Six LGBTQ+ sportpersons you should know about
Six LGBTQ+ sportpersons you should know about
To celebrate Pride Month, we look at six LGBTQ+ sports personalities who have challenged heteronormativity in the field of sport through their remarkable achievements.
(Image, from left to right: Panama Al Brown, Parinya Charoeonphol, Jason Collins, Dutee Chand, Amanda Nunes, Amazin LeThi)
[Editor’s note: Since publishing this article, Las Vegas Raiders defensive lineman Carl Nassib became the first active National Football League (NFL) player to announce that he is gay. You can read about it here.]
The association of sports with overt masculinity has meant that it has been a space that has usually been homophobic and transphobic. Sport has been exclusive to those who fit the normative labels well and many sport personalities have had to hide their sexual and gender identities due to social pressures across the world.
In fact, players who chose to be open about their sexuality were often snubbed. Bill Tilden, a US tennis champion, was one such player – in the 1920s, he was shunned by the tennis world for his “overt homosexuality” and alleged sexual “misconduct” with teenage boys.
Sex tests in the 1930s were indicative of the discriminatory behaviour towards trans sport personalities, evident from the ban on the German high jumper, Dora Ratjen, in 1938 for having “ambiguous genitalia.”
The formation of the Federation of Gay Games in 1980 offered some respite to the LGBTQ+ community in sports, as the first gay sports event, the Gay Games, was organised in 1982 in San Francisco. In Europe, the European Gay and Lesbian Sport Federation was formed in 1989 to encourage LGBTQIA+ participation in sports.
These efforts have mostly taken place in the Global North while the South stills needs a stronger push to strengthen LGBTQ+ representation in sports. However, this does not mean that western countries are the epitome of social acceptance, since the LGBTQ+ community is still largely excluded in professional sports.
Despite the general narrative against the LGBTQ+ in sports, some personalities have managed to achieve success in their respective sporting fields.
- Panama Al Brown:
Alfanso Teofila Brown, popularly known as Panama Al Brown, was the first Latin American world champion in boxing and made history as one of the greatest bantamweights. Brown claimed the bantamweight title in 1929 and set an incredible record of winning 59 knockout fights. He remained the world champion for six more years as he won multiple titles like the NBA and IBU.
An Afro-Caribbean, Brown was born in Panama in 1902. Brown took up boxing in his teenage years and moved to New York when he turned professional, where he experienced the peak of his career. Unfortunately, he was also at the receiving end of blatant racism in New York, which led to him being stripped of the NYAC and NBA titles.
Brown’s sexuality came to light when he moved to Paris, where he entered a romantic relationship with French writer Jean Cocteau. The writer helped him get back into the ring by taking over as his manager, despite not knowing much about the sport. Brown won five straight fights and became the world champion once again in 1937.
- Parinya Charoeonphol
Parinya Charoenphol is a Thai transgender boxer and a Muay Thai (Thai boxing) champion. Parinya’s stunning victory at Bangkok’s Lumpini Boxing Stadium in 1988 in the men’s division surprised everyone, as she defeated her more muscular cisgender male opponent . She was accepted by Muay Thai and she played a crucial role in revamping the sport, which was almost on the verge of collapsing. This also marked the beginning of Parinya’s career as a public figure.
In 1999, she declared her retirement from kickboxing. However, in 2006 she made her comeback in boxing by defeating a Japanese challenger. subsequently, in 2007, she fought her first fight as a woman in the Netherlands. Parinya currently runs a boxing camp, Parinya Muay Thai, opened in 2010.
- Jason Collins
Jason Collins is the first openly gay athlete to have played basketball in the regular season of the NBA. Collins played for a total of 13 seasons in the league with six franchises including the Brooklyn Nets and Atlanta Hawks. He started with college basketball at Stanford in 2000 and was drafted into the NBA in 2001. He was a part of the Nets when he announced his retirement in 2014.
Collins came out publicly in 2013 through a feature story in Sports Illustrated, becoming the first active player from a major professional American sports league to openly disclose his sexuality. This was an incredibly powerful and influential move for other LGBTQ+ athletes, as Collins coming out helped them open up.
Post-retirement, Collins has been actively involved in advocating the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, and this has started a conversation on fighting homophobia in sport.
- Dutee Chand
Dutee Chand is a professional international sprinter and the third Indian woman to qualify for the 100m sprint at the Rio Olympics in 2016. She is also the first Indian woman to have made it to a global sprint final at the World Youth Games. She won a gold medal at the 2019 Summer Universiade in Napoli and two silver medals at the 2018 Asian Games.
Chand’s journey has been full of unprecedented obstacles - in 2014, when she was 18, she was barred from the Commonwealth Games due to her testosterone levels. Chand had to miss the Games as she refused to go through the ‘remedial’ treatment prescribed by World Athletics and the International Olympic Committee. As the gender-testing rules were suspended the following year, Chand fought back and ended up becoming an Olympian.
The Indian Supreme Court’s historic decision to decriminalise homosexuality happened in 2018, and a year later Chand revealed she was in a same-sex relationship. Chand is the first openly gay sportsperson in India. Though she received backlash for coming out, Chand has held her ground by endorsing LGBTQ+ representation in sports. She has been declared as one of the four ambassadors for Pride House at the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games.
- Amanda Nunes
Amanda Nunes is a Brazilian martial artist and a bantamweight and featherweight champion in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). Nunes is also known as ‘The Lioness,’ as she is the first woman to hold a championship in two divisions of the UFC, making her one of the best mixed martial artists of all times. Nunes started training in karate at the age of four and then pursued professional boxing at 16; her participation in Brazilian jiu-jitsu marked the beginning of her career in martial arts.
Nunes is the first publicly gay player to win a title in UFC history. Upon Nunes’ iconic win at UFC 200 in 2016, she expressed gratitude towards her wife, Nina Ansaroff, who supported her through her journey.
Nunes has never hidden her sexuality and has always maintained a courageous stance. Her championship win has been particularly celebrated in the LGBTQ+ community as she managed to thrive in a visibly male-dominated sport while enduring the struggle related to her sexuality.
- Amazin LeThi
Amazin LeThi is a former Vietnamese bodybuilder, athlete and fierce advocate for the LGBTQ+ community. She is also the first Vietnamese person to become an internationally published fitness author. She started her career as a weightlifter and later went into competitive body-building. Sport gave her the strength to overcome the years of trauma that she experienced as the only Vietnamese in an all-white school in Australia.
LeThi went through homelessness, and it was at this time that she came to terms with her sexuality. She founded the Amazin LeThi Foundation with the objective of creating a safe space for LGBTQ+ sportspeople and the larger community. LeThi has gained recognition for increasing the visibility of LGBTQ+ Asian athletes through honours like her recent invitation to the White House, under the new Joe Biden administration in the United States.