how many athletes are gay?

A story in the Globe and Mail yesterday bemoans the fact that only 10 Olympic athletes are openly gay in a public enough way to be counted by the website (don’t ask me about their methods–not much on that over there). This includes nine lesbians and one gay man, and for whatever reason does not count one bisexual woman.

Given that there are about 10,000 athletes, the story reasons, ten gay athletes is so small that many more athletes must be gay and closeted…but how many? They venture a guess:

Outsports said this must be way short of the real figure and argued that a more accurate estimate could even reach 1,000.

Hmmmm…this seems very high to me. The Outsports people are basing this estimate on shaky premises.

The first premise:

Researchers such as Eric Anderson of the University of Bath in England (and a longtime Outsports contributor) say that the percentage of gays in sports mirrors the percentage in the entire population (estimated at between 2% and 10%).

A quick check of Anderson’s CV doesn’t indicate that he’s published anything on this topic, and I don’t know why we’d assume that this would be the case. There is substantial anecdotal evidence that sports can be either hostile to or relatively welcoming of gay men and lesbians. I think it would be hard to argue that, for example, boys’ baseball and girls’ softball are equally safe spaces for gay men and lesbians. This difference is emphasized by the gender imbalance of the out athletes–10 women and 1 men. I think women’s sports have long been a place where some lesbians have found safe spaces, but men’s team sports have been a very different story.

The next shaky premise is the 10% issue, which brings up some interesting problems with sexual identity and survey data. The link in the quote above points to the National Survey of Family Growth study that shows that about 90% of people claim heterosexual identity, but only about 4% claim a gay, lesbian or bisexual identity. It is a substantial stretch to claim that the remaining people are closeted gays and lesbians. Then, of course, you would have to extrapolate these U.S. data to the global population, and then assume that in those countries, there are also no barriers to lesbians and gay men participating in sports.

So, even if you take the conservative estimate of lesbians and gay men in the U.S. population (and count bisexuals–why not?), you would expect 400 LGB Olympic athletes, as opposed to the 1,000 mentioned in the article. Much higher than the 10 or 11 of whom they are aware, of course. However, it is strange to me that the same article that claims that gay men and lesbians are forced into the closet by the unwelcome nature of sports doesn’t even consider that these forces might be barriers to entry to sport as well. My guess would be much lower.

7 thoughts on “how many athletes are gay?”

  1. I agree that for men’s athletics, it seems absurd to suppose that sports has such a strong culture of heterosexuality and yet the % of gay males would be larger than the % of gay men in the general population.

    Women’s athletics of course seems a different matter, and it seems plausible that could lead to a % that exceeds the general population percentage. (Not disagreeing that there are barriers, but if they are comparative lower barriers than in other domains of achievement, maybe still…)

    But as long as people are just pulling numbers from their posteriors, I’m going to go with estimating that the stigma of coming out as gay in sports is twice as strong for men as for women, and say the relative ratio of lesbians to gay men in Olympic sport is 4 or 5 to 1.


  2. Hi Tina:
    I wrote the article and never said there were 1,000 gay athletes.

    I simply divided the # of Olympians by various % and put that in: “Simple math illustrates the likely range of gay athletes in Beijing, using the 10,708 total participants. If 10% were gay, this would mean 1,070 athletes. Even the extremely low range of 1% would leave 107 gay athletes.”

    There is no true way to tell how many gay and lesbian Olympians there are, but I can guarantee you there are a lot more than the handful who are public about it. Outsports never outs anyone, so we wait for athletes to make a declaration on their own terms.


  3. @Jim3: Yes, your article on gave a range, while the Globe just picked up the high figure (and without even a link…the nerve!). I didn’t mean to imply otherwise.

    I’m hoping you’ll have something to say, though, about the idea that there are just as many gay athletes as gay people. I would argue that there are barriers to entry to many team sports, especially for gay men.


  4. Fewer gay men in athletics than in the general population? Right, because what gay man in his right mind would want to hang out in a locker room full of ripped, hot, naked men? ; )

    Which kind of brings me to my more serious point … don’t we, in part, have a measurement issue here? I mean, if you’re tallying up GLBT (or Heterosexual) folk you have to define who you include where. Someone is counted as “gay” only if what? If they self-identify as gay? So how many “gay” men are there “really” and in which sport? Depends on how you measure.

    A completely separate issue is which sports are welcoming to folks who are “out” to teammates and which are not. Certainly one stereotype is that ice skating is open to “out” gay men while baseball and football are not. Likewise, softball and basketball is open to “out” lesbians while ice skating is not. Is that true? Has anyone studied sports teams and the issue of being out to teammates (not the issue of being out to the general public), to have a sense of which sports are really welcoming or tolerant and which are not (otherwise, are there studies of this in the military?).

    Another issue is which sports or for that matter other arenas are open to folks who are “out” to the general public. Of course, our sense is that it’s ok for a man to be “out” as a fashion designer but not “out” as the President. And perhaps even more to the point, it’s not ok for anyone to be out as an Olympic athlete to the general public … seems to still do something to endorsement and sponsorship deals.

    Is it possible that the number of out lesbians versus the number of out gay men at the Olympic level also has something to do with the fact that there are not as many lucrative endorsement and sponsorship deals for women athletes more generally so the women have less to lose financially (as well as less to lose in other senses as has already been pointed out through the barrier issue)?

    My guess would actually be that the number of homosexual athletes (measured as those individuals whose desires are self-reported to be predominately toward the same sex) is at least equal to and possibly greater than that in the larger population given that sports are typically sex-segregated (and certainly those at the Olympic level are mostly) providing more opportunity to meet same sex individuals, for one. I would also think that, given the general population’s attitudes towards lesbians versus gay men, that it would be easier for a lesbian athlete to be out than a gay man. This would also conserve general stereotypes of butch, athletic lesbians and beefy, heterosexual male athletes.

    So, while there may be barriers to entry to many team sports, especially for gay men who do cannot or chose not to pass as heterosexual, I think part of the enumerating issue has to do with differentiating between out and closeted individuals. Call me crazy, but my somewhat informed sense is that there are TONS of gay male athletes if by gay we include men who have sex with other men, men who would self-report to have predominately same sex desires, and men who self-identify as gay. If a man can and chooses to pass as heterosexual, then the barrier issue is moot (same for lesbians).

    Anyway, just my thoughts … thanks for bringing up this really interesting issue!

    (My apologies for not including bisexuals, trans, and questioning people, but it gets more complicated than my brain can handle at this hour. Also my apologies for putting “out” in scare quotes. I dropped them at the end and arguably should drop them throughout given that the phenomenon of being out is pretty standard at this point).


  5. Let’s not forget normal sports. It was such a shock when the NBA player said he was gay, and that was just one guy. Think of it this way, if you take the NFL NBA Olympics, MLB, Soccer (MLS and Euro) your looking at a total of roughly 1 million pro athletes. How many of those are openly gay? I would say 100ish. I would like to see an article on that


  6. Huh? How do you get to 100ish, Slava? Or, for that matter, how does 10,000 Olympians become 1 million pro athletes?

    I’m partial to behavioral indicators of sexuality, because the closet issue is just too much to deal with, and raises other measurement concerns. Identities are more like cultural markers than actual measures of sexuality–which I think requires some sex. GSS estimates of behavioral sexuality (1990-2004 GSS) show that 3.7% of respondents have had same sex relations (bi or exclusive) in the last five years.

    Interestingly, we could get a better measure of the proportion of athletes who might be GLB by gender by looking at Add Health data on sexuality and sports participation.


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