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.”
If you love this game, you are welcome here. Football is for all. Football is for everyone.
The NFL stands by the LGBTQ+ community today and every day.
— NFL (@NFL) June 28, 2021
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.”