This is a part of ThinkProgress’s #Rio2016 coverage. To read other articles about the 2016 Games, click here.
With a continued state of emergency in Brazil, the Olympic Games in Rio haven’t exactly been a public relations win for the country or the International Olympic Committee (IOC). But there is at least one positive story worth highlighting: the record number of LGBT athletes participating this summer on the world stage.
The last three Summer Olympics clearly reveal the progress made. In 2008, 12 LGBT athletes participated in Beijing. In London in 2012, that number rose to 22. Now, in Rio, there are 43. And that number is expected to grow even higher in the future.
“The sports world is far more evolved on LGBTQ issues than we give it credit for,” said Cyd Zeigler, a founder of Outsports.com. “While there may still be issues in some front offices, the athletes and fans have been ready, willing and able to accept and welcome gay teammates and colleagues for many years.”
Michelle Heyman, Brittney Griner, Angel McCoughtry, Megan Rapinoe, Caster Semenya, Tom Daley, Jillion Potter, and Robbie Manson, are just a few of the athletes competing at the Games who are publicly out and open about their sexual orientation.
“Being an out athlete at the Olympics is an important opportunity to live my truth while competing at the highest level in sport,” Heyman, a member of the Australian Women’s National Soccer Team, told ThinkProgress. “Everyone has the right to be themselves and they shouldn’t have to hide. We need to accept, understand, and celebrate that everyone and every athlete is different.”
Despite the overwhelming sign of progress in acceptance of LGBT athletes, many still hesitate to come out in the prime of their careers for fear of losing sponsors. For Olympic athletes, sponsorships make of the majority of their income.
Greg Louganis, an American Olympic diver who won gold medals in both 1984 and 1988, was closeted when he competed in his first, second, third, and fourth Olympics. Only after retiring from diving did he feel comfortable enough to write Breaking The Surface, a bestselling book in which he announced to the world he was an HIV-positive gay man. The overall concern of public acceptance still lingers to this day. Gus Kenworthy, a 24-year-old American Olympic freestyle skier, came out in October 2015, after he had already competed in the 2014 Winter Olympics. He told ESPN The Magazine that he was afraid coming out would hurt his image and wondered if his sponsors would continue to pay him.
But the tide appears to be changing. Kenworthy didn’t lose his sponsors. In fact, Nike has backed him and other out LGBT athletes, including Rapinoe and Griner, wholeheartedly. They are now some of the most outspoken LGBT advocates in the sports world.
“As an out Lesbian, African-American woman, I am proud to represent our country and the diversity that makes us so strong,” Griner told ThinkProgress over email about competing in the Olympics. “All kids, no matter what their background, religion or orientation can find a role model on Team USA and I hope that especially at this point in history, that our diverse group striving for one common purpose will inspire a sense of unity in everyone.”
With so many LGBT athletes participating in the Olympics this year, visibility and safety of the athletes is paramount.
Chris Mosier, executive director of GO! Athletes and the first transgender man to make the U.S. National Team as a duathlete, knows firsthand how important visibility is for LGBT athletes. Throughout 2015, Mosier advocated for trans rights with the IOC and eventually got the committee to change its guidelines to allow transgender athletes to compete without having to undergo gender reassignment surgery.
“Visibility is a powerful tool in the LGBTQ sports movement,” said Mosier, who competed in the world duathlon championship in the spring. “The more people see examples of LGBTQ athletes competing and succeeding at a high level, the more others will be inspired to do the same.”
Anna Aagenes, the vice president of program development and community relations of the You Can Play Project, agrees. “The Olympics is the largest global platform to discuss sports and social change and Rio 2016 is no exception,” she said. “It’s incredibly important that these LGBTQI athletes are visible and that they are visibly supported while competing at the highest level of sports.”
With so many open and out LGBT athletes participating in the Olympics this year, the IOC is taking the athletes’ safety into consideration. Many reporters will be highlighting their stories from the Olympic Village Pride House — a specified location in which LGBT individuals, family members, and friends, can gather, celebrate, and interact freely in a welcoming environment. The first Pride House was modeled after the National Olympic House, and approved and built for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Despite its success, similar plans for a Pride House during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics were ultimately rejected by the Russian government.
“Pride Houses are a crucial advocacy and inclusion tool,” said Keph Senett, a coalition member of Pride House International. “At no time, perhaps, was this more evident than in Sochi. The local organization for that event was the Russian LGBT Sports Federation who asked for and were denied permission to have a Pride House during the [Olympics].”
The tense environment in Sochi is a startling contrast to Rio, which has inclusive policies regarding the LGBT community. Before the Sochi Olympics, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law banning “the propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations,” which detailed heavy penalties for anyone suspected of promoting homosexuality. Meanwhile in Brazil, same-sex marriage has been legal since 2011, and the country is home to the world’s largest pride parade in São Paulo.
Still, violence against LGBT individuals is a serious concern. That’s where Pride House comes in, and why many reporters covering the Olympics want to help showcase as many LGBT athletes as possible. Charley Walters, a broadcast journalist who will be covering the Games for Bravo, E! News, and The New York Times’ TimesTalk, wants to showcase Pride House as a celebration zone and highlight the accomplishments of the athletes instead of focusing on negative side stories. Walters believes greater visibility of the athletes could lead to as many as 50 or 60 LGBT athletes in the 2020 Olympics.
Greater visibility could also be important if one of those athletes receives a gold medal, said Walters. One person he is excited to talk to is British diver Tom Daley, who came out after the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
“It would be a big deal if he won gold,” said Walters. “Daley is also one of the most sponsored athletes at these Games, which is incredible when you think about it in regards to Greg Louganis. We’ve come a long way.”
The overall acceptance and the growth in the number of open LGBT athletes competing on the world stage over the past ten years is undeniable. But will all of that translate to the professional sports landscape here in the United States?
Walters thinks it already has.
“It’s a little slower than other areas of the world, yes. But even if we don’t have a specific pro athlete who’s out now, it’s about looking toward the future,” he said. “I think these Olympic games show that we’re headed in the right direction.”