A recent story on HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel looked at the absence of openly homosexual athletes in major sports. Surely, homophobia and an athlete’s reasons for keeping quiet about their sexual orientation have held sports back from having a welcoming atmosphere. That’s what makes the few that do stand up to be heard on the subject akin to Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in baseball, as pioneers for a better future in sports.
Top-ten ranked bantamweight WMMA fighter Liz Carmouche is one of the few athletes that is outspoken about being homosexual. She is currently riding a two-fight winning streak under the Invicta banner, but is contracted with Strikeforce and is awaiting an opponent. The expected Jan. 12 Strikeforce event in Oklahoma City could be her next gig, and she fights in the weight class of the soon-to-be UFC women’s bantamweight division of which Ronda Rousey will be the inaugural champion. A former Marine that served three tours in Iraq, Carmouche sees the trend towards acceptance starting with our military.
“I think the first step was in the the military when they got rid of ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy,” Carmouche explained in an exclusive interview with The MMA Corner. “I know for a lot of people this made a big difference for them and their freedom overseas in the military and their service. And I think it’s also being reflected in sport. There’s a lot more people that are accepting of homosexuals and the big changes really start with the military. If the military can make that step, then it seems like the rest of the communities start to change with it.”
The main topic of the Real Sports story dealt with boxer Orlando Cruz coming out before his next fight, which is historic because openly gay males in combat sports are a rarity.
Having the president of the world’s largest MMA promotion, UFC head Dana White, give an endorsement of encouragement for homosexual athletes to come out, as he did at a UFC 137 press conference, is a big gesture that MMA is ahead of the curve in that regard as well.
“I think it is unique [to MMA]. Dana White is one of those few people that has verbalized it,” Carmouche said. “He cares about athletes whether they’re homosexual or not. He just wants them to put on great performances. That’s not necessarily something you would see. So, for him to say that, I think it’s a big deal and makes a big difference.”
For Carmouche, it was having a welcoming team surrounding her that gave her the most support to be herself where she hadn’t been able to in her past.
“It actually has been a battle,” she admitted. “I wasn’t open at all in my youth, my early adulthood. I wasn’t open when I was in the military. It took me coming into an MMA gym. It accepted me to fully come out on my own.
“For me personally, I have a great team full of people that are really accepting, so it’s never been an issue. I know in the sports world, in general, it’s kind of difficult for people, so for me to have that opportunity without persecution is amazing. It’s great.”
Although Carmouche feels fortunate enough to have a supportive team, there are still obstacles that homosexual athletes endure. A fighter still needs to be sponsored, especially when they aren’t a superstar and they need training partners that aren’t scared that a person’s “gayness” is contagious.
“It seems like sponsors, they may not be directly open with accepting you,” Carmouche explained. “With potential sponsors, but it’s certainly kind of known that, sometimes they won’t sponsor someone simply because they are homosexual.”
MMA fighters at the highest level of the sport, such as Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, have stated a biased opinion against training with gay people in the past. For Carmouche, that kind of mindset is what needs to change.
“I know that other teams are going to have to start having that same mentality that their sexuality isn’t going to rub off on you,” Carmouche said. “You’re sparring with someone, rolling with someone, you’re boxing with them. Their sweat isn’t going to make you change. It’s one thing people are going to have to learn and it will make a big difference.”
At the end of the day, we can say that the taboo of homosexuality in sports has improved from what it once was, an unspoken truth. Openly gay athletes like Carmouche and Orlando Cruz, and accepting industry leaders in MMA like Dana White, are prime examples of a progressive trend.
“When it comes to homosexuality, it doesn’t make a fighter—it doesn’t make or break a fighter,” said Carmouche. “It certainly has to do with their personality, and it can help them overcome things just because of the difficulties they have to go through in their lives. But I certainly think that whether or not somebody is homosexual shouldn’t have to be discussed for their eligibility to be a great athlete. I think that certainly shouldn’t stop people from accepting them.”
Photo: Liz Carmouche (Esther Lin/Invicta FC)