Martina Navratilova, one of the greatest female tennis players of all time, recently told Sports Illustrated that LGBT athletes have come a long way and that NBA basketball player Jason Collins publicly coming out in 2013 was a true “game changer” for LGBT athletes.
She recalls how hard it was to be a gay athlete in the past, especially in team sports where you have a coach who could keep an LGBT player from participating in the game.
“When I came out, in 1981, I didn’t have much public support and I know I lost endorsements. But I never had to worry about losing my job. In tennis, there are no bosses, no general managers and no coaches who can keep players from competing. So I was safe in that regard. For team sports athletes, this is not the case. A homophobic coach at any level — high school, college or pros — could keep a player from playing.”
Navratilova also recalls a conversation she had with an NHL (National Hockey League) coach in the 1980s in which he adamantly told her that there were absolutely no gay hockey players because hockey is a macho sport. And in the 1990s, Navratilova sadly remembers when an American football player appeared in an ad trying to persuade lesbian and gay people to “cease” being homosexual.
Fortunately, Navratilova believes that today there is growing support for LGBT athletes in various sports. She believes that the straight athletes who have filmed anti-homophobic ads, such as Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash, have made a very positive impact on scared youth. She also points out how effective and appreciated the NHL’s You Can Play initiative has been against homophobia.
But according to Navratilova, it was Jason Collins’ coming out that has made the biggest difference.
“Collins has led the way to freedom. Yes, freedom — because that closet is completely and utterly suffocating. It’s only when you come out that you can breathe properly. It’s only when you come out that you can be exactly who you are. Collins’ action will save lives. This is no exaggeration: Fully one third of suicides among teenagers occur because of their sexuality. Collins will truly affect lives, too. Millions of kids will see that it is OK to be gay. No need for shame, no need for embarrassment, no need for hiding.”
Navratilova tells the LGBT community to “Come out, come out wherever and whoever you are. It is beautiful out here and I guarantee you this: You will never, ever want to go back. You will only wonder why it took so long.”