The U.S. Open hosted its very first Pride, and out tennis player Nick Lee was there to ask: where are the other gay men?
This story was originally published Aug 28, 2019, during that year’s U.S. Open
It is about time a player came out in men’s professional tennis. So why hasn’t it happened?
Hosted by the USTA, the “LOVE ALL – An Open Conversation” panel discussion consisted of prominent figures for LGBTQ+ equality in sports: Billie Jean King, Jason Collins, Billy Bean, Brian Vahaly, Adam Rippon, Alison Van Uytvanck and Greet Minnen, moderated by Nick McCarvel.
In front of a packed house last night, Pride arrived at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. #USOpenPride
— US Open Tennis (@usopen) August 23, 2019
The day prior to the event, I experienced the kind of serendipitous moment that I could only dream about. While walking to Grand Central Terminal, I spotted two familiar faces in the window of a market. I immediately stopped and recognized Van Uytvanck and Minnen, who made history as the first out lesbian couple to play doubles together at Wimbledon this year.
I rushed into the market to introduce myself. I told them how inspired I was by their story, and we took a picture together.
Van Uytvanck expressed the same sentiment to me that she had told The Guardian after Wimbledon, that she wished more people, including men, would come out in professional tennis. I responded that I could not agree more…
The panel left me feeling a wide range of emotions. The audience laughed to the point of tears as self-proclaimed “America’s Sweetheart,” Rippon, cracked one joke after another. King had us all in awe as she opened up about being outed during her professional tennis career and making the courageous decision to come out publicly, in spite of encouragement to deny the allegations.
What I found to be the most beautiful part of the event was the mutual respect and admiration that the panelists had for one another.
The retired professional athletes shared how inspired they were by the active professional athletes — Rippon, Van Uytvanck, and Minnen — for their courage to be out athletes. In response, each of the three thanked the veteran panelists for paving the way for them to have the confidence to do so.
You’re an icon, Billie. pic.twitter.com/quuuExUYff
— Nick McCarvel (@NickMcCarvel) August 23, 2019
As a former collegiate tennis player and gay man, this event struck a particularly sensitive chord for me. After all of the homophobia I have personally experienced in sports, these panelists and the packed audience gave me so much hope for the future of inclusion in sports.
However, the question lingered: Why hasn’t even one man come out in professional tennis? We have several prominent women who have been out while playing, but no men…
The same sentiment that Van Uytvanck uttered to me the day before was expressed by the entire panel when McCarvel posed this question – that they wished just one professional men’s tennis player would finally come out.
Vahaly, a former top 70 player on the ATP tour, came out publicly in 2017, a decade after retiring from professional tennis. The trailblazer for gay visibility on the ATP tour described himself during the panel discussion as “an anxious guy and an anxious tennis player,” stating that his discomfort with his sexual orientation throughout his life was a significant contributor to his anxiety.
“Shame,” is how King described the feeling that many of us have regarding our sexual orientation. To me, the fact that Vahaly was even able to make it on tour as a closeted gay man in the 2000s makes him quite an anomaly.
In the 2000s, there was not the plethora of pride events across sports that we are now seeing. These days, top players Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have all publicly stated that they would welcome an out gay man to the ATP.
If the environment on the men’s side is so much more welcoming than it was just a decade ago, why isn’t there someone like Vahaly currently out in men’s professional tennis?
McCarvel brought up how household names such as King, Amelie Mauresmo, and Martina Navratilova, helped create a sense of comfort for women coming out in professional tennis that does not yet exist on the men’s side. Van Uytvanck agreed with McCarvel, then stated that she believed “the world sees women coming out in tennis as more normal than men” and wished that men could come out in tennis without difficulty.
— WTA (@WTA) August 23, 2019
Many of the panelists also echoed the significance of making an effort in our everyday lives to build more inclusive spaces, with the desire that this will lead to more individuals coming out in sports down the road.
While we now celebrate King for her accomplishments as a gay rights activist, the sacrifices she had to make and terrors that she endured for wanting to be her authentic self after being outed towards the end of her professional tennis career – nearly 40 years ago – are unjustifiable. I sincerely hope that if any man were to come out in professional tennis, that the efforts of this panel and from all of us are creating necessary changes. The kind that would allow a man to be as comfortable as Van Uytvanck and Minnen voiced that they are as out tennis players.
Statistically speaking, there must be a man in the top 100, 200, 500 or even 1,000 who is gay, right?
I discussed this with a college teammate from Croatia who attended the panel discussion with me, who talked about how tennis is an international sport. All of the panelists were from the U.S. and Belgium, two countries that are significantly more progressive when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights and visibility than most other countries represented in professional tennis.
There are many men my age, myself included, that although currently out, feel that we were disenfranchised in sports starting at a young age, leading to a significant amount of burnout before any of us could reach our full potential as athletes.
Combine that with gay and bisexual men representing a significantly smaller portion of the population than heterosexual men, and the odds of having one of us making it through the ranks growing up and currently being a professional tennis player are slim, no matter how welcoming players such as Federer, Djokovic and Murray are in 2019.
It is already difficult enough to make it as a tennis player, regardless of one’s sexual orientation. So what will it take for an active professional men’s tennis player to come out?
I believe that it begins with creating inclusive environments in tennis from a young age, where boys feel welcomed, no matter their sexual orientation. Additionally, with mentors such as Vahaly, and pride events like this one, kids can have role-models to look up to and a support network. A welcoming culture needs to be created not just within the U.S., but around the world.
There currently could be someone out there on the ATP Tour or the ITF Men’s Circuit on the verge of coming out. There could be someone making their way up the rankings in juniors right now, who hopefully will not be deterred from tennis for being a gay or bisexual man, who will see events such as the U.S Open Pride Event, and feel encouraged to pursue tennis professionally.
A stellar panel assembled!
— Sports Media LGBT+ (@SportsMediaLGBT) August 23, 2019
It seems that we don’t know exactly why a man has not yet come out in professional tennis. Nor do we know exactly when it will happen. As Van Uytvanck said, a man coming out would certainly draw a lot of attention to that individual. As Rippon highlighted, coming out and being labeled as “that gay athlete” is not easy to deal with.
In spite of the obstacles each of the panelists have faced coming out, what brought them together for this incredible event was the courage that each of them had to be out and proud, and their belief that together, we can continue to make the world of sports a better place for LGBTQ+ individuals. Just like the journeys of each of these athletes, the road for the first man to come out in professional tennis will likely present some challenges for that individual.
What I can guarantee is that I, along with so many others, will be there to support this player and cheer them on every step of the way. The unanimous consensus among the panel was – regardless of how much they struggled along the way, the rejection they have faced, and the relationships they have lost – none of them regret choosing to live authentically. As King’s shirt read, “come as you are.” The message from the panel and the hundreds of people attending the event is loud and clear – that when that player chooses to come out, we are here for you.
You can watch the “LOVE ALL — An Open Conversation” event on the U.S. Open Facebook page by clicking here, or if available, in the video window below.
The US Open presents “Love All—An Open Conversation,” a panel discussion in association with the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative featuring former NBA star Jason Collins, former MLB player Billy Bean, former tennis player Brian Vahaly, Olympian Adam Rippon, and other luminaries from the LGBTQ+ and Sports community. Special appearance by Billie Jean King.
Posted by US Open Tennis Championships on Thursday, August 22, 2019
Nick Lee is a recent graduate from Vassar College (Class of 2019) where he majored in Psychology and Hispanic Studies, and was a four-year member of the Vassar men’s tennis team. He was also a member of Vassar’s Queer, Trans, and Non-Binary (QTNB) Student-Athlete Working Group. He was born and raised in New York. After teaching English in Madrid from October 2019 to June 2020, he aspires to return to school to pursue a career as a sports psychologist. Lee continues to play tennis competitively. He can be reached by email at Nilee27@aol.com as well as on Instagram and on Facebook.