Jen Kish was nothing but an athlete when she hit the turf as team captain of Canada’s women’s rugby sevens at the Rio Olympics last month. And when she accepted bronze on the podium, bearing a broad smile, she was nothing but a winner.
Being gay never crossed her mind.
“People looked past that and just saw me as Jen Kish the athlete,” she recalls over the phone from her hometown of Edmonton.
“I’m grateful for that because I want to be able to live my life and compete in sports without that being a thing.”
It has been almost a month since Kish and her team beat Great Britain 33 to 10 in the bronze medal match on Aug 8, 2016.
The moment she realized her victory, she burst into tears. It was both a professional highlight for Kish and an historic moment for Canada, a first medal in a sport that debuted at the Olympics this year.
It was also the first time an openly gay athlete captained a Canadian Olympic team at the summer games.
“I’m proud of who I am,” Kish says, “because I know it can be a struggle for others. Not everyone accepts it.”
Being openly gay in professional sports, an industry that celebrates traditional concepts of masculinity, such as brute strength and resolve, carries its share of stigma. Acceptance of homosexuality in sport has always lagged behind the wave of popular culture.
In the past, coming out at the international level often resulted in lost sponsors, inter-team bullying and even hate mail from the public. But the alternative, self-censoring in the public eye, also takes its toll, say some Olympians.
Now that stigma is slowly dissipating, says Kish, echoed by the US’s Kelly Griffin and the UK’s Tom Bosworth, who also competed in Rio last month.
“The world is growing up,” Kish says.
Kish first came out in 2004 in high school in conservative Alberta. Her single father didn’t take it too well, she recalls. Being gay wasn’t accepted in the oil industry where he worked. Most of her friends came from religious families and she had heard horror stories of friends whose parents had disowned them after coming out.
“It was a very scary time,” she says.
“My own struggle was with my father, but he’s come full circle,” she says. “It took time for him to understand that this is who I am and it’s not to piss him off.”
Now, she’s a staunch advocate for self-acceptance, both in and outside the realm of professional sports.
“The message I’m trying to deliver to the community is to be yourself, be proud of who you are,” she says, “and it doesn’t matter what you look like or what you do in your spare time.”
As more professional athletes come out, that message appears to be sinking in.
At Rio last month, 56 athletes publicly claimed to be gay — the highest number of out athletes at any Olympic or international sporting event in history, excluding the Gay Games.
It’s a significant jump from the 23 out athletes at the London summer games in 2012.
At Beijing in 2008, only nine athletes were reportedly out at the time. In Sydney, eight years before that, only five were reportedly out.
Kish and other Olympians expect the coming-out trend to continue, with another jump expected for Tokyo in 2020.
“There has been a lot of progress in the last few years and this [stigma] is no longer an issue,” says Kelly Griffin, who captained the US women’s rugby sevens. The US was defeated by New Zealand in the fourth quarter-final match.
“I hope that having more people who are out — and showing that it’s not a big deal to be out — will help turn the tides for other athletes to be able to openly be themselves,” she says.
Griffin’s wife and son both attended Rio in support, and Griffin says their overall experience was “amazing.”
Last month, a picture of the UK’s Tom Bosworth proposing to his fiancee at the games went viral. The photo garnered roughly 4,000 retweets and 13,000 likes on Twitter and made headlines across the world as a symbol of progress.
“I’m still on cloud nine,” Bosworth tells Daily Xtra of his engagement and his performance at Rio. He placed sixth overall in men’s race walking, having smashed six British records in the sport.
“There’s a lot of acceptance, definitely in the majority of countries. . . and that’s being reflected in sport,” he says.
Bosworth’s decision to come out publicly was strategic, he says. It involved several months of discussions with his manager. He wanted to make things easier for himself in the run-up to the Olympics.
“I felt going into the Olympic season was a big point for me,” he says.
“Every country wants to know everything about their Olympians — there’s more media, more interviews, more attention — and I thought let’s just make it easier for myself so I don’t have to be careful in interviews and watch what I say on social media. Let’s be completely open and free about it. And that’s what I did.”
But a hyper-focus on out athletes at Rio in the media, and on his engagement, only reinforces the idea that being gay still isn’t the norm, he adds.
“I was blown away by the kind of messages and the media attention it got, which shows it’s still a big story for an athlete to come out,” he says.
“But it’s still news at the end of the day. I thought everything was positive, so I believe it shows that for future people considering doing something similar. . . people will just start saying, ‘oh, another one, we don’t quite care.’ That’s the reaction we want.”
There’s still work to do. Of the 56 out athletes at Rio, only 11 were men. Strict laws in some countries prevent countless others from coming out. Bosworth says he’s lucky.
“I think it’s down to us to live more openly,” he says.
In 2012, Jim Buzinski, co-founder of the LGBT sports watchdog site Outsports.com, referred to sport as the “final closet in society.” Now, he says, acceptance of openly gay athletes in international sports is finally catching up to acceptance in mainstream culture.
“Younger people, gay and straight, they’re growing up just seeing gay people everywhere as opposed to in other generations where you never saw gay people in television or the movies. It’s becoming [a] more normal thing. We know that’s what the best indicator of acceptance is,” he says.
Athletes now face virtually no backlash for coming out and being openly gay, he adds. Public criticism would be too severe.
“Companies aren’t going to drop an openly gay athlete. It’s just not going to happen. The fear might be there but the reality isn’t there,” he says.
“Athletes need to really think seriously about coming out because it can make such a positive difference.”