Though visibility has come a long way in recent years, as it currently stands, the world of sports still remains a challenging field for LGBTQ+ representation. But these athletes and activists are in it to win it.
From a NASCAR driver to a swimming legend to an All Elite Wrestling champion, below are this year's standout stars and 2023 Out100 honorees who are changing the game in athletics.
Courtesy of Zach Herrin
While NASCAR may have a certain reputation, especially among fans in conservative parts of middle America, pro stock car driver Zach Herrin is helping to change that. One of the very few out drivers in the sport, Herrin hopes his visibility in one of the country’s most cherished and watched pastimes helps ensure a future where there aren’t so few LGBTQ+ racers competing.
“I want to help pave the way for other LGBTQ+ individuals who also want to chase a dream and find professional careers of all forms within motorsports, or more specifically NASCAR, because people are what makes our sport so amazing,” Herrin says.
And though he says one of the biggest obstacles in the world of racing and NASCAR is hesitance from outside companies to sponsor and partner with an out gay driver like himself, he is still pushing forward into the 2024 season ready to identify the right people who are willing to stand on the right side of history.
“When you find the right allies, they’ll run the whole race with you,” he says. “Times are very difficult for our community right now so we all must continue to drive forward to make a better and safer world for LGBTQ+ folks of tomorrow.” @zach.herrin
Diego La Velle Cevallos-Garzon
Bobby Winter/Winter Strong Photography
After 10 years of experience as a personal trainer and over 15 years of boxing experience, Diego La Velle Cevallos-Garzon made history when he opened Strong Hands Gym, which proudly bills itself as the first LGBTQ+ gym in Chicago. A Black gay man who has won over 111 amateur fights and was once nationally ranked 19th, Cevallos-Garzon has created a safe space for people across a spectrum of marginalized identities, including LGBTQ+ people, disabled individuals, and people of color.
“My ultimate goal is to create an environment where everyone who walks into my gym or joins my training sessions leaves with a sense of refreshment and accomplishment after each visit,” says Cevallos-Garzon.
The services provided at Strong Hands Gym include personal training, dieting and nutrition guidance, and bodybuilding. Cevallos-Garzon also provides self-defense courses for his trans clients.
“One of my clients, a 14-year-old transgender youth, has experienced a significant boost in confidence, self-esteem, and a more affirmed sense of identity through my program,” he says.
Cevallos-Garzon hopes to transform Strong Hands Gym into a franchise model that focuses on combat skills for the trans community and LGBTQ+ physical and mental well-being. But for now, he hopes to ensure a delicate balance between masculinity and femininity.
“I aim to bridge the gap within our community, advocating for the harmony between masculinity and femininity,” says Cevallos-Garzon. “It’s essential to recognize that both qualities are valuable, and we should refrain from marginalizing those who embody them. My goal is to promote unity and demonstrate that we are all allies in this endeavor.” @cevallosgarzon88
Jaiyah T. Saelua
Jaiyah T. Saelua is a history-making soccer player who first made her debut with the American Samoa men’s national soccer team in 2006 at age 15. Saelua is a fa’afafine — a person who identifies as a third gender in Samoan culture. In 2011 FIFA recognized her as the first out transgender person to compete in one of its tournaments.
Saelua was a major part of the American Samoa team when it pushed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. In a game against Tonga that year, the team won 2-1, with Saelua being named Woman of the Match by her coach. The game made her the first out transgender player to appear in a World Cup qualifying match.
Saelua continues to play professionally for the American Samoa team while also serving as a FIFA ambassador for LGBTQ+ athletes. After 20 years of soccer, she plans to retire as an athlete next year and pursue administrative work in the Oceania region. She was also invited to serve as an ambassador to the Rainbow Games in New Zealand.
This year she is proud to have been invited by FIFA’s president to the FIFA Women’s Football Convention and the FIFA Women’s World Cup final match. “Of the more than 800 delegates at the convention, I was the only transgender woman in attendance,” she notes. “After the final match, President Infantino invited me to a special ceremony at his hotel, where he and Secretary Fatma Samoura inducted me into the FIFA Legends class, making me the first and only transgender FIFA Legend.”
Part of her life story will appear in Taika Waititi’s new film Next Goal Wins, which chronicles the journey of the American Samoa team toward the 2014 World Cup. It comes out November in theaters nationwide. Now a whole new generation of trans athletes will know Saelua’s story. @jaiyahsaelua
Cody Rigsby, a celebrity fitness guru and self-described “opinionated homosexual,” began his career as a professional dancer and launched to international fame as a Peloton instructor. In a sign of his mainstream credentials, he was selected to compete on Dancing With the Stars in 2021.
But Rigsby is aware that his work has a wider impact than giving people a fun workout. “I have a platform within the fitness space that reaches millions of people from the comfort of their own homes,” he says. “I use my platform to be a role model who is unapologetically authentic while changing the minds of people who may not know a gay person.”
Things weren’t always easy for Rigsby, who grew up gay in the conservative South with parents battling addiction. He learned to survive, but he found himself “confronting his own bullshit” with “survival skills that manifested into toxic behaviors.” Through a combination of therapy, meditation, and creating a relationship with himself, Rigsby is learning to heal and evolve. A part of this process included the release of his first book, XOXO, Cody: An Opinionated Homosexual’s Guide to Self-Love, Relationships, and Tactful Pettiness.
Thankfully, Rigsby is full of strength both in and out of the gym. “The queer experience is multifaceted, from the way that we dress, the way that we express, and the way that we love. No matter how much you try to erase that, we are not going anywhere, because we’ve always been here,” he says. “Unfortunately, I feel like we are heading into a really turbulent time for queer rights. Buckle up, because we have to continue the battle that was started by queer people before us.”
As for what’s ahead, Rigsby wants to keep spreading joy. Oh, and he really wants to be a guest judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race. @codyrigsby
Before this year, Brittney Griner was already a superstar, a legend, and a hero. In her career, the 32-year-old center has won two Olympic gold medals and a WNBA championship; she has also been named to nine WNBA All-Star teams. But she became admired for her strength and courage while being detained in a Russian prison for nearly all of 2022 after authorities there discovered hash oil that was prescribed to her in Arizona.
After the U.S. government finally brought her home in a prisoner exchange, Griner had her highly anticipated return to the WNBA this year, where fans welcomed her back with open arms. After starting 31 games, Griner was named Co-Comeback Player of the Year for the league.
Through it all, Griner has held her head high as an out and proud athlete — and she hopes her example inspires others to do the same.
“Living proudly and out loud is the only way I know how, and I commend all the leaders and trailblazers on this list who have had the courage to come out and live authentically,” Griner says. “I appreciate the honor from Out and my hope is that in some small way recognitions like this are seen by those who have not yet found the time, space, or safety to come out — that they would know they’re not alone and that there is hope and community and family waiting for them when they’re ready.” @brittneyyvettegriner
NFL history isn’t always made on the field. Case in point? Kevin Maxen, the assistant strength coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Just before the 2023-2024 season, Maxen publicly came out, making him the first male coach in a U.S. professional league to proudly declare himself as part of the LGBTQ+ community.
A coach for a few years now, having already worked with college teams including the Baylor Bears and the Vanderbilt Commodores, Maxen started to question his sexuality in college while he was still a football player and team captain. Then in 2022, he contacted fellow out NFL history maker Carl Nassib to ask for advice on how to navigate coming out in sports.
It was still not an easy process. As Maxen admits, some of the people he thought he had in his corner suddenly didn’t have faith in him. But he says being able to live in his truth, especially in a field of work as visible as his, was his biggest accomplishment this year. “I put my trust in the wrong people until I found the ones who were telling me to ignore them and listen to myself,” he says. “When I did that, I realized that the people I was being told to fear were the ones who were truly going to support me and love me no matter what.”
“People are good,” Maxen says about the message he wants to send to LGBTQ+ folks. “As a community that is asking for acceptance, love and understanding, we shouldn’t perpetuate the idea that we have to live in fear of how people react or live up to other people’s standards, [but focus on] only our own. The most important thing about equality should be seeing everyone as an individual — what their character as a person is and what they can contribute is more important than what or who or how they identify.” @kmax3824
Andrew Mead Cross
Diana Nyad is one of the great athletes of her age. The 74-year-old author, speaker, and long-distance swimmer has accomplished feats that include swims around Manhattan and from the Bahamas to Florida. She made history in 2013 at age 64, when she became the first person to report swimming from Cuba to Florida without the use of a protective shark cage.
This year Annette Bening brings Nyad’s extraordinary crossing to life in a Netflix biopic, Nyad, alongside Jodie Foster as Nyad’s coach and friend Bonnie Stoll. The film comes out just in time for the 10th anniversary of what Nyad calls her proudest moment: “I just turned 74 this August, and I say to myself all the time that I don’t want the Cuba swim to be the biggest thing I’ve ever done. I strive every day, in every way, to live a big life, but let’s face it, the Cuba swim is the biggest thing I’ve ever done.”
Nyad’s past has not been without controversy. In February 2022, the Find a Way author wrote a divisive op-ed in The Washington Post arguing that trans and cisgender women should not compete against one another in elite sports. But after “a lot of deep dive thinking,” Nyad’s views have evolved.
“I have come to understand that the science is far more complex than I thought, and there are clearly more educated experts than I who are creating policy to ensure that elite sports are both fair and inclusive of all women. I regret weighing in on that conversation and any harm I may have caused,” Nyad says. “Also, in recent times, the climate for the transgender community has turned dire and dangerous. I now see how all women are negatively affected by the ways transgender women are targeted by discrimination and abuse in sports and elsewhere.”
“I am today firmly on the side of inclusion. Trans women athletes deserve our utmost respect. I stand with them in the world of sports and in the fight for full equality for all trans people. We are all sisters and siblings under the blue sky, and we should all have equal opportunities to play the sports we choose, the sports we love.” @diananyad
Anthony Bowens is a professional wrestler with All Elite Wrestling and the reigning title holder — along with Max Caster and Billy Gunn — of the AEW World Trios Championship. It’s his proudest accomplishment of 2023.
“I have the honor of being AEW’s first gay champion when I won the tag-team title last year. But we got the gold back around our waist and I’m super excited about it,” Bowens says of his championship belt, just days after his win at London’s Wembley Stadium.
The New Jersey native, who has been active in professional wrestling since 2013, came out as a member of the LGBTQ+ community in 2017. He’s excelled in an arena with few out figures, which makes being part of the Out100 particularly impactful.
“There’s a time where I wasn’t out, I was in the closet, and I didn’t know how that would affect my career,” Bowens shares. “And part of wanting to come out was to help people who were in my shoes and to do that through my love of professional wrestling.”
Memorably in June, an arena of adoring fans cheered, “He’s gay!” in support of Bowens when a female reporter suggested he was hitting on her. Bowens is also the self-proclaimed “Scissor King.” His signature move is forming an A formation with his fingers and sometimes performing a scissor-shake with others in a sign of friendship, sparking a trend in wrestling and beyond.
Recently, Bowens cleared another remarkable hurdle: becoming a homeowner. The process was “the worst experience I’ve ever had in my entire life. I’m so glad it’s over with,” he says. But the reward of the American Dream was worth the struggle. “My boyfriend and I [are] very, very happy to be living here in Los Angeles now.” @bowens_official