Over 10,000 athletes of all backgrounds will participate in the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, and a record 20 are openly LGBT, up from 11 in 2008. Yet digging deeper, only three of those 20 are gay males, while the other 17 are female. This begs the question: where are the gay male Olympians?
While acceptance of LGBT people has increased rapidly during the past couple decades, being gay retains a huge stigma in athletics. Being a gay male is seen as a sign of effeminacy and a contrast to the virility necessary to succeed in men's sports; being a lesbian in athletics also has a stigma, but a different stigma that isn't necessarily seen as contradicting a woman's athletic ability. Programs like Athlete Ally and the You Can Play project are helping to reduce the stigma of being a gay athlete, but there still are no openly gay players in any of the U.S.'s big four (male) pro-sports leagues. Given the uncomfortable environment for gay athletes in the U.S., it's understandable that a closeted athlete in a less accepting country, such as El Salvador or Egypt, would be even less likely to come out.
And yet I find myself disappointed. The Olympics, to me, represent putting aside wars, politics, and other differences to come together on a worldwide stage for a friendly competition. In that sense, I see the Olympics as the perfect opportunity for those opposed to homosexuality to drop their prejudices, if only momentarily, to rally behind a gay or lesbian athlete representing their country. But that seems unlikely when so few openly LGBT athletes are in the Olympics, and even more so when all but one are from Europe, the United States, and Australia. (Handball player Mayassa Pessoa is from Brazil.)
Not only would having more out males in the Olympics reduce the stigma of homosexuality, but it would also address the specific stigma of being a gay male athlete. Being an out Olympian sends the message that "I'm one of the best at my sport in the world and, by the way, I happen to be gay." It serves as an inspiration to young gay, bisexual, and questioning youth who are into sports and tells them that they, too, can excel even if people question their masculinity and athleticism because of their sexual orientation. But with only three openly gay men (though I'm sure there's more than three total) in the Olympics, there are few opportunities to send that message.
So where are the gay male Olympians, besides dressage competitors Carl Hester and Edward Gal, and diver Matthew Mitcham, who was the only openly gay male in the 2008 games? The fact that some athletes come out after their careers and that other athletes are out to their team but not the public suggests that there are Olympians in the closet.
Coming out is a personal choice, but as long as gay Olympic athletes are safe doing so, it would go a long ways. After all, what matters most about being an out gay male Olympian is that, when it comes down to game time, being gay shouldn't matter at all.