By Britni de la Cretaz
For queer athletes and fans alike, the sports world can often feel closed off and exclusionary because historically, it hasn’t always been the most welcoming space for members of the LGBTQ+ community. But slowly, players are beginning to put cracks in that facade, and showing people both in locker rooms and in the stands that queer people belong in sports.
On August 29th, NFL veteran and current free agent Ryan Russell came out as bisexual in an essay published by ESPN. The 27-year-old defensive end shared his two goals for the upcoming season: to make it back to the NFL and to do it while living his life openly as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. He wrote about feeling like his “existence slipped between the cracks of two worlds,” and that he felt like he was not straight enough for the straight community and not gay enough for the gay one. He mentioned feeling like he was being “deceitful” by not sharing his identity with the world, and feeling invisible for passing as straight while dating women. “I played football — so I put that in the straight column,” he wrote. “I wrote poetry and romance stories — so I put that in the gay column. Over time, I came to build two worlds.”
The response to the essay, and by extension, Russell’s truth, was predominantly supportive; he also told TMZ that former coaches and teammates had reached out to cheer him on.
“As someone who is bisexual, it was really heartening [for me] to read his story,” Regina, a 23-year-old from Ottumwa, Iowa, tells MTV News. Even so, Russell’s essay threw her for a loop, if only because she hadn’t heard stories like his broadcast on a national level. “Honestly, when I read the headline, I expected him to be coming out as gay and not bi,” she admitted. “Reading him explicitly identify as such was shocking.”
Studies suggest that about 50 percent of people who are part the LGBTQ+ community identify as bisexual and more than 40 percent of LGBTQ+ people of color identify as bisexual — and those numbers are on the rise. But bisexual erasure and invisibility in the queer community and beyond often paint bisexuality as an illegitimate identity, or a stop on a path to eventually coming out as gay. A 2016 study found that, while opinions about gay and lesbian people have undergone a markedly positive shift in recent years, the shift in opinion about bisexual people had only gone from “negative to neutral.” The study also found that attitudes about bisexual men were less positive than attitudes about bisexual women.
“Because of this [dismissal] that bi+ people face, our sexualities are usually erased, made more ‘digestible’ as being either gay or straight depending on who you’re in a relationship with and how masculine or feminine you are,” says J.R. Yussuf, a writer and the creator of the #bisexualmenspeak hashtag.
By speaking directly to the bisexual experience, Russell’s decision to let the world in on his truth makes visible a story that many people have lived but is rarely discussed. Biphobia causes health disparities for bisexual people, putting them at higher risk than gay and straight people for mental health issues, substance abuse issues, physical illnesses, intimate partner violence, and sexual harassment. These risks are heightened for Black bisexual folks, and particularly for Black bisexual men. A 2018 study found that compared with their gay counterparts, Black bisexual men experienced health disparities and increased risk of intimate partner violence. The study also found that Black bisexual men were less likely than gay men to disclose their sexuality, which exacerbated those health disparities due to lack of access to community support and resources.
Slowly, we are seeing this lack of visibility and understanding start to shift. Shows like Schitt’s Creek and Brooklyn Nine-Nine have introduced bisexual characters who aren’t steeped in negative stereotypes. Similarly, visibility from people like Russell is a crucial step in shattering some of these misconceptions; that he is doing so in the world of sports, where a culture of toxic masculinity is the norm, is even more difficult and significant.
“I was really excited and hopeful when the news first broke,” Yussuf says. “I thought to myself, ‘I know there are so many bisexual men in the NFL, in professional sports at large, and this can be a real watershed moment if other players are ready or have a desire to reveal another layer of their experience.’”
Only time will tell if that’s true. As Russell notes in his essay, there are not currently any openly LGBTQ+ players in the NFL, NBA, NHL, or MLB. While there are many openly gay professional female athletes, men’s sports have been much slower to accept LGBTQ+ players into their ranks. Michael Sam became the first openly gay player in the NFL when he was drafted by the St. Louis Rams (who now play in Los Angeles) in 2014, though he was cut before ever playing a down in the league; he has since talked about how difficult the years following that experience were for him. Other players, like former New England Patriots tackle Ryan O’Callaghan and Wade Davis, who was drafted by the Tennessee Titans, have come out in retirement.
“Ryan… shines a much-needed light on the lack of visibility and support for bisexual athletes,” the non-profit Athlete Ally, whose mission is to end homophoia and transphobia in sports, said in a statement. “By coming out as bisexual, Ryan will help more people understand that sexuality is on a spectrum.”
But queer players still have an uphill battle to climb, as evidenced by tweets from former NFL player Larry Johnson, which followed Russell’s announcement and cited an “effeminite agenda.”
For Davis, who now serves as the LGBT inclusion consultant for the NFL, those comments underscored the need for representation by players in the league, and even though Johnson’s tweets are harmful, Davis is glad they’re out there. “Otherwise people would get to say that this is not a big deal and whether you believe it’s a big deal or not, there is a still an idea there is a ‘gay agenda’ to feminize men,” he told MTV News. “What his tweets unearth is a separate conversation that is happening among male-identified folks who are wrestling with their own ideas of manhood and masculinity. His discomfort says nothing about Ryan Russell and everything about him.”
While Russell’s openness is important for athletes on the field and in the locker room, it’s also important for fans watching at home, especially given how the sports world is notorious for being unwelcoming to its LGBTQ+ fans, and stadiums are not exactly known as bastions of queer acceptance. Homophobic stunts on the kiss cam continue to persist, and last month, an employee for the Colorado Rockies told a lesbian couple they couldn’t kiss in Coors Field. Despite many professional teams hosting Pride nights, and the NFL launching its own LGBTQ+ affinity group called “NFL Pride” in 2017 and marching in the New York City Pride parade the last two years, many people believe the efforts have remained superficial. People like Davis are working to help change that, but LGBTQ+ fans watching men’s professional sports teams have spent a long time seeing athletes who don’t represent them or who actively express beliefs that denigrate people like them.
Simply put, it matters when your favorite athletes shows you who they are. Writer Tamryn Spruill wrote for Swish Appeal last year about how WNBA player Brittney Griner coming out inspired her to do the same — and saved her life when she was facing suicidal ideations.
“Seeing these little wins in representation” — like Russell coming out — “is so important to me because as someone who is still trying to come to terms with the [queer] person I’ve figured out I am, it really just makes me feel a bit better and validated,” James, an 18-year-old from Fresno, California, tells MTV News.
This significance is compounded for Black bisexual men. Seeing someone who shares their identities reach the heights of the NFL can be “affirming that not only is their sexuality valid and common in other Black men, but that it does not mean they can’t reach a certain level of prominence or success,” Yussuf says.
Davis, too, underscores the significance of Russell coming out as bisexual — or, as Davis prefers to call it, “letting the world in.” “I hope that it creates a more curious conversation” around identity, and the nuances of identity, “especially among people who identify as male,” he says.
Shortly after his ESPN piece published, Russell posted a photo to Instagram with his boyfriend, dancer Corey O’Brien, and later shared a love poem. The two have launched a YouTube channel together. Even so, Russell told the New York Times that “You’re not going to be hearing me call myself a trailblazer.” He doesn’t have to; his actions will do the talking for him.