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The lasting impact of LGBTQ athletes at the Tokyo Olympics

More out athletes than ever participated in Tokyo, and they left an indelible mark in medals and pride.

Sue Bird (left) of the United States kissed fiancée Megan Rapinoe in celebration after the United States' win over Japan for the gold medal in women's basketball on Aug. 8.Kevin C. Cox/Getty

Sometimes, a kiss isn’t just a kiss.

After the US women’s basketball team won its seventh consecutive Olympic gold medal, Sue Bird celebrated her victory like so many athletes — she walked over to the stands and kissed her fiancée. It was a memorable moment, and not only because most Olympians could only share their triumphs with loved ones remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bird is engaged to Megan Rapinoe of the US women’s soccer team, and on the final day of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, their embrace was the perfect exclamation point for what some endearingly dubbed “the rainbow Olympics.”


Laurel Hubbard of New Zealand, who became the first openly transgender woman to compete at a Summer Olympics, during one of her attempts in the weightlifting competition in Tokyo on Aug. 2.Doug Mills/NYT

It wasn’t that long ago when such an unapologetic affirmation of LGBTQ lives at the Olympics would have been unthinkable. Queer athletes have always competed in the games, yet no gathering has ever had so many out Olympians with at least 182 competitors representing about 30 countries, according to Outsports, an LGBTQ sports website.

They didn’t just show up — they showed out, with 55 athletes winning 32 team and individual medals in events ranging from judo and track and field to synchronized diving and rowing. Rapinoe, one of the world’s best-known soccer players, won a bronze medal.

Living in light and truth had a positive effect not only for the athletes but also served as lasting examples of how talent and success thrive when freed from the darkness of a closeted life.

“Athletics is the most exciting part of my life and it brings me the most joy,” Quinn (who uses they/them pronouns and goes by a single name), told CBC Sports. They became the first out trans and nonbinary Olympian to win a medal after Canada’s women’s soccer team claimed the gold. “If I can allow kids to play the sports they love, that’s my legacy and that’s what I’m here for.”


Raven Saunders of the United States competes in the shot put during the Tokyo Olympics, on Aug. 1, 2021. ALEXANDRA GARCIA/NYT

For LGBTQ people, coming out is about rejecting shame and claiming power. It’s an act of self-care that allows us to fully exist in the world.

In this perilous moment, this has an especially poignant resonance. LGBTQ lives and rights are under threat. This year more than 100 bills targeting mostly trans youth have been proposed in state legislatures, the biggest slate of anti-trans legislation in the nation’s history. More than a dozen have already been signed into law, including bans against trans kids participating on school sports teams that correspond to their gender identity.

Last spring, Arkansas passed a law banning gender-affirming health care for trans youth that also threatens to punish doctors, including revoking their licenses, if they provide such care.

Recently, Fox News host Tucker Carlson took his white-power hour to Budapest, where he praised and coddled Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s authoritarian and anti-LGBTQ prime minister.

Conservatives are not only opposed to critical race theory (which means they oppose American history) but also books by or about LGBTQ people. According to the American Library Association, 7 out of 10 of 2019′s most frequently “banned and challenged” books in schools, libraries, and universities featured LGBTQ themes or characters.

And trans people and gender-nonconforming people, especially Black trans women, continue to be killed at an alarming rate — at least 33 so far this year.


This is a crucial time for representations of LGBTQ joy and excellence. When Johnny Weir, the former Olympic skater, was criticized by conservatives for his sartorial splendor at Tokyo’s closing ceremonies Sunday, his response was as sharp as his style. “The man I’ve grown into is a human that embraces the strength of the man & woman who raised me to be myself,” Weir tweeted. “If you feel squashed by the boot of someone else’s beliefs, remember you are free to live your life the way YOU believe.”

“I feel incredibly proud to say that I am a gay man and also an Olympic champion,” Thomas Daley (left), 27, told reporters after he and diving partner Matty Lee won gold in the men's synchronized the 10-meter platform at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre at the 2020 Summer Olympics.Dmitri Lovetsky/Associated Press

Not just the way you believe, but in accordance to who you are.

Just as gymnast Simone Biles and tennis star Naomi Osaka have inspired overdue conversations about mental health, what we witnessed at the Olympics is a watershed moment for LGBTQ inclusion and achievement. Of course, the road to equality remains long with opponents pushing obstacles in the way, but don’t shortchange the moment — this is progress.

Audre Lorde, the seminal Black lesbian writer and social justice activist, said, “Nothing I accept about myself can be used against me to diminish me.” What was accomplished during two weeks in Tokyo cannot only be measured in medal counts. It was also a defiant, unabashed celebration of self-acceptance and LGBTQ pride, and how people can soar when they are no longer weighed down by living a lie.

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.