There’s no denying that the United States has reached a tipping point in the push for equal rights of its LGBT citizens. Plenty of work still needs to be done of course but noticeable progress is being made. One area in particular that is making visible strides is that of the world of professional sports. Steeped in deep tradition, change is slow to come, but it is happening. Director Malcolm Ingram’s latest film Out to Win aims to document this critical and topical moment in history while the story continues to unfold.

A bartender at NYC gay sports bar Boxers nervously watches the 2014 NFL Draft.
A bartender at NYC gay sports bar Boxers nervously watches the 2014 NFL Draft.

When news of college football player Michael Sam coming out as gay just before the NFL draft sent shockwaves through the sports world, director Malcolm Ingram knew immediately that he wanted to create a film surrounding this occasion. He knew that the story was current and needed to be captured. Many gay people had taken a great interest in the NFL draft to see if Sam would be picked up. When he was drafted by the St. Louis Rams, a sense of pride and elation rippled through the community.

While collecting footage of this event, it was decided that the film would be a history lesson of the gay athletes that have come before and the path they have laid for a better future. Ingram interviews several generations of lesbian, gay, and bisexual athletes and lets them tell their stories with great honesty, providing a historical timeline of events.

The film begins in the 1970s with retired NFL player David Kopay, who tells his heartbreaking story of how his life fell apart when he came out as gay after retirement. Pegged as a likely team coach, he was demonized and scrutinized in the media, by players, and by fans and lost the ability to be involved in the league. He lost his first great love to the war in Vietnam and as he recalls the story, sadness can still be seen in his eyes. Even still he tries to remain positive that what he went through wasn’t in vain.

The godfather of LGBT sports movement, former NFL player David Kopay, who came out in 1975.
The godfather of LGBT sports movement, former NFL player David Kopay, who came out in 1975.

The 1980s saw two high profile tennis players come out as lesbian when they were at the top of their game. Billy Jean King was outed in the media by a former lover and was forced to confront the scandal head on. Instead of lying she was determined to tell the truth. She has since become an ambassador for women’s tennis and gay athletes, been inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, and has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Legendary player Martina Navritalova won the Czech national title at 15. This allowed her to leave the Communist country and travel the world. When she got to the United States, she defected, seeking political asylum. She was granted it and began living in and playing for the United States. She waited until after she received her citizenship to come out. At the time, attitudes towards homosexuality very much would have had an affect on the decision to allow her to become a citizen. Amidst the controversy, she went on to become one of the greatest singles players who has ever lived.

Tennis legend and pioneering lesbian athlete Martina Navratilova.
Tennis legend and pioneering lesbian athlete Martina Navratilova.

Professional baseball player Billy Bean tells a heartbreaking story about what keeping secrets can do to you. He was a popular player who was a member of several Major League Baseball teams in the 1990s. He got married at a young age and joined the majors right out of college. Over the years though, his secret that he was gay began to weigh on him heavily. His marriage fell apart and it was becoming increasingly difficult to conceal this side of himself from sports world. He began a secret relationship with a man that soon turned quite serious but that he had to hide. He was worried that if he came out, he would be fired from his team and be no longer able to play. When his partner died from AIDS, he was so closeted that he didn’t even attend his funeral and went to play a ball game. After he retired he came out and suffered intense scrutiny and was criticized by fans and the media. He was incredibly alone at this stage of life and very unhappy. Over the next 15-20 years, attitudes began to change and in 2014 he was named the Ambassador of Inclusiveness for the MLB. He now travels around to ball clubs talking about creating positive environments for any athletes or teammates that might be gay to ensure that they are welcome. This is something he never could have imagined during his time as a player.

The film also covers more recent examples of NBA player John Amaechi, NBA player Jason Collins, WNBA Player Britney Griner, and 4-Time Olympic Gold Medal winning hockey player Charline Labonté, each telling their story. Amaechi was at the center of a controversy when a current NBA player stated in a live radio interview that he hated gay people and would not want a gay player on his team. This player was subsequently suspended with the NBA issuing a statement that this does not reflect the values of the organization. Griner discusses the fact that her coming out was easier than some and was not something she wanted to deny. She was told it would be career suicide but she was not worried what people would think of her and wanted her playing to speak for itself. Labonté was being interviewed for the film on the same day that she made her public announcement about being a lesbian. She talked about the fact that it really wasn’t ever an issue for her teammates. After having been together for so long, spending so much time together, they were all like family to her and it wasn’t a problem. She made the decision to come out after the 2014 Sochi Olympics instead of making a public announcement against the anti-gay Russian laws. Her focus was on the goal that they had been training for.

Jason Collins, the first openly gay, active NBA player in sports history
Jason Collins, the first openly gay, active NBA player in sports history

Recently college football player Conner Mertens made waves when he became the first openly bisexual player to be currently playing on a college team. He made the decision to come out to his conservative family first, who accepted it but needed some time to adjust, and a few weeks later he wrote a letter to all of his teammates coming out to all of them. He also tweeted the letter out to his community to make the announcement public. He was warmly supported by all of his teammates and the community. Time and again they all said that it was no big deal and not a problem whatsoever. Conner has now become an ambassador for the Nike #BeTrue campaign, was selected as the Grand Marshall with his college baseball player boyfriend for the 2014 Portland Pride Parade, and mentors other young gay kids or athletes that need support.

The first openly gay, active NCAA football player Conner Mertens and out college baseball player Chandler Whitney act as Grand Marshals of the 2014 Portland Pride Parade
The first openly gay, active NCAA football player Conner Mertens and out college baseball player Chandler Whitney act as Grand Marshals of the 2014 Portland Pride Parade

A rather peculiar omission from the film was the story of professional soccer player Robbie Rogers. In 2013, he retired from playing so that he could come out. He could no longer hide this secret at the cost of his mental health. However, his announcement was so positively received that the L.A. Galaxy team extended an offer to him to come play for them. Perhaps he was approached to be in the film but did not want anything to do with it. Still, it is a rather large piece of the story to have not been mentioned.

Told with a positive and hopeful tone, the film is constructed in such a manner that the chronology of events allows the progress and change to easily be seen. Each athlete owes a debt of gratitude to the ones that came before them and there is clear evidence that the times have changed. Progress still needs to be made and attitudes need time to adjust but the athletes featured in this film have blazed a trail that has changed the course of professional sports, not just in America but around the world, for the better.

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Each year, Hot Docs selects several films for their popular Scotiabank Big Ideas series. This film was selected and presented with a special event at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema. Following the film, an extended panel discussion featured the director and several participants from the film on stage, moderated by Susan G. Cole from Now Magazine. Malcolm Ingram, Billy Bean, Conner Mertens, and Charline Labonté answered questions about how the film came about, their involvement in the project, and why this story is so important to document. Each of the three athletes talked about their stories in more depth, what kind of reactions they received when they publicly came out, and what their involvement is now with furthering the advancement of LGBT acceptance in sport. Each of them are incredibly poised, articulate, and compassionate people who are fine ambassadors for the cause.

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l to r: NOW Magazine’s Susan G. Cole, Billy Bean, Conner Mertens, Charline Labonté, and director Malcom Ingram
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l to r: Billy Bean, Conner Mertens, Charline Labonté discuss the role they now play in mentoring other LGBT athletes.

This is a story that will continue to develop in the coming years, with the ultimate goal of reaching the point where this is no longer news. We aren’t there yet but we are headed in the right direction.

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