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Out Gay and Lesbian Athletes Take Home Seven Olympic Medals

By L.K. Regan

The thrills, the spills, and the sheer crazy spectacle of the Olympics are over.... sniffle, we miss it already. As the nations of the world tally up their medal counts, the world's gay community is taking stock of its wins as well. No one knows how many gay athletes participated in the Beijing Olympics—though, if the proportion of gay Olympians follows the percentages of gay people in the general population, there must have been hundreds of them. That said, there were only 11 known out LGBT athletes—and only one of them was a man. And yet this tiny group received an astonishing seven medals! Here are a few of the highlights of those athletes who've chosen to talk to the press about their journeys (note we intentionally skipped the ones who were outed against their will).

Among the more remarkable stories of gay and lesbian athletes is that of Katja Nyberg and Gro Hammerseng of Norway, who took gold in handball. These two are not only out teammates—they're a couple. As for so many of the athletes at the games, their focus is on their status as role models. In 2007, Hammerseng told a Norwegian newspaper that, "If girls can see me and Katja and know that it is possible to be a known athlete and still live openly [gay], that is really good." The same spirit of inspiration has been a motivation for Rennae Stubbs, an Australian tennis player who told an Australian newspaper in 2006 that, "I don't hide who I am any more. Everyone in the tennis world pretty much knows who's gay and who's not; the only reason I would like it spoken about publicly more is that I wish everybody would realise that, 'See all those people you admire? Out of 10 of them, four are gay, and I just want you to know that your child can still idolize them.'"

For gay and lesbian athletes, the team itself could provide the inspiration to talk about their sexuality. The U.S. women's softball team took home the silver medal, thanks in part to the efforts of lesbian catcher and infielder Lauren Lappin. Lappin credits her own openness about her sexuality with her teammates to the example of the team's bisexual infielder, Vicky Galindo. Lappin told the Advocate recently that "[Galindo] seemed very comfortable with her sexuality, which really inspired me to be less guarded and to share with my teammates things that I wouldn't hesitate to share if I was straight."

One of the more dramatic figures of the games was Natasha Kai, a 25 year-old, heavily tattooed Hawaiian, and a forward on the gold medal-winning U.S. women's soccer team. Kai off-handedly revealed her sexuality in an interview with NBCOlympics.com in June. Describing how close she came earlier this year to being kicked off the team for lack of both focus and fitness, Kai said, "It was a hard time. I had missed the first camp in early-January because I had bronchitis, and I was going through a nasty break-up with my girlfriend. Then [the coach] told me my job was on the line." Kai pulled herself together, however, and then some—she wound up scoring a goal in overtime of the quarterfinal match against Canada, giving the U.S. a guaranteed berth in the finals. This was a dramatic moment—but not a surprising one for a player who scored 10 goals in 14 games this year.

Undoubtedly one of the most dramatic medals of the games won by any athlete was the gold medal in men's 10-meter platform diving earned by openly gay Australian Matthew Mitcham. Coming into his last dive, Mitcham stood more than 30 points behind Chinese favorite Zhou Luxin. But Mitcham's two-and-a-half somersault, two-and-a-half twist went into the water like a knife, earning 10s from four of the seven judges, and an overall score that, after Luxin mangled a much easier final dive, gave the Australian the gold. Twenty year-old Mitcham has spoken to the press about his sexuality, and his relationship with his boyfriend, Lachlan Fletcher. Fletcher, speaking to a reporter after Mitcham's emotional win, said that, "The biggest thing he was worried about was people paying more attention to that than his actually diving. And I suppose that kind of did happen a little bit. Hopefully, now it won't be so much of an issue any more."

As the Olympics come to a close, the question of why so few LGBT athletes disclose their sexuality—and in particular, why so few gay men are out at the Olympics—remains open to discussion. For men, the threat of homophobia may be greater than for women, particularly in team environments, where the fear of being ostracized may be particularly strong for male athletes. And this is particularly true for younger men, of the age groups that make up the majority of Olympians—a fact that has been pointed out by gay news outlets. It may also be that men are more likely to perceive their gay status as undermining their athletic identities than are women. But until stereotypes change, not only in the world at large but within sports themselves, we are unlikely to know just how many gay athletes have broken records, and brought home the gold.