For the next three weeks, athletes from across the world will be competing for the gold in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. The Olympics are frequently the site of record-breaking achievements of athletic prowess, but this year’s games are shattering a new kind of record: the number of openly LGBT athletes that will be participating.
Taking part in Brazil’s games this month are 43 out athletes, or nearly twice as many as the previous record-breaker in London in 2012—which in turn was almost double the number in Beijing in 2008. If the LGBT athletes competing this year formed a team all their own, that team would be the 61st largest out of the 205 competing.
Of course, with over 11,000 athletes participating in Rio this month, these numbers may still seem dismayingly low, likely in part because such statistics cannot take into account those participants who choose to keep their sexualities private. But every year, fewer and fewer athletes choose to remain closeted.
Megan Rapinoe, a U.S. gold medalist in London in 2012, is returning to the pitch in Rio this weekend. After coming out in 2012, she has encouraged others to do the same. “I feel like sports in general are still homophobic, in the sense that not a lot of people are out,” she says. “I feel everyone is really craving [for] people to come out. People want – they need – to see that there are people like me playing soccer for the good ol’ U.S. of A.”
But despite Rapinoe’s encouragement, anxiety about losing financial sponsorship is just one of many reasons that Olympic athletes choose to remain closeted. Fear of being subtly, even subconsciously assessed more harshly by homophobic judges could also contribute to Olympians’ reluctance to reveal their sexualities publicly, as might negative responses from fans.
Gus Kenworthy, a freestyle skier for Team U.S.A. who came out in 2015, carefully kept his sexuality private until after competing in the Winter Olympics in 2014, citing his fear that his sponsors would drop him if they learned that he was gay. Great Britain’s Tom Daley did something similar, timing his public coming-out shortly after the London 2012 Olympic Games, where he won his country the bronze.
Nonetheless, new stories keep emerging. Elena Delle Donne, star of the 2016 U.S. Olympics basketball team, made headlines just last Friday when she revealed her sexuality by announcing her engagement to her longtime girlfriend. “As the future keeps moving on, I don’t plan on having our relationship out in the public and all this media on it,” Delle Donne told Vogue. “But obviously there’s excitement right now because people see it for the first time. I decided I’m not at all going to hide anything.”
The fears LGBT athletes must face when deciding whether or not to come out are especially understandable when the games themselves are hosted in countries historically intolerant of queer and trans people. The 2014 Winter Olympics held in Sochi, Russia was a case in point. Although Vladimir Putin stated that LGBT Olympians were welcome – as long as they “leave the children in peace” – contemporary Russian treatment of its own LGBT population was less heartening.
Brazil, which hosts the largest gay pride parade in the world and has allowed LGBT couples equal marriage rights since 2013, compares favorably in many respects to Sochi, whose mayor claimed that he had no LGBT people in his city. But Brazilian demonstrations of support and tolerance tell only one side of the story. Since 2011, estimates put the number of LGBT people murdered in the country between 1,400 and 1,600 – or one nearly every day. Over 40% of all violence against members of the LGBT community occurs in Brazil. And transgender violence is particularly prevalent, with over half of all transgender murders worldwide committed in the country as well.
As part of its effort to improve its image, Brazil is making efforts toward inclusivity: at tonight’s opening ceremony, Lea T, a Brazilian model, will become the first trans woman to participate in an Olympics ceremony. “The message is clear,” she told the BBC last week. “Include everyone, no matter their gender, sexual orientation, race or religion. We are all human beings and we are part of society. My role at the ceremony will help send this message.”
At Sochi two years ago, discussions of a possible boycott ended with a compromise: rather than effectively punishing the LGBT athletes intending to compete by keeping them from participating, President Obama sent a pointed message to Putin by refraining from attending the games himself, as well as by sending a U.S. delegation that included three openly LGBT athletes.
No such proposals have been put forward for this summer’s games. But the Rio Olympics represent a strange contradiction: thanks to increasing tolerance, an unparalleled number of openly LGBT athletes are gathered to compete in a country experiencing an ongoing human rights crisis.