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Sports: Gay Male  
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In 1993 the Canadian Broadcasting Company produced a radio documentary on gay athletes in professional sports entitled "The Final Closet." It examined the fact that there were no openly gay male athletes in any of the major professional North American team sports--football, baseball, basketball, and hockey.

In the early years of the twentieth century, that is still the case, although signs of change are on the horizon.

While some lesbians have come out at the height of their athletic careers, including five at the 2000 Summer Olympics, most gay male athletes have stayed firmly in the closet.

Justin Fashanu, an English soccer player, and Ian Roberts, an Australian rugby star, are notable in that they declared their homosexuality while still active in team sports. A handful of male athletes in individual sports have come out while still active, including figure skating champions John Curry and Rudy Galindo, 2000 Olympic diver David Pichler, and six-time Olympic equestrian Robert Dover, but they remain very rare.

"Some closeted gay male athletes realize that they have a lot to lose by 'coming out.' As long as they stay 'in the closet,' they can share the benefits of hegemonic masculinity," observe Michael A. Messner and Donald F. Sabo in their 1994 book Rethinking Masculinity.

The roster of athletes whose homosexuality became known after their careers ended has ranged from Olympic gold medalists to champion figure skaters to players who were solid performers but never household names.

They include, among others, Bill Tilden, a Wimbledon and United States Open tennis champion from the 1920s; Greg Louganis, who won four Olympic gold medals in diving in 1984 and 1988; Bruce Hayes, a gold medal swimmer in the 1984 Olympics; Tom Waddell, Olympic decathlete in 1968 and founder of the Gay Games; Mark Tewksbury, a gold medalist at the 1992 Olympics and a founder of the Outgames; David Kopay, a professional football player whose 1977 autobiography is the first book to deal with an athlete's homosexuality; and professional basketball player John Amaechi, who came out in 2007, only four years after his retirement.

Despite the paucity of out elite athletes, the question of what athletes might be gay is a popular one among gay fans. Fans in each sport pay close attention to clues and discuss these between themselves and in online discussion boards. Rumors about the sexuality of an ex-heavyweight boxing champion and a legendary track and field star have been rampant for years.

Occasionally, rumors about the possible homosexuality of elite athletes spill over into mainstream media, as in the public flap in 1996 that ensued when sportswriter Skip Bayless aired suspicions that Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman might be gay.

Aikman called Bayless's comments "criminal" and other journalists criticized Bayless for sensationalism. But the complaints against Bayless were themselves , equating as they did homosexuality and something heinous. The attacks on Bayless prompted the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination to note that "Speculation about Troy Aikman's sexual orientation is not the problem. The problem is homophobia perpetuated by the NFL and biased journalism."

Pre-Stonewall Athletes

For decades "Big Bill" Tilden stood alone as an example of an athlete who was known to be gay. In 1949 the National Sports Writers Association named him the most outstanding athlete of the first half of the century. His accomplishments in the 1920s are legendary: seven U.S. Open titles, three Wimbledon championships, seven U.S. clay court titles, and six U.S. doubles championships.

It was not until Tilden's athletic skills began to fade in the 1930s that his homosexuality became known in the tennis world. In the less-tolerant era of the 1930s he was ostracized and gradually excluded from major tennis tournaments.

Twice--in 1946 and then in 1949--Tilden was arrested and jailed for "contributing to the delinquency of a minor" as the result of incidents involving teenaged boys in Los Angeles.

He died in 1953, at age 60, according to his biographer Frank Deford, "in his cramped walk-up room near Hollywood and Vine, where he lived out his tragedy, a penniless ex-con, scorned, forgotten, alone."

Athletes in the 1970s

While Tilden remains a distant figure to most sports fans and students of gay history, David Kopay has achieved fame as a gay icon despite the fact that fame eluded him on the athletic field.

Kopay was an overachieving player with five National Football League teams from 1964 to 1972. During this time he wrestled with his sexuality and eventually decided to be honest with himself and the public.

Kopay gave an interview in 1975 to the Washington Star in which he declared his homosexuality. He is believed to be the first professional athlete to have taken such a step. In 1977 he wrote his autobiography, The David Kopay Story: An Extraordinary Self-Revelation. The book has remained a perennial favorite with people coming to grips with their own sexual identities.

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Billy Bean retired from professional baseball in 1995 and has since become a prominent activist for gay rights. Publicity photograph provided by Outright Speakers and Talent Bureau.
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