LGBTQ Paralympians win in Tokyo

The Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games are drawing to a close, but not before joining the Olympics as having the largest number of out LGBTQ athletes in the event’s history. Disability advocates call it a win for inclusivity.

The Paralympics are the largest sporting event in the world for people with disabilities, and a total of 540 events across 22 sports are included this year, with badminton and Taekwondo making their Paralympics debut. Over 4,400 athletes from at least 134 nations have competed. There is also a Refugee Paralympic Team comprised of refugees who have fled war or human rights abuses in their home nations.

There are more than twice as many LGBTQ Paralympians in Tokyo, 30, than the 12 who participated in Rio in 2016. As with the Olympics, the women far outnumber the men with 23 of the out athletes being women. There are also at least three non-binary or gender neutral athletes: Australian track and field athletes Robyn Lambird and Maria “Maz” Strong, and American rower Laura Goodkind.

Other competitors include Asya Miller, a U.S. gold medalist in goalball, a sport for athletes with visual impairments; Team Great Britain wheelchair basketball players Laurie Williams and Robyn Love, who are engaged; and Edênia Garcia, a Brazilian swimmer with four gold medals.

According to Outsports, the summer Olympics in Tokyo had at least 168 LGBTQ athletes. Among the LGBTQ Olympian medalists were gay British diver Tom Daley, trans Canadian soccer star Quinn and lesbians Brittney Griner, Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird of the U.S. women’s basketball team all earned gold medals. U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe, Bird’s fiancée, won bronze.

One reason there are fewer out Paralympians is that those who identify as LGBTQ have a double stigma to deal with — discrimination against disabled people plus that against queer and trans people. Brazilian swimmer Garcia said she “had to shield myself from a repertoire of jokes” while training. 

“Being a lesbian and a person with a disability is a double challenge, as you carry the stigma of being invisible,” Garcia said in a blog post for the International Paralympic Committee.

Sir David Lee Pearson, one of the few out gay male athletes, is a para-equestrian who has won gold 11 times at the Paralympics. Pearson won three more medals at Tokyo, making him the most medaled in Paralympics history.

Pearson, who was born with arthrogryposis multiplex congenita, spoke emotionally after his win, saying, “Love has to prevail, really. Whatever shape or form, I think love has to prevail. If you’re born with a disability, if you have a child with a disability, if you’re born with same-sex attraction, if your daughter comes out or your son, then just love them. Nobody wants to be different, but we have to embrace different people because that’s society, that’s the world.” 

Pearson said, “Those different people, they’re not going anywhere. So you can say it’s illegal, you can make them feel awful, but somewhere in the world another gay boy or girl will be born. Somewhere in the world someone will be born with no limbs. Do you know what I mean? Life goes on and it’s silly in this day and age when we have countries that are still in the stone age, as we say, 100 years behind. But I’m just a horse rider. Promise.”

Lauren Appelbaum of RespectAbility, a diverse, disability-led nonprofit that works to create systemic change in how society views and values people with disabilities, said the increased visibility of LGBTQ Paralympians points to a “large intersection between the LGBTQ+ community and the disability community, and the increased representation at this year’s Paralympic Games reflects that.”

Appelbaum said, “We hope that even more out athletes participate in the future, as it is critical for all disabled people to have positive role models for success.”

GLAAD, the LGBTQ media advocacy organization, highlighted the inclusivity of the 2020 Paralympics as well as the intersection of queerness/transness and disability.

Rich Ferraro, chief communications officer at GLAAD said in a statement, “The Paralympics by nature are a celebration of inclusion and equality, and the historic number of out LGBTQ athletes participating this year is something to celebrate.” 

Ferraro said, “LGBTQ people are more likely to live with disabilities and to face systemic discrimination on both fronts; the visibility brought by the Paralympics and its talented athletes helps fight that stigma. Every athlete, regardless of ability, gender, race, or sexual orientation, deserves a chance to participate in sports and to represent their communities with pride.” 

Outsports and Athlete Ally provided names and sports of out Paralympians, among them: Monique Matthews (Sitting Volleyball, USA); Hailey Danz (Triathlon, USA); Lee Peerson (GB, Equestrian); Edênia Garcia (Brazil, Swimming); Robyn Lambird (Australia, Wheelchair Racing); Maria “Maz” Strong (Australia, Seated Shot Put); Emma Wiggs (GB, Canoe); Terry Hayes (USA, Wheelchair Fencing); Asya Miller (USA, Goalball) and Lucy Shuker (GB, Wheelchair Tennis).

There are several cyclists: Katie Dunlevy (Ireland), Kate O’Brien (Canada) and Monica Sereda (USA) and rowers, Laura Goodkind (USA); Lauren Rowles (GB) and Moran Samuel (Israel).

As in the Olympics, basketball has the most out participants. Out wheelchair basketball athletes are Kaitlyn Eaton (USA); Jude Ham (GB); Bo Kramer (Netherlands); Tara Llanes (Canada); Robyn Love (GB); Mareike Miller (Germany); Cindy Ouelett (Canada); Lucy Robinson (GB); Courtney Ryan (USA) and Laurie Williams (GB).

GLAAD highlights links between the LGBTQ and disability communities via a range of study data, noting that 36 percent of LGBTQ women and 30 percent of LGBTQ men self-identify as disabled: 26 percent of gay men and 40 percent of bisexual men disclosed having a disability, as did 36 percent of lesbians and 36 percent of bisexual women. 

Research done in 2019 by the Movement Advancement Project (MAP) and the Center for American Progress estimated that nearly 5 million LGBTQ people live with one or more disabilities. For trans people the numbers are higher: while one in four adults (including those who identify as LGB) in the U.S. have a disability, two in five trans adults identify as disabled.

The Paralympics were created to allow athletes with disabilities to strive for and reach the pinnacle of athletic excellence. Eligible disabilities are broken down into ten main categories: impaired muscle power, impaired passive range of movement, limb deficiency, leg length difference, short stature, hypertonia, ataxia, athetosis, vision impairment and intellectual impairment.

The first Paralympics were held in 1960, with 400 athletes from 23 countries competing in Rome. Like the Olympics, they now take place every four years, with separate winter and summer Paralympics each hosting a closing and opening ceremony. 

Team USA sitting volleyball player Monique Matthews told Outsports. “I love seeing our out Paralympians highlighted because it shows that while we still have a ways to go, as a society, we have become more accepting. People are able to be their authentic selves and feel safe.”

The Tokyo Paralympics conclude Sept. 5 with a closing ceremony and are being aired on NBC, NBCSN and the Olympic Channel or streaming at NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app.