On Thursday night I found myself reading a story on ESPN over and over again. It was an essay from NFL free agent Ryan Russell, where he came out as bi. In it he wrote: ‘My truth is that I’m a talented football player, a damn good writer, a loving son, an overbearing brother, a caring friend, a loyal lover and a bisexual man.’
As a black, gay man who has always enjoyed and played competitive football – not American football though – Ryan’s story overwhelmed me with pride and joy. Seeing someone who looked like me being open about who they are and who they love was such a powerful, personal affirmation.
As Ryan said: ‘I want to live my dream of playing the game I’ve worked my whole life to play, and being open about the person I’ve always been.’
However, this isn’t the first time I have felt this. Michael Sam came out in a similar fashion in 2013 when he declared himself for the 2014 NFL Draft. Sadly, despite being awarded SEC Defensive Player of the Year in College, his NFL career ended with him not being on an NFL roster.
There’s no doubt in my mind that by coming out, Ryan will have a hugely positive impact on so many people. Not least of all because bi people are often the forgotten part of the LGBT acronym and that can make coming out as bi extremely difficult.
Stonewall research shows that three in ten bi men (30 per cent) cannot be open about their sexual orientation with any of their friends, compared to just two per cent of gay men and one per cent of lesbians.
We also can’t forget that it’s still very rare we hear stories from bi people of colour in the media, popular culture and sports. So Ryan’s decision to come out as the first openly bi NFL athlete not only sends an extremely powerful message but will also no doubt give others the confidence to be themselves in sport.
We know there are still many misconceptions about LGBT people in sport, and, unfortunately, homophobic, biphobic and transphobic attitudes and language remain a persistent problem. One way of creating change in sports is to have more visible lesbian, gay, bi and trans role models.
Athletes like Ryan, Megan Rapinoe, Tom Daley, Charlie Martin, Billie Jean King, Jason Collins and many others have the power to inspire other LGBT+ people, particularly young people, by letting them know that LGBT+ people can succeed in sport, feel proud in their identity, and help create a more inclusive culture in sport. Almost two-thirds of young people (60 per cent) say that openly LGBT+ athletes would have a positive impact on the culture of sport.
However, we should also remember that athletes coming out doesn’t mean the job is done. High-profile role models are just one part of a much wider cultural shift to make sport more inclusive. Leading sport organisations like NFL need to play their part in tackling anti-LGBT attitudes and behaviour. We can’t rely on the bravery of LGBT+ athletes alone.
As Ryan’s story rightly highlights, coming out is an intensely personal decision and therefore cannot and should not be used as a marker of success, or failure, on how inclusive a sport is. No LGBT+ person should live in fear that someone might out them before they are ready, like Ryan spoke about in his essay.
The more support there is, the easier it will be for more athletes to be open about their sexuality, if they choose to. That’s why Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign focuses on getting allies to come out as allies in support of LGBT+ equality across many sports.
Everyone who cares about sport needs to work together to kick discrimination out, so we can create more supportive and inclusive environments that allows all LGBT+ people, from fans to players alike, to be accepted without exception.