Queer Representation In Swimming (And Football) Is Off To A Strong Start In 2023

by Ben Dornan 19

January 06th, 2023 International, Lifestyle, News

In the first week of 2023, queer representation in sport has been on full display. More specifically, two stories have emerged from high-profile swimmers (and a football player) that. Danish Olympian swimmer Søren Dahl confirmed his relationship with NFL defensive lineman Carl Nassib and trans NCAA finalist Iszac Henig wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, detailing his recent decision to join the men’s swim team at Yale.

While openly gay swimmers are nothing new, Nassib is a history-maker as the first openly gay player in the NFL.

As Gay Times reported here, Nassib posted a photo of the two on his Instagram story in early 2023, captioning it “Kicking off 2023 with my man and a trip to the playoffs.” Dahl posted the same photo on Tuesday on Instagram, captioning the photo “Always Big Boy Season.”

Fans and followers have suspected that Dahl and Nassib were dating for several months, basing the theory on things such as Nassib commenting three heart emojis on Dahl’s September 2022 Instagram post.

Dahl swam on the men’s 4×200 freestyle relay for Denmark at the 2016 Olympics. He, Anders Lie, Daniel Skaaning, and Magnus Westermann put together a 7:12.66 in prelims to finish 13th overall. Nassib was drafted in the third round by the Cleveland Browns during the 2016 NFL draft and played for them in 2016 & 2017. He joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2018 and two years later signed a $25 million contract with the Las Vegas Raiders. Both men competed in the NCAA in their respective sports, Dahl for NC State from 2013 until 2017 and Nassib for Penn State from 2011 to 2015.

Nassib was playing for the Raiders when he came out as gay in June 2021 making him the first openly gay active NFL player in the league’s then-101-year history. Nassib sat down with ABC News in July 2022 to discuss his experience coming out and playing in the NFL as an openly gay man. He said that he received incredible support from his teammates. He explained, however, that he envisions a future where “videos like this and the whole coming out process are just not necessary.” He added that “when people come out, they’re coming out of the closet because they’re afraid. They have fear that they’re gonna have negative impact on their life, on their relationships, on their job.”

In addition to the personal announcement, Nassib pledged to donate $100,000 to the Trevor Project. The Trevor Project is a nonprofit focused on suicide prevention among LGBTQ+ youth.

One year after that original pledge Nassib announced a partnership with the organization, saying that he would match donations up to $100,000. The NFL also endorsed the Trevor Project in a 2021 video, which came shortly after Nassib’s coming out, writing that “the NFL stands by the LGBTQ+ community today and every day.”

Sports Illustrated reporter Jimmy Traina wrote a piece shortly after Nassib came out in 2021, explaining the significance of the event. He drew directly from stats that Nassib shared in his post, such as the fact that LGBTQ+ kids are more than 5x likely to commit suicide than straight peers.” Traina wrote that it was disappointing that more NFL stars didn’t publicly share support for Nassib at the time.

Edward M. Kian, a professor of Sports Media & Strategic Communications at Oklahoma State University published a 2022 article in The Sport Journal “examining media framing” of Nassib’s coming out story. Kian concluded that overall, the media coverage was a “positive for those who support LGBT.” Due to the scope of his study, Kian wrote that the response to Nassib’s story couldn’t be generalized to the greater media environment. He wrote, however, that he NFL, like most other aspects of Western society, is seemingly more ready for and accepting of openly gay athletes.

Based on certain statistics, a similar conclusion can be drawn as it relates to Olympic sports including swimming. Following the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in 2021, Outsports reported that at least 186 out LGBTQ competed in the Games, which was a record number. Similar reports in 2012 and 2016 counted 23 and 56, respectively, publicly out athletes at the Olympics.

It’s not a definitive of all LGBTQ+ athletes who competed in Tokyo, but the increase from 23 to 56 to 186 across three Olympics certainly indicates a sporting environment that is more accepting of being openly queer.

The list included seven swimmers: Rachele Bruni of Italy, Ana Marcela Cunha of Brazil, Amini Fonua of Tonga, Melanie Henique of France, Ari-Pekka Liukkonen of Finland, Markus Thormeyer of Canada, and Erica Sullivan of the USA. One openly queer swimmer who did not make the list is Femke Heemskerk, who raced for the Netherlands in Tokyo (which raises the count to at least 187).

The list also included the first-ever openly trans athlete to compete at an Olympic Games, Laurel Hubbard, a weightlifter representing New Zealand. Hubbard received transphobic attacks and backlash for her appearance at Tokyo 2020, which has become an expected response whenever trans athletes thrive at the highest level.

One swimmer who has experience being on the receiving end of transphobia is Iszac Henig. Henig penned an op-ed for the New York Times about his experiences. Henig began racing for the Yale women’s swim team in 2018 and was the highest-scoring member of that team in his sophomore year. Throughout the pandemic, Henig transitioned and began using male pronouns.

When faced with the choice to race for the men’s or women’s team, Henig originally chose to continue swimming for the women’s team. While that decision made sense to him at first, it became more difficult to navigate expected. He decided to race for the men’s team during his senior NCAA season.

“I’m trying to connect with my teammates in new ways, to cheer loudly, to focus more on the excitement of the sport. Competing and being challenged is the best part. It’s a different kind of fulfillment. And it’s pretty great to feel comfortable in the locker room every day” wrote Henig.

“I believe that when trans athletes win, we deserve to be celebrated just as cis athletes are. We are not cheating by pursuing our true selves — we have not forsaken our legitimacy. Elite sports are always a combination of natural advantage or talent and commitment to hard work. There is so much more to a great athlete than hormones or height. I swim faster than some cis men ever will.”

While stories such as Henig’s show that queer representation in the sport can exist, many swimmers in the past few years have reported homophobic and transphobic treatment from teammates coaches, and the greater swimming community.

Trans swimmer Lia Thomas faced an onslaught of transphobia during the 2021-22 NCAA season as she raced for University of Pennsylvania women’s team. Thomas followed the guidelines put forth by the NCAA for swimmers who transition, joined the women’s team in 2021, and swam to victory in the women’s 500 freestyle at the 2022 Championships.

From politicians such as Vicky Hartzler, Ron DeSantis, and Lauren Boebert to fellow NCAA swimmers such as Riley Gaines, many have shared outrage that Thomas won an NCAA title, claiming it to be unfair.

In 2019, Abrahm Devine shared a post on Instagram, alleging that he was kicked off the Stanford swim team for being gay. Later that month, he specified his claims, saying that he was called a homophobic slur, was publicly humiliated, was outed without consent, and was sexually accosted.

In response to the claim that he was kicked off the team for being gay, coaches Greg Meehan and Dan Schemmel said that “it is truly unfortunate Abe feels this way. That said, Abe wasn’t invited back to train with us this fall, as a postgraduate, for reasons entirely unrelated to his sexuality. We take pride in the inclusivity and supportiveness that exists on both our men’s and women’s teams, but we will continue to strive, as always, to improve those aspects of our culture.”

In 2015, French Olympian Melanie Henique was forced to withdraw from the French Open after suffering a broken nose during a homophobic attack at a restaurant in Amiens. At the time, Henique said she had received homophobic insults before but had never been physically attacked before.

As Henique added, however, talking about attacks like this and publicly discussing homosexuality and homophobia is important “if only to help all those who dare not complain. It happens too often.”

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Dr Deluxe
1 year ago

It’s a little strange that the main topic of the article concerns the gay dating relationship of two top -tier athletes , an active NFL player and a two time NCAA CHAMPION and 2016 OLYMPIAN and nobody has mentioned it in the comments. So , congratulations to both Soren and Carl.

1 year ago

Representation matters. Visibility matters.

Reply to  Corey
9 months ago


1 year ago

Unlike the other commenter I am well aware of the hateful and transphobic comments and posts aimed at the transgender swimmers who were at the forefront of this debate in the last year. I do wonder, though, is there a way to have this conversation and ask questions about the fairness of trans women competing with cis women without being labeled as a transphobe? I understand Lia followed the rules and she shouldn’t be subject to hate for who she is or her simply following the rules provided to her, but I hope that going forward we can acknowledge some of the issues with fairness and level playing fields when it comes to cis women competing against trans women who… Read more »

Reply to  Swimdude
1 year ago

There will be a certain segment of the conversation that is either rooted in transphobia or that is overtly transphobic. There is also a certain segment of the conversation that will shout transphobia at the drop of a pin.

Most of the conversation, unfortunately, has taken place in those fringes, and that’s why we’re no closer to a resolution than we were a year ago. That’s the way the world works now: the side that makes the loudest, scariest argument gets the most attention. It sucks.

Reply to  Braden Keith
1 year ago

Remember how one prominent voice insisted after the Zippy Invite that Lia was going to taper off huge time and shatter all of the records after mid-season, and then never bothered to revisit those projections after the season?

Wish she would’ve been held accountable for that. She preached that to every news outlet in the country as irrefutable fact, and it just didn’t happen.

Purple Dinosaur
Reply to  Braden Keith
1 year ago

Agree! Let’s not sit here and excuse the transphobic behavior as “oh those are just the fringe people” and then write off all the pro-Lia-competing group as the “you’re all transphobic” crowd.

If we’re going to acknowledge one, we have to acknowledge the other. If we’re going to ignore one in the conversation, then let’s ignore the other.

It just feels like people say “I don’t like being called transphobic!” as some strike against Lia competing.

Reply to  Swimdude
1 year ago

The issue is that other advantages are being abused at significantly higher rates and with significantly more of an existential threat to swimming.

Especially at an “amateur” level, where it’s impossible to enforce restrictions on training, substances, abuse, etc… disproportionately focusing on the “trans threat” to swimming is inherently unhelpful.

Opinions can come from a place that isn’t transphobic while still directly contributing to transphobic discourse. I think we all have a responsibility to unpack why this issue is so triggering despite the lack of any impact to any professional swimming career.

If you want to open the can of worms that is cheating in amateur and college sports then be by guest… but a trans athlete on the… Read more »

1 year ago

The list also included the first-ever openly trans athlete to compete at an Olympic Games, Laurel Hubbard, a weightlifter representing New Zealand. Hubbard received transphobic attacks and lashback for her appearnace at Tokyo 2020, which has become an expected response whenever trans athletes thrive at the highest level.

Refusing to acknowledge that there are legitimate concerns about the fairness of letting athletes who went all the way through puberty as men later compete as women, especially in events which involve size and brute strength, really undermines your whole post, as does characterizing legitimate criticism of your ideology as “attacks and lashback.” If you want to write this piece as an activist rather than… Read more »

Slim Creeper
Reply to  JVW
1 year ago

Your refusal to believe that transgender athletes are subject to overt transphobic attacks, including death threats, just makes you an a**hole.


Reply to  JVW
1 year ago

Bro got triggered hard.

I think it’s perfectly accurate and journalistic to say that she faced transphobic attacks and backlash. Why can’t “legitimate concerns about fairness” be backlash?

As for transphobic attacks…anybody who spent more than 8 seconds on Twitter in the last year shouldn’t with a straight face be able to pretend like there weren’t transphobic attacks. Doesn’t mean that every critique or question was a transphobic attack, but there were a s***ton of them.

You can tell a lot about a person by how they approach these things. You went straight for the knees of the author, because cheap shots are easier than real conversation. Tells me a lot about the kind of person you are.

Purple Dinosaur
Reply to  swimapologist
1 year ago

What was he gonna say? He couldn’t say “Laurel was not subject to transphobic attacks and backlash” because that’s 100% false. So he had to go ad hominem.

Trying not to expect too much from people on message boards. But guess it was important for this guy to defend the transphobic attacks today as “legitimate.”

Reply to  Purple Dinosaur
1 year ago

I guess he could’ve gone with “high level trans athletes are subject to transphobic attacks and backlash, but some of that backlash is legitimate concern.”

But you know how these types are. They can’t give an inch because if they give an inch, they feel like they’ve lost. We’re seeing that play out in the US House of Representatives right now. Nothing but total domination is a win.

Reply to  JVW
1 year ago

I wonder if you left a similar jape about “activist not a journalist” on swm.com (mods don’t ban me) for their repeated and dogmatic anti-trans rhetoric?

Or do only the people who recognize that trans people are people, even if there are questions about fairness, get those labels?

Reply to  JVW
1 year ago

It’s weird that you don’t characterize the response as backlash.

definition: “a strong and adverse reaction by a large number of people, especially to a social or political development.”

(though I’m not sure what lashback is – looks like Ben must’ve changed that).

Purple Dinosaur
Reply to  cornholio
1 year ago

Lol I think it’s Canadian for backlash.

Purple Dinosaur
Reply to  JVW
1 year ago

Come on man. Can’t we stop with the “nobody said” stuff? It’s almost a year later, emotions should have tapered off where we can have a real conversation.

There was plenty of transphobia in response to this. It’s not hard to find. It’s not even a little bit hard to find. Not even one tiny little bit challenging to find.

I agree that not everyone who disagrees with athletes like Lia and Laurel competing in women’s divisions is transphobic. But I didn’t read the author say that anywhere in the article. Did you? It’s certainly not in the section you quoted.

Purple Dinosaur
Reply to  JVW
1 year ago

Oof. Ratios like that is what drives young men to Nick Adams. Stay strong JVW. Just because you’re wrong here doesn’t mean you need to go full-Alpha.

Reply to  JVW
1 year ago

The quote you highlighted does NOT say ANYTHING about whether there are “legitimate concerns” to be shared or not; it simply says Laurel Hubbard suffered transphobic attacks, which I am sure is true given how many horrible things are readily visible on any non-moderated forum on this topic.

Both can be true: Laurel Hubbard can have suffered from transphobic attacks and you can have your legitimate concerns. The author is not obligated to state that latter just to make you feel comfortable here. This article was about representation. And a the transphobic backlash is absolutely a barrier to that worth calling out.