It can be extremely difficult for anyone to announce their sexuality in a public forum, much more so when that forum is the historically unfriendly-towards-LGBT sports spotlight. It is precisely because it is such a grueling task for one to come out into the spotlight, why we need to support these decisions to help change the modern climate of sports and the LGBT communities around the world.

There have been some incredibly courageous decisions athletes have made over the past few decades in sports. Obviously each sport has its own distinct type of fan-base with varying degrees of acceptance. Tennis, for example, has seen their top athletes outed as far back as 30 years ago, when Martina Navratilova came out as bisexual in 1980. While this was a groundbreaking decision for her, it was a bittersweet one as well. Martina was dropped by many of her sponsors soon following her announcement, despite her being one of the best players to ever grace the courts. Since that announcement, Navratilova has gone on to become one of the most famous and outspoken gay athletes in the world.

Today tennis is a much more welcoming arena for the LGBT community, but that might have a role to do with the type of sport it is. Played in singles or doubles, the peer influences of tennis do not compare to team sports like football or basketball.

In 2007, John Amaechi became the first NBA player to come out. Despite the fact that the announcement was made post-retirement, Amaechi nonetheless shook the very foundation of the basketball world. Being the first in anything has its benefits, as well as its price to pay. The benefits were seen throughout world, as Amaechi pioneered the way for professional and amateur athletes playing basketball abroad in over 50 different countries all across the world, enabling them to feel comfortable in their own skin. The price he paid was the discrimination he felt from his former teammates and even the late Utah Jazz owner Larry Miller.

Other firsts in the team sports category are former NFL running back David Kopay, who came out in 1977, and the MLB's Glenn Burke, who also came out in the 70's. Things were arguably much different back then, and the willingness to openly discuss what can be such a private matter has made it easier for other athletes to follow suit. "What John [Amaechi] did is amazing… He does not know how many lives he's saved by speaking the truth," said NFL defensive lineman Esera Tuaolo, who came out in 2002. Tuaolo went on to say, "Living with all that stress and that depression, all you deal with as a closeted person, when you come out you really truly free yourself. When I came out, it felt like I was getting out of prison."

Regrettably, one of the most homophobic sports out there is the world of combat fighting and mixed martial arts. Recently, after Quinton "Rampage" Jackson made some offensive comments which infuriated both Hollywood and the MMA industries, he later backtracked and offered the following explanation on his website, "I am a black man from Memphis Tennessee who grew up in the south where I faced discrimination my whole life. I know very well how it feels for someone to judge you for something you have no control over so having gone through that I know how it feels. I took a vow that I didn't even have to say that I would never discriminate against anybody for anything other that how they treat me or others around them. So not only DO I NOT HATE gay people, I actually accept them for who and what they are."

Ben Fowlkes, one of MMA's most affective sports writers, released an article which I could not compete with for its succinct analysis of homophobia in MMA. In it, he cites a statement which GLAAD released in response to Jackson's gaffe, "I read the response from GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), which quite rightly pointed out the irony of Jackson equating gay with soft at a time when gays are struggling for the ability to serve openly in our nation's military." Also striving to quash stereotypes is the not-so-silver tongued UFC President Dana White, who has stated that if a mixed martial arts fighter came out, "I honestly think it would have no impact whatsoever, with not only our fighters, but our fan base," White stated. "The guys in the UFC, everybody's so cool, there's great sportsmanship, everybody's so respectful. It wouldn't be a big deal to me, and most of the guys I know in this sport, it wouldn't be a big deal to them either."

That's a refreshing thing to hear, especially since a year earlier, in 2008, MMA fighter Shad Smith became the first openly gay person competing in combat sports. Smith outed himself in an interview which was published in the New York Times, which pioneered the way for others much like Navratilova and Amaechi before him.

As both a nation and a world society, it is important for us to embrace these athletes and the weighty decisions they have made. What it all comes down to is that sports should be about athletic competition and camaraderie, and nothing else. Ironically now, we need to promote what is usually a very personal matter- sexual orientation- in order to eliminate prejudice so the global sports arena can be a more understanding and accepting venue.

Alexia is a lifelong fan of sports and fitness. She is a passionate writer of issues close to her, including mixed martial arts. She is happy to be working with MMA Industries, proud suppliers of MMA training equipment to athletes around the world. Alexia continues to bring you the latest news in the mixed martial arts world on everything from breaking developments to the newest MMA shirts.

A version of this post appeared on The Bilerico Project.

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