– By Brittany Christina Waugh

With the launch of Nike’s ‘BETRUE’ collection in May, the call to eliminate stigmas surrounding the LGBTQ+ community in sports, has been at the forefront of conversations for years. With New York celebrating Pride, embracing love as love, and accepting each other for who we are, the discussion at Nike’s Flatiron Store this past Thursday evening, June 21st, brought together individuals from all around New York City for an enriching panel discussion. The conversation lead by “them.’s” Chief Content Officer, Phillip Picardi, touched on how people accept LGBTQ+ in various communities, specifically in sports, and a star-studded panel, that included Wade Davis, Leiomy Maldonado, Holly Rilinger, and Kevin Carnell,  each of whom shared their journeys and how they continue to stay true to who they are.

Former NFL Athlete, Wade A. Davis II, shared his own story, expressing that his goal is to eradicate stigmas around what it means to be an athlete in the NFL who identifies as queer, so as to feel comfortable expressing that to their team, and to have the proper support from the league. Davis shared that there are lots of athletes in the league who choose not to ‘come-out’ because they do not want to be categorized as ‘a gay athlete’, but as just an athlete.

“We have this idea that homophobia is present just in certain spaces. We think it’s in sports, in the south or the Midwest. The fact is, homophobia is in each individual issue. We have to take people as individuals and stop the narrative that sports in homophobic.”

Leiomy Maldonado, known as the “Wonder Woman of Vogue”, shared her story of growing up, transitioning, and dealing with acceptance from her family. She identified dance as her escape from many things in her life and the best form of expression she has had in her journey. Leiomy noted that if not for the Hetrick-Martin Institute in New York City, she would not be where she is today.

“Without HMI, I probably would have been dead and I say that in [the] sense that, being trans years ago was very, very hard and there is still work to be done. My family accepted me, but yet still, didn’t understand it and I chose to leave. I was living house to house and without HMI I would have never had that place where I felt safe. I’d go there every day and release all my frustrations through voguing; voguing was my way of de-stressing.”

Body image was also a topic of conversation as athletic trainer, Kevin Carnell, spoke about his struggle with body image and desiring to have the “perfect” body in order to gain attention from other men. He expressed how he realized this was a problem and that he should want to be fit for himself, not for others.

“Working on my body for myself and not for the sexual attraction of men, is when I became healthy, physically and mentally. I am glad that at 26, I can shift the narrative that you do not need to seek attention from other men through your body.”

Keeping and finding self-love concluded the conversation, as Nike Master Trainer, Holly Rilinger, spoke on how she allowed her career as an athlete to become her top priority for 35 years and always sought out more success in sports, but it was just a few years ago when she fell in love and realized that loving someone else and not always focusing on success in her career, was the happiness she had been seeking.

“I fell in love with a wonderful woman and realized how much beauty, clarity, and space was in that and how beautiful it was to turn that side of me, that was always seeking achievement, off. I am finding things out about myself that I am starting to love more and I am committed to taking time off and just enjoy my life with another person.”