NEW YORK – To the global soccer community, Heather O’Reilly was known by the nickname HAO (pronounced “hey-oh”). But to her teammates, she was affectionately called GAO (pronounced “gay-oh”) for her support of LGBT athletes.
O’Reilly, who is retired and married to husband Dave Werry, was recently honored by Athlete Ally for helping to create an LGBT-inclusive athletic environment for the U.S. women’s national soccer team.
“Athletes like Heather are exactly what we need,” said Lori Lindsey, a former teammate of O’Reilly, in an interview last Tuesday at Athlete Ally’s annual Action Awards in New York City. “You are starting to see more and more gay athletes come out of the closet to stand up and speak out, but really the biggest evolution is having straight allies to support and speak up for us.”
A record 53 out gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender athletes competed at the Rio Olympics, according to Outsports, up from 23 athletes at the London Games.
“It was a far more openly diverse Olympic Games than we’ve ever had,” said Greg Louganis, a five-time Olympic diving medalist. “I think it will continue to trend that way.”
53 athletes are a small fraction of the more than 11,000 athletes who competed in Rio. Athlete Ally sends bracelets and backpack patches to athletes who want to show their support of the LGBT community in the Olympic Village.
“In order to make [publically coming out] more welcoming, we need more people to be visible in their support of the LGBT community,” said Hudson Taylor, the Founder and Executive Director of Athlete Ally.
O’Reilly showed her support of LGBT community by participating in the EveryFan campaign, which highlighted the challenges LGBT fans face when attending a sporting event. The former University of North Carolina soccer player also spoke out against H.B. 2, North Carolina’s controversial state law that governs transgender bathroom access.
“I think I have the responsibility as a professional athlete to use my voice for things that I believe in,” said O’Reilly, a three-time Olympic gold medalist. “For me, treating people with respect and including everybody is a no brainer.”
Louganis speaks with fellow Olympians and encourages them to be vocal in their support of LGBT community.
“You may feel like you are stating the obvious,” Louganis said, “but a lot of times it helps for the obvious to be stated in an emphatic way.”Follow @srubinroit