‘We’re breaking down barriers through representation:’ Landmark Olympic moments for LGBTQ+ athletes
As we celebrate LGBTQ+ pride in sport during the month of June, a look at some of the recent groundbreaking moments at the Games by queer competitors.
The LGBTQ+ movement has grown by leaps and bounds over the last decade at Olympic Summerand Winter Games.
Just 23 brave out Olympians competed at London 2012 while nearly 200 – 186 in total – proudly shared their personal stories at Tokyo 2020 in 2021, marked on the way with milestones for non-binary and transgender athletes.
Here, we highlight a few of those landmark rainbow moments in celebration of Pride Month, while looking ahead to Paris 2024, which has a slogan that speaks particularly to the queer community: “Games wide open.”
Tokyo 2020 sets the bar
The LGBTQ+ community has never been as loudly and proudly represented at any Olympic Games as it was for Tokyo, with the aforementioned 186 athleteshailing from 35 different countries and competing in 34 different sports.
The number marked more than a tripling of the 56 out Olympians at Rio 2016, the previous Summer Games, with 55 of those athletes landing on the podium in Tokyo. In fact, ‘Team LGBTQ+’ won 32 medal in total, which would have ranked it 11th among nations participating in the Games.
Tokyo marked more out athletes on the Olympic stage than all previous Olympics – combined.
Women’s basketball continues to be a fearless leader in the queer space, with five women on the gold-medal winning Team USA identifying as queer: Sue Bird; Brittney Griner; Diana Taurasi; Chelsea Gray; and Breanna Stewart.
Canada’s Quinn: First trans and non-binary gold medallist
It was at those Tokyo Games that the Canadian women’s football team captured gold in the sport, while also marking an historic first in the queer space: Canadian midfielder Quinn (pictured above, left, with Megan Rapinoe) became not only the first openly non-binary and transgender athlete to win an Olympic gold – but an Olympic medal of any colour.
“I feel proud seeing ‘Quinn’ up on the lineup and on my accreditation,” they said in Tokyo, having come out as non-binary and trans in 2020. “I feel sad knowing there were Olympians before me unable to live their truth because of the world, [but] I feel optimistic for change.”
Female athletes lead the way – again and again
Lesbian and queer female have led the way in much of LGBTQ+ history, and that rings true for the Olympics, as well.
At PyeongChang 2018, for example, 11 of the 15 out athletes were female, a trend that had continued from Games in Beijing (where nine of the 10 out Olympians were female), Vancouver and London, as well. The Canadian women’s hockey team at Sochi 2014 captured gold, and included out athletes Brianne Jenner and Mélodie Daoust.
Timothy LeDuc: First openly non-binary athlete to compete at a Winter Games
Figure skating has long been seen as a safe haven for gay men, but no publicly out skaters competed at a Games until PyeongChang 2018, when Adam Rippon, Eric Radford and Jorik Hendrickx led the way in that sport.
But Beijing 2022 marked a significant moment for LGBTQ+ athletes at a Winter Games, and in particular in a sport that is steeped in traditional gender roles: Timothy LeDuc, a pairs skater for the U.S., became the first openly non-binary athlete to compete at a Winter Games.
“It’s really challenging being in a gendered sport sometimes,” LeDuc said prior to the Games. “But me and Ashley (Cain, LeDuc’s partner) get to just be ourselves and be two amazing athletes who come together and create something beautiful.”
Gus Kenworthy’s kiss seen ‘round the world
Kenworthy did not medal in the freeski slopestyle event, but NBC cameras beamed images of him and Wilkas sharing their affection once Kenworthy was done competing, a moment the out American said at the time was powerful for many reasons: “I think that the only way to really change perceptions, break down homophobia, break down barriers is through representation,” he said.
“That’s definitely not something I had as a kid: I definitely didn’t see a gay athlete at the Olympics kissing their boyfriend and I think that if I had it would have made it a lot easier for me, so hopefully it did that for other people.”
Robert Dover: First out Olympian, Seoul 1988
While queer historians have reported on plenty of closeted gay athletes to compete at an Olympics, not one was on record as being out until Seoul 1988, when American Robert Dover, an equestrian athlete, became the first.
Having not been out at his debut Games in Los Angeles 1984, Dover made the choice to come out prior to 1988 as the AIDS epidemic ripped through the queer community: “I made a statement that I was gay,” Dover said plainly. “I was very concerned about the fact that so many people within the equestrian community were dying of this disease.”
Matthew Mitcham makes a splash
Australian diver Matthew Mitcham was the lone out man, and he soared to gold, capturing the top spot on the podium in the 10m platform. His visibility was especially powerful even for the times: He was on the cover of The Advocate, an LGBTQ+ issues magazine, while also having his then-boyfriend attend with the help of commercial sponsors.
In 2015, Mitcham told Olympics.com that he had actually retired from the sport prior to 2008 and said it “wasn’t in my wildest dreams” to win gold. His final dive remains one of the highest-scored dives in Olympic history.
Rapinoe & Bird: Sharing their story – together
American footballer Megan Rapinoe and her partner Sue Bird are both Olympic champions, but Bird – a basketball star – has the household bragging rights: She won five consecutive golds from 2004-2021, while Rapinoe and the USWNT won at London 2012.
Rapinoe came out just prior to those 2012 Games an interview with Out magazine, and both she and now-fiancée Bird have become outspoken advocates for the queer community.
“What Megan helped me understand was that, yes, what I was already doing was great, living authentically,” Bird told Time magazine ahead of Tokyo 2020. “But it was important to say it, because the more people that come out, that’s where you get to the point where nobody has to come out. Where you can just live. And it’s not a story.”