How LGBTQ Women and Allies are Reshaping Pro Sports

by Lindsay B. Davis

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday May 17, 2021
Originally published on May 10, 2021

Renee Montgomery (center) played for, and now co-owns the Atlanta Dream.
Renee Montgomery (center) played for, and now co-owns the Atlanta Dream.  (Source:Renee Montgomery/Instagram)

This March, sports world power couple Megan Rapinoe and Sue Bird appeared on the cover of GQ's 'Modern Love' issue in a topless embrace. The Atlanta Dream's new co-owner is Renee Montgomery, a recently retired WNBA player, Black woman, Black Lives Matter activist and lesbian who bought out former Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler. And trans non-binary WNBA star Layshia Clarendon was recently tapped for Sports Illustrated's digital cover. When it comes to a temperature take of the moment, openly queer women in professional sports are coming in hot.

Joanna Lohman
Joanna Lohman  

"America loves winners, and you've seen the evolution of how safe it is for women to come out. Billy Jean King and Martina Navratilova lost all of their sponsors. With Briana Scurry in '99, the cameras panned away from her kiss with a girlfriend in the stands," says Joanna Lohman, an out, former professional soccer player and author of "Raising Tomorrow's Champions" about the culture of the U.S. Women's National Team (USWNT). "Now we have a much stronger embrace of Megan Rapinoe, Abby Wambach and athletes feeler safer to live their truths."

For years, male-led corporate power structures have shaped the narrative impacting women's sports and the LGBTQ-identifying women and allies who comprise their teams and fan bases: Sports journalists perpetuate negative opinions about its watchability (or lack thereof); big names like Shaquille O'Neal suggest lowering the rim to give the women's game "more oomf"; body shaming runs rampant from middle school to the pro level; and sexist and racist hypersexualization of female athletes' bodies persists.

Regardless of sexual orientation, female athletes have been labeled lesbians or "butch" for demonstrating masculine-assigned traits like competitiveness, aggression or the thirst to win.

"I think the historical association of sports with masculinity and lesbianism with masculinity creates this kind of triangular relationship so that if women are good athletes, then they're masculine and they're lesbian. And I don't think that's completely gone away," says Dr. Susan Cahn, history/gender studies scholar and author of "Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in 20th Century Women's Sport." When asked whether the move towards non-binary thinking might help redefine meanings of "masculine" versus what it means just to be "athletic," Cahn says, "I do think that there's progress on that front. To be athletic can be seen as its own set of attributes that anyone has access to now."

Historically, when lesbian athletes did come out, they were punished.

"Women used to not come out — they were outed — and the few athletes that came out paid a really big price for it financially or culturally," Cahn continues. On the economic front, women athletes have been paid a fraction of their male counterpart's earnings and seen only fragments of the investments. From a broadcast media standpoint, women's sports have mostly been kept in the closet. Mainstream media outlets dedicate a paltry 3-4% of televised coverage to women's leagues. An analysis of primary social media accounts of the four major American sports networks found them heavily devoted to male images and male sports while minimizing sportswomen's athleticism and representing female athletes as sexual objects, all according to the Women's Sports Foundation's January 2020 report.

How the WNBA Became the Activist League of the Moment

In the WNBA, where most athletes are women of color and many identify as part of the LGBTQ community, players have been fighting sexist and racial discrimination for years. Now entering its 25th season, the WNBA's proliferation of athletes at the forefront of embracing their athletic prowess, sexuality, and social-political activism (over a dozen opting out of the 2020 season entirely to focus on the fight for racial justice) is setting a tone across the sports world.

From Brittney Griner to DeWanna Bonner and Sue Bird to Layshia Clarendon, living an out, queer life is attracting more fans, positive media attention and audiences on social media. The WNBA dedicated its 2020 season to Breonna Taylor and the #SayHerName campaign to raise awareness of police violence against women of color.

Bird recently co-founded a lifestyle x culture x sports media venture TOGETHXR, nearly breaking the internet when she posted photos of herself in a tutu on Instagram. She told CNN in October 2020, "you have to be true to who you are and be authentic... people are drawn, especially in today's world, when you're authentic. I think people are drawn to that. And right now, we're a league that is being authentic to who we are."

Under the WNBPA (the players' union) new President Nneka Ogwumike, players won a collective bargaining agreement for increased revenue share, maternity leave pay, fertility treatment coverage and more. The WNBA is also a pioneering space for trans athlete acceptance, with Black, queer, non-binary athlete Layshia Clarendon receiving full support from players, fans and the NY Liberty after their breast removal surgery.

Representation is the Name of the Game

An athlete's agent can help make or break a player's career and is intricately involved in helping the athlete land endorsements, create a brand identity, secure sponsorships, generate a fan base and more. Pioneering female sports agent Lindsay Kagawa Colas, who at Wasserman Agency reps over two dozen WNBA players including some of its biggest stars, co-founded Athletes for Impact, "a vehicle for athlete activism" that gives players a platform to fight for LGBTQ rights, racial justice, disability rights and more. Colas aligns her athletes with the causes closest to their heart, creating a new kind of pro sports role model. This subversive approach meets female athletes where they are and disrupts decades-long systemic pressure to keep politics out of the sports space and women's voices silenced.

Cyd Zeigler, founder of, attributes sports agents as one of the main reasons we don't see more out gay male athletes.

"Agents are telling their clients to stay in the closet because a lot of sports agents just want to make as much money off you as quickly as possible and move on. It's a lot of straight, cis-gender white guys, and they don't see the potential that being an out athlete in the NBA or the NFL offers," says Ziegler. "In 2018, do you know what athlete had the most endorsement deals as any athlete in the winter Olympics? Gus Kenworthy, an openly gay skier."

Ryan K. Russell
Ryan K. Russell  (Source: DLM Impact)

Former Trevor Project CEO David McFarland is empowering LGBTQ athletes to advance social change whether they're active or retired. He runs DLM Impact, a social impact advisor/strategy and management firm with a client roster that includes gay skier Hig Roberts (who came out in a December 2020 New York times interview) and Ryan K. Russell, the first NFL player to come out as openly bisexual in a self-penned 2019 ESPN piece. Russell, now a free agent living in Los Angeles, lists "Poet | NFL Player" in his Instagram bio, a welcome alignment of what he once deemed his gay and straight spaces, respectively.

"I no longer think of writing as a 'gay space' or a 'queer space.' My whole life is a 'bispace' for everyone. I've written about love, I've written about men, women, football, sports, art... I don't want to compartmentalize any parts of me or my life. I don't want to compartmentalize football as a 'straight space' because it's not," Russell told EDGE. "There should not be any 'straight spaces' when it has within it people who identify as anything other than straight."

LGBTQ inclusivity and athlete activism in professional women's basketball and soccer is affecting the men's side, where pervading norms have been slower to kick.

Collin Martin
Collin Martin  (Source: Collin Martin)

"I think there's a really healthy culture on the USWNT, in terms of the ability to be yourself and be proud of yourself, to voice your opinion on things," says Collin Martin, a midfielder on the San Diego Loyal and currently the only openly male gay player in either Major League Soccer (MLS) or the United Soccer League (USL). "It may be hard to play at that level, but in terms of accepting yourself and teammates who accept you, there are tons of examples. On the men's side, there just hasn't been enough... I come back to the whole youth aspect. I feel like women's teams at the youth level are more inclusive."

"From my own experience and talking with other male gay athletes growing up in sport, at times the homophobic language that is used can be the reason why someone would quit the game," Martin continues. "If athletes don't feel safe showing up playing the sport they love, then they can lose their love for the game and not want to continue to play."

What also matters is how an owner and fellow players react once a player does go public about their sexuality. When Martin came out in his earlier years playing pro (first in D.C. and then in Minneapolis), he felt relieved, supported and that it was a positive choice for his career.

"I felt like it wouldn't be right if I didn't come out while I was playing. I couldn't live with myself if I were to come out post-career because there was no reason to hide it, and I knew I could help out some younger people," says Martin about the importance of his own visibility and representation.

Since playing for the San Diego Loyal under manager (and retired US men's soccer great) Landon Donavan, support became action when an opposing team player used a homophobic slur against Martin in last season's final game. Donavan and the team collectively walked off and forfeited the game in a show of solidarity and zero tolerance for hatred. This came on the heels of a racial slur against Martin's Black teammate Elijah Martin in a match vs. the LA Galaxy one week earlier, which lead Donavan's team to adopt the slogan "I will act, I will speak."

Queer Women and Allies Changing the Men's Games

While there may not be any gay male athletes publicly identifying at the moment in the active player ranks of "the Big Four" (NHL, NBA, MLB or NFL) at the time of writing, LGBTQ women are making inroads off the field or court, which may, in turn, create a more welcoming environment for out male athletes. Outsports, to coincide with Super Bowl LV, reported 55 LGBTQ-inclusive acts by NFL players and teams, such as the 2017 hiring of Katie Sowers, the league's first out LGBTQ coach, and the launch of an LGBTQ employee group, NFL Pride.

"There's this idea that women can't coach men? A woman can raise your child. Give them life. Keep them alive. Teach them how to be a man, but they can't teach you how to play ball? Women are fighters," says Russell with reverence. "I say follow women; they've been doing a lot of things exceptionally well."

Now, nearly a third of NBA teams employees a female coach. Last December, the Spurs' Becky Hammon, hired as the NBA's first female assistant coach in 2014, became the first woman to act as head coach in an NBA game. American professional women's hockey player Kendall Coyne Schofield became the first female NHL player development coach in the Chicago Blackhawks' 94-year franchise history last November.

Nona Lee
Nona Lee  (Source: Nona Lee)

When Nona Lee, an openly gay Black woman EVP and Chief Legal Officer at Major League Baseball's Arizona Diamondbacks, joined the franchise 21 years ago, she was out from the start.

"I was an athlete. I approach things in that mindset," Lee tells EDGE. "It wasn't a matter of flying flags and making big pronouncements. It was a matter of, 'This is who I am. This is part of what I bring to the table. If you don't like me, you don't like me...' it may not always feel safe, but to me, there is nothing less safe than feeling like I can't be who I am. That's what drives me."

As chair of D Backs for Change, Lee works as part of a broader league effort to level the playing field for team players and community members disadvantaged due to systemic social injustice, such as racism, sexism, homophobia and discrimination of all kinds.

"The work MLB is doing now in the diversity and inclusion space is incredible. It's focused, it's intentional, it's deep, it's sustainable," said Lee, who sees the MLB's potential for a significant culture shift starting from the top down as owners and the league move towards a zero-tolerance harassment policy. And she has hope for the country to come together through America's favorite pastime.

"This past year gave people an opportunity to understand that people are just people, no matter if it's LGBTQ or a person of color, people see the humanity in people, or that's what I'd like to think. Once you see someone as another person, it's hard to hate them if they haven't done something to you personally," said Lee, who sees MLB and sports more broadly as spaces where healing can happen.

Transgender Athletes and the Future of LGBTQ Inclusivity

demonstrators in support of transgender rights hold flags during a rally outside the Alabama State House in Montgomery, Ala.
demonstrators in support of transgender rights hold flags during a rally outside the Alabama State House in Montgomery, Ala.  (Source: Jake Crandall/The Montgomery Advertiser via AP)

After a surge in state legislation targeting transgender athletes, members of the LGBTQ community and allies are speaking out.

"The more we exclude, the more harmful it is to the individual who wants to play these sports," says Lohman. "We're talking about kids who have already struggled to find their gender identity and incredibly brave to be their authentic selves. I don't think we should be excluding them from sport. I am 100% in full support of these trans athletes, and it really saddens me to see regulations that have been put in place."

President Biden is also speaking out, saying in his first joint congressional address on April 28 to transgender Americans, "Your president has your back." According to Human Rights Campaign, 91 companies have signed the Business Statement Opposing Anti-LGBTQ State Legislation. Last year, following Idaho's state legislation banning school-aged transgender girls from participating in athletics, 176 female athletes signed a brief supporting trans women in sports.

"There are people subject to the most hate, discrimination, oppression, and in my mind, as I know it today, these are black trans women or trans women of color," says Russell. "But anyone who identifies as 'other' is fighting the same fight because we're fighting an ideology that says the way you were born makes you lesser, whether as a woman, gay, lesbian, trans, bisexual, nonbinary, queer in any way, whether it's a different religion, ethnicity, nationality, it's an ideology we're fighting against."