They’re on our cereal boxes. They take trips to Sesame Street. They hold field days. For almost as long as we’ve had professional athletes, we’ve marketed them to our youth as role models, community leaders, and real-life superheroes. Our star athletes send an enduring, positive message to children around the world: No matter who you are or where you come from, you can harness your talents and hard work to accomplish great things.
Track and field, in particular, is one of the most diverse sports we have. It’s an accessible, global pastime with better gender parity than most that offers a wide range of disciplines enabling people of all abilities, backgrounds, and body types to succeed. Any child in any country in the world can find an athlete who looks like them achieving at the highest level of our sport.
Track and field also offers critical representation for LGBTQ youth. Of the 186 out queer athletes who competed at the Tokyo Olympics, at least 13 of them competed in track and field, the third-most of any Olympic sport. During Pride Month, a time in which global sports brands publicly highlight their queer ambassadors online, track and field athletes are always overrepresented because we have so many out, proud pros.
When I covered the U.S. Olympic Trials last summer, I spent 10 days in Eugene surrounded by some of the best runners, jumpers and throwers in the world. Of all the big names wandering the streets around Hayward Field, the athlete I saw get stopped for photos most frequently was Nikki Hiltz, a queer middle-distance runner who came out as nonbinary last year. What was most striking to me was that those brief, fleeting interactions usually went way further than “Hey, I’m a fan, can I get a photo?” When fans stop Nikki, the conversation quickly becomes deeply personal: how Nikki’s journey helped them come out; how Nikki has influenced a family member or a loved one; how they feel seen when Nikki toes the line. Often, the fans on the other side of this conversation are teenagers.
This is what queer representation is all about. Nikki coming out as non-binary and sharing their story, their relationship, and their perspective with the world offers a familiar face and a name for a community that, until recently, was largely invisible on the biggest stages of the sport.
Another big star of the Olympic Trials and, later that summer, the 2021 Olympics was Raven Saunders. Raven turned heads with her dramatic competition gear and bright green hair, and once people were paying attention, she spoke about mental health, intersectionality, and the importance of standing up against oppression from the Tokyo podium. She brought home a silver medal for her country while presenting as unapologetically queer and unapologetically herself.
Representation is not always boisterous and loud; it can also simply involve showing up. The resurgence of Aleia Hobbs this season has been a breath of fresh air. The openly-queer sprinter made her first U.S. team in four years this past weekend and although she infrequently speaks about her personal life or queer identity with the media, her presence and performance alone speaks volumes.
The list of queer role models in track and field includes race-walkers and marathoners; world record holders and elite coaches. Every letter of the LGBTQ+ community is represented, and many are vocal advocates for queer rights when they compete in countries with regressive laws. As times change, more and more veteran athletes are sharing their stories as well. Two-time Olympic champion Kerron Clement made headlines in 2019 when he came out, and middle-distance star Caster Semenya and her wife welcomed two children in the last two years.
In my own world, I’ve experienced this on a smaller, but not insignificant, scale. Whenever I’ve written about my experience as a queer NCAA and post-collegiate athlete, I get DMs and emails from young people, some of whom have never come out to anyone in their own lives, who found something in my story that resonated with them. My partner, Zack Beavin, is an ultramarathoner and coach whose stable of athletes contains a number of queer runners, most of whom had never been coached by a queer coach before. It’s a little change that can make a big difference. Recently, one of his athletes made a point of thanking him for respecting their pronouns without asking. When he won the USATF 100k national title this spring, one comment on his race recap noted that “as another gay runner, it really means a lot when you casually talk about David in these writeups and everyone’s super chill with it.” Simply seeing a successful runner in the ultra space being crewed by his boyfriend can make a difference.
Social media often gets a bum rap. There are pros and cons of our increasingly-online world to be sure, but social media has inarguably increased the diversity of voices young people are exposed to. Not only do a wider range of athletes now have a platform to share their stories, but it’s easier than ever to bring those stories to a global audience. You may not know an out LGBTQ person in your hometown, but thanks to the Internet, you can watch Matt Wisner on YouTube or listen to Emma Gee on her queer athlete podcast.
In recent months, LGBTQ youth have been under attack with a renewed fervor around the United States as laws have been proposed and passed limiting trans participation in sports, muzzling educators from talking about LGBTQ issues, allowing teachers to misgender their students, and preventing youth from receiving gender-affirming care. What these bills have in common – beyond being bigoted and dangerous – is that they seek to limit queer visibility. The idea of the next generation embracing a broad tapestry of queer identities is scary to defenders of the status quo, and there’s a misguided belief that by silencing and erasing queer voices, they can somehow reverse our cultural trend toward acceptance and inclusion.
In some sense, they’re right. Queer visibility is critical to allowing children and teens to recognize and understand their own identities. When you can see more people who look like you in the world, coming out seems a lot less confusing and scary. It’s no coincidence that, in the last decade, the percentage of Americans who identify as LGBTQ has more than doubled, and 21% of Gen Z now identifies as queer.
Queer representation on social media, television, and in our daily lives helps flip the script. It turns a negative message (“I’m different”) into a positive one (“They’re just like me”). And queer representation in athletics underscores a deeper, more lasting positive message: That being different isn’t just good; it’s powerful.
Which takes us back to the athletes on the Wheaties box. We have always looked up to athletes, but now we have a wider range of role models than ever before. When a new generation of fans turns on the television and sees queer athletes from around the world winning medals and setting records, they see a world where they too can be celebrated. They see that their potential is not limited by their identity. They see that they can shine by embracing the unique characteristics that make them who they are.
As we wrap up Pride Month and gear up for the World Championships, I hope you’ll join me in continuing to elevate the queer stars of our sport. By cheering them on and sharing their stories, you’re helping make the world a safer, warmer place for those who need it most.
his Pride Month, CITIUS has been raising money for PFLAG, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting, educating, and advocating for LGBTQ+ people and their families. Proceeds from purchases of our LGBTQ T&F T-shirts will go to the national organization and its 400+ local chapters nationwide. Consider picking up yours to support the cause!