Pride Month: Why are there no openly gay male MMA fighters?

By Paul BattisonBBC Sport
Jeff Molina
Molina's rainbow-themed shorts were made by the UFC in support of Pride Month

Why are there no openly gay male MMA fighters?

It's a question which could in part be answered by the way UFC star Jeff Molina was treated earlier this month.

Molina, who is heterosexual, wore a special UFC kit supporting Pride during his win over Zhalgas Zhumagulov, but received abuse on social media.external-link

As the reaction to Molina shows, speaking out on LGBTQ+ issues does not come without risk. However, actions like the American's help create an environment in which athletes could come out and be supported, according to sport unity group Athlete Ally.

"I think it takes more allies being vocal, allies as athletes, allies in the corner, allies in the promotion," Athlete Ally chief Hudson Taylor told BBC Sport.

"There's very little visibility in terms of support for the LGBT community across almost all of men's sports - it's not just an MMA issue.

"Until there's more people [like Molina] who are vocal in wanting to create a welcoming environment, there's going to be barriers for LGBT athletes - especially LGBT gay male athletes."

Shad Smith is one of the very few male professional MMA athletes to have come out.

Smith, who retired from the sport earlier this year, inadvertently revealed his sexuality when speaking to a stranger at the age of 25.

"I was petrified and I was so scared of people finding out," Smith, 49, told BBC Sport.

"I was like: 'OK, if this dude I hardly know can tell me he loves me and he doesn't care, then my friends are going to have to too.'"

Taylor says other male athletes could be encouraged to come out if more followed Molina in showing support for the LGBTQ+ community.

"I think there are lots of folks in sports, especially on the men's side, who don't think they have personal connections to the LGBT community, so as a result they don't feel compelled to show up in that way," said Taylor.

"For example, if I don't personally have a friend, or team-mate, or family member who's impacted by these forms of discrimination, why I am going to use my cultural capital to try and do something about it?

"I think there's a lot of athletes who fall into that category without realising that if they were to just say a few things in support of the community, it could drastically change who gets into a sport, how long they stay in a sport and their overall physical, emotional and social health."

'It's crazy how much we hide who we are'

Shad Smith and his husband
Smith (left) is credited with being the first man to come out in professional MMA

The contrast between the men's and women's divisions of the MMA is stark, with Amanda Nunes, Liz Carmouche and Molly McCann three of several openly gay female fighters.

Briton McCann, who detailed her story of coming out on the BBC's LGBT Sport Podcast, believes gay male fighters are held back by stereotypes.

"I feel like [gay] men are nervous of the backlash they're going to take," McCann, 32, told BBC Sport.

"I believe some disciplines within combat sports have a certain locker-room chat where you have to look a certain way and act a certain way.

"To be a gay man, sometimes a heterosexual male might denounce that as not very masculine and they will downplay it. I think sometimes it might be seen as you don't want to be seen as weaker and give other people the upper hand in persecution of you."

Taylor agrees, pointing to how athleticism is stereotyped.

"Often athleticism is viewed in a gendered way - the more athletic a man is, the more masculine he might be perceived to be," said Taylor.

"So when we look at the stereotypes that lesbian and bisexual women face, lesbian women are assumed to be more masculine. By virtue of being athletic, women coming out conforms to a stereotype, while men coming out rejects a stereotype.

"That's not to say there aren't real barriers for LGBT women in sport, but those barriers are just slightly different."

Smith points to the perception fighters should be 'macho', and encourages athletes to just be themselves.

"I think there is so much machismo [in men's sports]," said Smith.

"It's crazy how much we hide who we are. It's so unnecessary to hide who we are, you're beautiful no matter what - you're a human being.

"The only thing that can make you ugly is the way you carry yourself and the way you speak to other people."

'The MMA community was awesome with me'

Shad Smith
Smith (left) enjoyed a 21-year career in MMA

Smith says the reaction he got from the MMA community was key to his positive experience in coming out.

Both team-mates and promotions alike were supportive of his sexuality.

"They were awesome. Nothing but awesome, every single one of them," said Smith.

McCann believes if a male fighter was to come out today, there would be a similarly positive reaction from the MMA community.

"I remember at my gym, there were guys who questioned themselves and it's like 'well whatever, if you are [gay] then you are, no problem'," said McCann.

"Ultimately they weren't but they had that moment in them growing up where they didn't know and the gym was there for them.

"I can pretty much guarantee if straight men knew there was a gay man [in the gym] in this day and age that we're in now, most of them wouldn't care."

Taylor agrees, pointing to the tight-knit culture of combat sports which can help create a welcoming environment.

"The world of MMA, wrestling, grappling - it's a small community," said Taylor.

"Everybody knows each other and has trained with each other, so when an athlete comes out it's not as if they are this person you've never met or interacted with, it's a person you know and care for in some way, even if they're you're enemy in the ring.

"We've seen time and time again when an athlete comes out there is an outpouring of support around those individuals and I would anticipate that would be the case in MMA.

"But again, it's that chicken-or-the-egg question of what needs to be done differently to make that athlete feel safe, comfortable and able to take that step forward."

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