city team like the Brooklyn Nets. And your number 98 jersey (worn to commemorate the year Matthew Shepard was killed) had to become the bestselling sports shirt in the country. Not just for basketball, but any sport.
You had to be a college football player like Michael Sam. Not just any football player, mind you, but one who was a consensus All-American, and your league’s Defensive Player of the Year. Then you needed to endure the media circus known as the NFL draft. And when you were drafted, you had to kiss your boyfriend, as cameras clicked.
You had to be a Major League Soccer player like Robbie Rogers. And because MLS is still off many sports fans’ radars, you had to do something like play in your league’s championship game. And help win it.
You must have done those things because, in 2014, it was not just enough to come out as an openly gay or lesbian athlete. Dozens did it. They were college football and basketball players, swimmers, baseball players and volleyball players. They were Olympic speed skaters, rowers and gymnasts. They were non-competitors too. Coaches declared their sexuality publicly. So did pro teams’ front-office executives, and college teams’ sports information officials.
Major League Baseball umpire Dale Scott came out, too. A year or two ago, that would’ve been big news. Now it was so unremarkable that—after he mentioned his partner in a magazine article—it went unnoticed for a couple of months.
This is a long-awaited-but-still-unexpected state of affairs, an outpouring of openness across the sports universe. It has created a gigantic ripple effect. Straight teammates have reacted with a range of emotions. Some give virtual high-fives, tweeting messages of support. College and pro teams have produced “You Can Play” videos, conveying the message that if you can dunk, dribble, pitch, run, dive, or do any other athletic activity, just go right ahead and do it, sexual orientation be damned. Other teammates have reacted with who-cares shrugs. That’s appropriate, too.
The lesson is more profound for young LGBT athletes. They are joining the big, wide, only slightly dysfunctional sports world on their own terms, not even realizing that just a few years ago they would have faced formidable barriers to entry. This does not mean that thousands of gay boys and lesbians are suddenly signing up as out, proud Little Leaguers. Many of them have not yet figured out who they are. But they are playing their games in a rapidly changing environment. And as they concentrate more on batting and passing and shooting and whatever, they’ll spend less time on hiding.
Though, as with the rest of society, change comes more slowly in the transgender arena than others, the field is shifting for trans athletes too. But if a trans-inclusive vote earlier this month by Minnesota’s high school sports governing body is any indication–and why shouldn’t it be?–the “T” in LGBT sports is becoming more than just an afterthought.
So if in 2015 you have to do something truly outstanding to make LGBT headlines in the sports world, what do you do?
Fortunately, there remain a few frontiers to conquer. You can be a professional sports franchise owner who hires the first openly gay head coach. You can be an ABC, CBS, NBC or ESPN TV announcer who announces, on air, that you are so proud of out athletes because you yourself are a lesbian. Or you can still be that elusive, still-unidentified-but-we-