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Looking Back: The year in LGBTQ+ rights progress and setbacks

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WEST HARTFORD, Conn. – This past year was filled with firsts and also setbacks for queer athletes as well as fans. From a ban imposed by the National Hockey League on display of Pride Jerseys to the triumphant return of WNBA star Brittney Griner to the hardwood, 2023 certainly was unique.

David Palumbo, You Can Play Hockey’s Vice Chair. (Screenshot/YouTube CBC News)

This past June, the National Hockey League’s Board of Governors agreed that players will no longer wear special rainbow-colored Pride-themed jerseys during warm-ups next season. This was despite the fact that only 7 of the 1,123 active NHL players objected, The autographed Pride jerseys are typically auctioned off to raise money for LGBTQ+ charities. The change was prompted by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s recommendation, who defended his decision using the oldest homophobic trope in LGBTQ+ sports: That anything or anyone queer in sports is a “distraction.”

This was soon followed in October an NHL decision  to prohibit its players from placing tape on their hockey sticks representing social causes, including rainbow-colored Pride tape in support of the LGBTQ community. After considerable outcry including by GLAAD, the League reversed that decision.

Søren Dahl and Carl Nassib via Nassib/Instagram

In January of this year, the National Football League’s first out gay player confirmed his relationship with Olympic swimmer Søren Dahl on Instagram.

Dahl, who competed in the 2016 Summer Games in Rio, is seen wearing a Buccaneers jersey with Nassib’s number 94, and the linebacker has his arm around Dahl’s waist. 

Although there have been a series of snapshots since last summer featuring Nassib and Dahl together on the beach, in a club, and at the gym, this is the first one in which Nassib wrote something to clarify they are dating: “Kicking off 2023 with my man and a trip to the playoffs,” he captioned the photo. Until now, Nassib has been extremely private about his personal life.

Although they dedicated themselves to different sports and were born in different countries, Nassib and Dahl are the same age, 29, celebrating birthdays just months apart. 

This past Fall, Nassib, who made history in 2021 when he became the first active player in the NFL to come out as gay, announced he is retiring at age 30. 

“It really feels like just yesterday starting out as a walk-in at Penn State,” Nassib wrote in his post. “Football has given me more than I ever could have imagined. I can truly hang up my helmet for the last time knowing I gave it everything I had.” 

Ever since he came out in 2021, the former defensive end for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has become a philanthropist for the LGBTQ+ community, especially for queer youth.

On Sunday, December 3rd, New Zealand’s Victoria Monaghan made history as the first transgender woman to compete in the World Darts Federation’s World Darts Championship. (Screenshot/YouTube)

Trans athletes of all sports have for the most part had a rocky year as evidenced by the push by national and international sports federations to ban them from participating. In recent years, those lobbying for restrictions on transgender individuals have focused heavily on sports. Some of the most influential anti-trans lobbyists in this arena, such as Terry Schilling of the American Principles Project, have stated that sports are an easy way to sell anti-trans policies to people who might otherwise reject discrimination.

On December 3rd, Victoria Monaghan made history as the first transgender woman to compete in the World Darts Federation’s World Darts Championship. Monaghan, who has played darts since she was 12, mentioned that the New Zealand Darts Council has been incredibly supportive of her participation.

This past August, FIDE, the world’s foremost international chess organization, has introduced guidelines that would revoke titles from transgender men and bar many transgender women from competing, asserting that trans women “have no right to participate.”

On the same day in July that a ban on transgender women athletes was issued by Union Cycliste Internationale, the organizers of World Cycling in Switzerland, the Disc Golf Pro Tour announced it had “adjusted its competition schedule” to prevent trans women from competing with cisgender female athletes. 

Also in July, a year and a month after banning transgender competitors, the head of World Aquatics told the World Aquatics Congress that his organization is setting up an “open category” that will include trans swimmers, at some point in the future. “This is a very complex topic,” Husain Al-Musallam the first vice president of FINA, the International Swimming Federation said to the Associated Press adding: “Our sport must be open to everybody.”

Trans nonbinary football trailblazer Quinn & trans nonbinary sprinter Nikki Hiltz (Photo Credit: Instagram)

Che Flores, who pronounces their first name “Shay,” is no stranger to basketball. But basketball has never ever seen someone like Flores on the floor. 

After refereeing at least 1,000 games over 14-years in three countries, working in three professional leagues as well as college athletics and deciding the fate of 10 championship games, Flores started their second season in the National Basketball League this week. 

What’s different is that Flores did so as their authentic self: On Oct. 24, they came out as transgender nonbinary.

In July of this year, Canada is geared up for its second match in the FIFA Women’s World Cup, facing Ireland with trans nonbinary trailblazer Quinn expected back on the pitch. Earlier, Quinn made history by playing in the team’s opener against Nigeria, without even scoring a goal; They are the first out trans nonbinary player to compete in soccer’s international championship.

Ten-thousand miles away in Monaco, trans nonbinary sprinter Nikki Hiltz set a new U.S. national record that has stood for nearly 40 years. Although they finished in sixth place, the Aptos, Calif. native ran the mile in 4 minutes, 16.35 seconds, breaking the mark of 4:16.71, set in 1985 by Mary Slaney. 

These two trans nonbinary stars are being celebrated in each of their sports. Earlier this month, Hiltz, 28, became the first out trans nonbinary athlete to win a USA Track and Field national title.

Quinn, 27, shared a post on Instagram about their part in a new corporate initiative from GE Appliances, “See Them, Be Them.” 

“I remember some of my favourite memories growing up were the opportunities I had to see my role models playing on the world stage and I’m so excited to be experiencing the other side of that now,” they captioned the post, which shows them talking with young soccer players. “We need more opportunities for girl and gender diverse soccer players to see their future in the sport.”

Caster Semenya (Screenshot/BBC)

Two-time Olympic champion Caster Semenya, who has been sidelined from her signature track and field event since 2019, has finally won an appeal of testosterone rules that the European Court of Human Rights say discriminated against her. 

Even so, the South African runner cannot expect to be back in the 800 meter race anytime soon, according to track and field’s governing body.

That’s because Semenya’s case was solely against the government of Switzerland, whose Supreme Court upheld rules imposed by World Athletics, not against the sports organization itself. Although a 4-3 majority of judges on the European Court found “serious questions” about the validity of those rules, World Athletics said in reaction to the decision that its rules would remain in place, according to the Associated Press.

Sha’Carri Richardson (Screenshot/YouTube NBC Sports)

Ahead of the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, Out sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson was suspended after testing positive for marijuana. This August however, Richardson ran a championship record 10.65 seconds in the final at the track and field 2023 World Athletics Championships on Monday (21 August), taking 0.02 seconds off the previous best set by Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce last year and also breaking her personal record.

“I would definitely say it’s a good start,” Richardson said in the press conference in Budapest afterward when asked about her result in her debut major international championships. “From the beginning of the journey, I’m honoured, I’m blessed, it was a great competition and brought out the best in myself. I’m not back, I’m better, and I’m going to continue to be better.”

Becky Hammon (Photo Credit: Sportswomen of Colorado)

WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces head coach Becky Hammon led her team to their second consecutive championship this past October, making Las Vegas the WNBA’s first back-to-back champions since the Los Angeles Sparks won it all in 2001 and 2002.

Hammon is partnered with former basketball player and coach Brenda Milano. They have been together since 2015 and are raising two sons, Samuel and Cayden. 

Hammon has invested 16 years in the WNBA, and as The Athletic reported, she was a six-time All-Star with two first-team All-WNBA honors. As a coach, she was the first full-time female assistant in NBA history, with the San Antonio Spurs, the first female head coach in the NBA Summer League, the first woman on a coaching staff at an NBA All-Star Game, the first female acting head coach in an NBA game and the first rookie coach to win a WNBA championship. 

This summer, Hammon was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Ashlyn Harris with daughter and Ali Krieger. (Photo Credit: Instagram)

In November, Ali Krieger raised the National Women’s Soccer League championship trophy after New York’s Gotham FC win over Seattle’s OL Reign. She then ended her career of 17 years as she retired telling reporters “I don’t think I could dream of a better ending for myself,” Krieger said. “I just want to ride off into the sunset and enjoy this with my family and friends and kids, most importantly, and my teammates. My back hurts, my calves hurt. I love it so much and it’s so much fun. But it’s time. This is the perfect ending for me.”

But a month earlier, media reports revealed the former goalkeeper of the U.S. Women’s National Team Ashlyn Harris filed for divorce last September from Krieger. 

Krieger, 39, and Harris, 37, have been together since 2010 and married in December 2019. They have two children together and according to public court documents filed on Sept. 19 in Seminole County, Fla., they must agree to a parenting plan for Sloane, 2 1/2, and Ocean, 14 months. 

The couple welcomed their toddler daughter Sloane via adoption just a few months before being traded. In August 2022, they adopted their second baby, their son, Ocean. The Florida court requires Krieger and Harris to agree on child custody, support, non-disparagement and non-harassment terms as well as attend a parenting class for the divorce to proceed. 

Representatives for Harris and Krieger have not responded to press inquiries. The couple haven’t been seen in an Instagram post together since July. 

OL Reign forward Megan Rapinoe (Photographic montage and graphics courtesy of the OL Reign)

Out lesbian activist, anti-racist, transgender ally and two-time World Cup champion Megan Rapinoe announced on Instagram this past July that the 2023 championship season will be her last.

 “It is with a deep sense of peace and gratitude that I have decided this will be my final season playing this beautiful game,” Rapinoe wrote, in a post that featured a photo of the 38-year-old when the Redding, Calif. native was a little girl. “I never could have imagined the ways in which soccer would shape and change my life forever, but by the look on this little girl’s face, I think she knew all along.” 

In September, with the final score United States 2, South Africa 0, Team USA’s victory in her final match playing for the U.S. Women’s National Team, Rapinoe, walked away from the USWNT at age 38, 17 years and 63 days after her Team USA career began.

That September 24, Sunday game marked her 203rd appearance, with a total of 63 goals scored, 73 assists, two World Cup trophies, an Olympic gold medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, not to mention several hair colors. 

Following the win at Soldier Field, with her fiancée Sue Bird and family among the 25-thousand fans in attendance, the soccer federation paid tribute to Rapinoe with a video.  

“I felt like I was able to grow up in front of you,” she said during a tear-filled address to the crowd. “It has been such an honor to wear this shirt and play out my childhood dream.” 

A tension-filled final match in the FIFA Women’s World Cup was decided by one goal, as Spain shut-out England early Sunday morning in Australia, 1-0.  Each team featured four out queer players on its roster in the final contest as Spain takes home the trophy after a record setting World Cup. After only making it to the Round of 16 in 2019, the women of Spain won their first World Cup title in three tries.

Spain takes home the trophy after a record setting World Cup, in which the champion USWNT was eliminated earlier than ever before, and a record number of out LGBTQ+ players and coaches took part

Phoenix Mercury’s Brittney Griner held a press conference Thursday morning. (Screenshot/YouTube KTVK/KPHO)

Last April after nearly a year of being imprisoned in Russia on contrived drug charges, preparing for the upcoming 2023 WNBA season, Brittney Griner talked with reporters for the first time since returning to play with the Phoenix Mercury. 

“I’m no stranger to hard times,” Griner said, fighting back tears. Asked how she became so resilient after spending nearly 10 months in a Russian prison on drug charges, she said: “Just grind it out. Just put your head down and just keep going and moving forward.” 

In a wide-ranging news conference that attracted more media and dignitaries than a typical practice, Griner spoke about her imprisonment in Russia, her appreciation for those who supported her and her wife during those terrible months and what’s next for her: A memoir about how she survived the experience she called “unfathomable.”

“I’m never playing overseas again,” the two-time gold medalist said, making only one exception for a return to the Olympics. “The only time I would want to would be to represent the USA.” 

Griner, who regained her freedom in December 2022 in a prisoner swap between Russia and the United States, signed a one year contract in February worth $165,100, according to ESPN

Leading her team, Griner and her teammates guards Maria Jefferson, Diana Taurasi and center Megan Gustafson combined to set a WNBA record, with 45 points in the first quarter of a historic home victory over the Connecticut Sun that landed them in the WNBA’s annals of fame in August.  The players shot an incredible 94.1% from the floor in that quarter alone. No team in league history has ever scored that many points in a quarter. The Mercury enjoyed a 21-point lead until the Sun roared back in the second quarter and cut their lead to four at halftime. Phoenix won by six, 90-84. 

The Out lesbian led her team with 21 points and 10 rebounds, with Jefferson right behind her with 17 points and five assists. Taurasi and Gustafson finished with 16 and 10 points respectively. 

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