How Out Olympians Used the Tokyo Games as a Platform for LGBTQ Acceptance

By Mary Emily O’Hara, Rapid Response Manager | August 10, 2021

After being delayed for a year by the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics finally took place…in 2021. And while the glory of the games inspired people of all stripes worldwide before wrapping up on Monday, this year’s summer Olympics was especially meaningful for LGBTQ advocates. Never before had so many out LGBTQ athletes competed; a record 182, up from just 56 at the 2016 Rio Games. Outsports, which keeps count of all of the out athletes at each Olympic Games, even said that this year for the first time LGBTQ competitors reached out asking to be added to its listings. And Tokyo marked the first games where transgender athletes had qualified for competition, 17 years after the International Olympic Committee passed rules to allow them under strict qualification standards. But this year’s incredible show of queer and trans visibility wasn’t just a numbers game. For the first time in Olympic history, numerous athletes dedicated their medals to the LGBTQ community, using their wins to call for acceptance, to offer support and aspirational role modeling for LGBTQ youth, and even to challenge homophobia in their home nations.

GLAAD’s Olympics work this year included publishing a coverage guide for journalists, alongside partners Athlete Ally and Pride House Tokyo, that helped reporters cover LGBTQ athletes fairly and accurately and avoid perpetuating myths around transgender athlete participation. That guide was present at an official IOC press conference to discuss Laurel Hubbard’s historic competition, and was included in the press kits of some LGBTQ athletes like Raven Saunders. GLAAD also collaborated with Outsports on coverage of some of the most impactful moments for LGBTQ visibility at the Tokyo Games, including the six out LGBTQ athletes selected to represent their home countries as flag bearers during the Opening Ceremony.

The Olympic Games have never been this queer. Here are just some of the trailblazing athletes who used the global platform brought by the Olympics to call for increased acceptance for the LGBTQ community, and the statements they made to press or on social media after competition.  

Raven Saunders (Team USA): Shot put

Silver Medalist

“I’m not just fighting for myself, I’m fighting for a lot more people. I want to give a shout out to all the LGBTQ community, everybody who is dealing with mental health issues, everybody who is Black. I’m giving a shout out to everybody.”

Tom Daley (Team Great Britain): Diving

Gold Medalist

“I feel incredibly proud to say that I’m a gay man and also an Olympic champion. I feel very empowered by that… I hope that any young LGBT person out there can see that no matter how alone you may feel right now that you are not alone, and that you can achieve anything, and there is a whole lot of your chosen family out here ready to support you.”

Erica Sullivan (Team USA): Swimming

Silver Medalist

“For the girls, gays, and theys (and anyone else who doesn’t feel represented in the sport). Beyond blessed to able to wear the Team USA cap one more time. Thank you to everyone in my corner who has managed to try to make me a functioning human being the last few years. I won’t let the communities that I represent down. Hope to make you guys proud.”

Elissa Alarie (Team Canada): Rugby

“Growing up in a small French town in Quebec, I didn’t know or even know of a single LGBTQ person or athlete until I was older. I hope the increased visibility can give young people a sentiment of belonging and encourage communities to be inclusive and welcoming.”

Quinn (Team Canada): Soccer

Gold Medalist

“Getting messages from younger folks saying that they’ve never seen a trans person in sports before, and getting to be that person, to hopefully help them continue on with sports, because I know for me athletics is the most exciting part of my life and the thing that brings me the most joy. So hopefully if I can allow kids to keep playing the sport they love, and that’s my legacy, that’s what I’m here for.”

Katarzyna Zillmann (Team Poland): Rowing

Silver medalist

“I know that in this way I will help others. It was enough that I showed up in a T-shirt with the words ‘Sport against homophobia’ and I got a few messages from young girls practicing rowing. One of them opened up to me, described her difficult home situation to me, and confessed that I helped her a lot with my attitude. One such message is enough to completely forget about thousands of hate comments and disgusted faces.”

Laurel Hubbard (Team New Zealand): Weightlifting

“All I have ever really wanted as an athlete is just to be regarded as an athlete. I suppose the thing I have been so grateful here in Tokyo is just being given those opportunities to just go through life as any other athlete.”

Nesthy Petecio (Team Philippines): Boxing

Silver medalist 

“I am proud to be part of the LGBTQ community. Sulong, laban (Let’s go, fight!) Para rin po sa LGBTQ community ang laban na ‘to (This fight is also for the LGBTQ community).”

GLAAD looks forward to more LGBTQ athletes standing up for equality at this year’s Paralympics (starting August 24th) and 2022’s Winter Olympics starting in February.