Sports remains a challenging field for LGBTQ+ representation. But these athletes and activists are in it to win it. From the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League to the Varsity Gay League, below are this year's standout stars who are changing the game in athletics.
In April, former NCAA champion alpine skier Anouk Patty joined U.S. Ski & Snowboard as its chief of sport, a post in which she develops and implements the organization's athletic strategic plan. She comes to the organization after 30 years of corporate experience in finance and tech, including roles at Dropbox, Hewlett-Packard, and Intuit.
Over the course of her life, Patty has overcome many obstacles. At age 12, she suffered a serious skiing accident that broke both of her legs, leaving her in bed for about four months and causing her to miss a year of school. The doctors told her she would never ski again, but Patty was able to return. In 1991, she graduated from Dartmouth College, where she became an NCAA champion, a three-time All-American, and captain of the women's alpine ski team.
But as for the greatest challenge in her life, Patty says it was not her skiing accident but getting divorced and coming out. "In life, [my biggest obstacle was] probably getting divorced from a great guy who was my best buddy," says Patty. "Blowing our family up and then coming out...was not easy. But I knew I had to do it."
Because of the difficulty she faced coming out, Patty seeks to make U.S. Ski & Snowboard as inclusive as possible. "I'm an openly gay woman, but I was not when I was on the team," she told Women's Sports Alliance earlier this year. "Quite frankly, back then it was pretty close to being homophobic -- but the culture has changed tremendously. I want to build on that, make sure all our athletes and staff feel psychologically, emotionally, and physically safe to be their true selves [so] we're at our best." @anoukpatty
Bryan Ruby, 26, is a jack-of-all-trades who is making an impact as an out gay man in baseball and country music -- two environments that typically do not have much LGBTQ+ representation. In September 2021, Ruby made history when he came out and became the only out gay active professional baseball player in the United States. Shortly after, he founded Proud to Be in Baseball, a nonprofit organization that supports and encourages young LGBTQ+ athletes.
"I'm most proud of the progress we've been able to make with our new nonprofit," says Ruby. "We are advocating and creating mentorship programs for LGBTQ+ youth in the sport. I wanted to create the thing that I didn't have, yet could have used the most as a young queer athlete."
When Ruby is not on the field, he's making a name for himself as a rising country music artist. In 2020, he won season 7 of the Nashville Rising Song talent search competition. Since then, he's garnered more than 20 professional cuts as a songwriter, including a new single called "Left Field," whose proceeds will be donated to Proud to Be in Baseball. He's also collaborated with producer and sound engineer Chris Connors (John Legend, Kanye West) on several projects, including commercial music for the New England Sports Network.
But Ruby admits the road in the country music game has been bumpy at times. "[Over] the past three years, I've tried to make a name for myself as a songwriter in country music. Nashville is already full of songwriters and the genre is a notoriously tough arena for LGBTQ+ people to crack," says Ruby.
"What I first thought was my weakness might just be my superpower," he adds. "Being queer gives me a different perspective than the majority of country writers, and that has helped me tremendously." @bryanrubyofficial
Sometimes you must let go of one dream to go after another -- especially when that other dream is to live as your authentic self. And no one knows this more than professional skateboarder, artist, musician, and entrepreneur Leo Baker.
Stay on Board: The Leo Baker Story, now streaming on Netflix, documents Baker's decision to give up his shot at skating for the U.S. Women's Skateboarding team in Tokyo due to gender identity struggles. Directed by Giovanni Reda and Nicola Marsh, the film premiered at the 2022 Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ+ Film Festival and won the Audience Award for Documentary Feature.
Born in Covina, Calif., and now living in Brooklyn, New York, Baker has beat the odds to become one of the biggest stars in the previously cisgender male-dominated sport. Now 30, Baker has even recently become immortalized as a playable video game character in the latest version of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater.
In addition to the release of Stay on Board, Baker says that filming a video for Spitfire to promote his own line of skateboard wheels and "growing Glue Skateboards, the company I started with Stephen Ostrowski" have been his proudest achievements this year.
Baker, who identifies as transmasculine, queer, and bisexual, says if he could wave a magic wand he would "end colonialism."
"My purpose feels very centered around creating -- art, music, space, etcetera," says Baker. And as for what's next, he adds, "more skating, more music, more art, more Glue Skateboards." @leo_baker
With her signature wide-rimmed glasses and baseball bat-shaped cane, 95-year-old former All-American Girls Baseball League player Maybelle Blair knows how to make a statement. And that's exactly what happened when she came out publicly as gay during a panel for the new Prime Video series A League ofTheir Own during Pride month this year.
A former pitcher for the Peoria Redwings who went on to play for the National Women's Softball League in Chicago during the 1950s, Blair was a consultant for the series created by Abbi Jacobson and Will Graham. The show expands on the stories Penny Marshall told in her 1992 film about female athletes in the middle of the 20th century. And Blair, who says she and the hundreds of other queer women in the league formed a family of sorts, is a part of that previously untold history of the league.
This year, Blair became part of the press tour for League, but her biggest accomplishment has been overcoming trepidation to finally tell her whole story.
"I opened the door and came out of the closet at 95 years old and told the world I was gay. That was my proudest and happiest moment," she says. "I wanted to give younger people the chance to know that it's OK to come out of the closet and they don't have to hide, but I was worried that my family would reject me when I did this. Instead, they showed all sorts of love and understanding."
Following her banner year, Blair has big plans. She's working on building the International Women's Baseball Center in Rockford, Ill. She describes it as "a museum and education and activity center that celebrates all women in baseball and shows their achievements and gives them opportunities to learn and to play on the same field as the Rockford Peaches."
Professional minor league baseball player Solomon Bates is a scholar of the game, listing historic greats like Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson among his favorite players. Bates also made history himself this year when he came out as gay in a post to Instagram, becoming only the second active minor league player to do so. But the 25-year-old African American pitcher writes a far humbler job description.
"I describe what I do [as just being] a human who has a passion to be a professional athlete, no matter what people say," says Bates, who hails from Victorville, Calif.
Bates readily admits the decision to come out was not an easy one and says his struggle with depression "was the hardest" part of last year. But he eventually found the resolve to live openly as a gay man, and he's been using his newfound visibility to help other closeted athletes overcome their fears as well.
"I believe my purpose is to open up doors for gay athletes that love sports, to keep working hard, and be better than everyone else," Bates says, also showing his fiercely competitive side as well. "I'm opening up how great I can be in this world."
The path to greatness is also one of perseverance for Bates, who played four seasons with the Richmond Flying Squirrels of the San Francisco Giants Double-A minor league team, even briefly pitching with the major league team in spring training this year. His time with the team was marred by injury, though, and he was eventually released. He's since been signed by the Sioux City Explorers of the American Association of Professional Baseball. It's not "the show" the major league is known for, but it still keeps him on the field playing the game he loves, while also remaining an example for others. @solomonbates
When Will Hackner organized a game of capture the flag with his friend Andrew in 2007, he never expected it would lead him to a full-time career in recreational sports. Soon after the game, Hackner created Varsity Gay League, the nation's first queer recreational sports league. Fifteen years later, VGL has grown to include 40,000 LGBTQ+ athletes across 20 cities and is the largest LGBTQ+ recreational sports league in the country.
In the last year, VGL has had a lot of growth and success, which includes putting together their own Flag Football League with the support of the Los Angeles Rams, producing six tournaments, partnering with One Magical Weekend in Orlando during Disney Gay Days, and shooting a Netflix special.
The highlight for Hackner, however, was partnering with McDonald's, which made VGL the first queer group of its kind to be recognized by the company. "I grew up hunting for Happy Meal Toys, and caring McDonald's Halloween Buckets for trick-or-treating, and we ate at McDonald's 3x a week in high school," said Hackner. "Now, my friends and I can say we are part of the McDonald's family, and that's beyond exciting."
In 2023, Hackner has big plans for the company, which include renaming and rebranding the entire organization as well as more tournaments, cities, and programs across the country. He also hopes to continue building community.
"Over the past 15 years, I think what I've discovered is I am community builder who has found a different way to bridge queer people -- of all sexes and genders, non-genders -- and our straight friends to simply have fun and play together," says Hackner. "Through this process, people make relationships, friendships, marriages, births, social lives, and work opportunities all through the prism of a nonjudgmental, open community."