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Olympic champion Quinn is ushering in a new era of visibility for trans athletes

The Canadian soccer star made history at the Tokyo Summer Games by becoming the first transgender athlete to medal in any Olympics.
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When the Canadian women’s soccer team took home gold at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo last year, it was a night to remember for those watching around the world. For Canadian fans, it was significant because it was the first time their country’s women’s soccer team had made it to an Olympic final and taken home gold. And for many others, it was a moment to celebrate a new chapter in elite sports. 

That night, the Canadian midfielder Quinn became the first openly transgender and first openly nonbinary athlete to medal in any Olympic Games. Taking home gold was the gilded icing atop the proverbial cake.

Along with the New Zealand weight lifter Laurel Hubbard and the American skateboarder Alana Smith, Quinn — who goes by one name and uses gender-neutral pronouns — was one of three openly transgender athletes to compete in last year’s Summer Games. In fact, they were the first transgender athletes ever to compete, despite the International Olympic Committee having changed the rules to allow for it in 2004.

The 25-year-old midfielder made their Tokyo debut in a match against the host country, which ended in a draw. After the match Quinn posted an impassioned message on Instagram, marking the moment they became the first openly trans Olympian to compete.

 “I feel proud seeing ‘Quinn’ up on the lineup and on my accreditation. I feel sad knowing there were Olympians before me unable to live their truth because of this world,” they wrote. “I feel optimistic for change. Change in legislature. Changes in rules, structures, and mindsets.”

“Mostly, I feel aware of the realities,” Quinn continued. “Trans girls being banned from sports. Trans women facing discrimination and bias while trying to pursue their olympic dreams. The fight isn’t close to over ... and I’ll celebrate when we’re all here.”

That night wasn’t the first time Quinn had stepped onto an Olympic pitch, though it was markedly different. In 2016, when they helped the Canadians win bronze in Rio de Janeiro, they weren’t publicly out as transgender and nonbinary. 

That moment would come in September 2020 through an Instagram post that also talked about the lifesaving importance of visibility and encouraged their cisgender followers to be better allies. 

“Coming out is HARD (and kinda bs),” Quinn wrote. “I know for me it’s something I’ll be doing over again for the rest of my life. As I’ve lived as an openly trans person with the people I love most for many years, I did always wonder when I’d come out publicly.”

Quinn, who is a Toronto native, began their soccer career at Duke University, then played professionally for the Washington Spirit, Paris FC and Seattle Reign FC (now OL Reign). In the years since they began to rise through the ranks to become one of the stars of the Canadian national team, the landscape for LGBTQ athletes has changed dramatically. And that’s been reflected, in some ways most significantly, at the Olympics. 

In Tokyo, there were an estimated, record-breaking 186 openly LGBTQ Olympians. And earlier this year in Beijing, at the Winter Games, which typically include a fraction of the number of athletes who compete in the Summer Games, an estimated 36 openly LGBTQ athletes from 14 different countries competed (double the number from 2018 in Pyeongchang).

Canadian women’s teams, in particular, have had an important role in this new era of visibility for queer athletes in elite sports.

In Beijing, the gold-winning Canadian women’s hockey team included at least seven openly LGBTQ players — including stars Brianne Jenner and Erin Ambrose — which made them tied for the queerest Olympic team of all time. In the sports world, that point is even more significant given that the Canadians have the most-winning women’s hockey team of all time, by a margin that they made even wider with their win over the U.S. in Beijing.

In an interview with NBC News pegged to the women’s hockey final, Cyd Zeigler, founder of the LGBTQ sports website Outsports, said the culture within Canadian sports has encouraged increased visibility, from stars to backups and reserves.

“When one teammate comes out and is accepted, it makes it that much easier for other people to do it, and more likely that they will,” Zeigler said. “There’s a culture there that is empowered by out athletes, and it just kind of feeds in on itself — this snowball effect.”

Athletics can, however, be an unwelcoming place for transgender athletes. In the U.S., for example, 17 states have enacted legislation preventing some transgender athletes from participating on sports teams that align with their lived gender. 

In a recent interview with The Advocate, Quinn called these bills “heartbreaking.”

“Everyone should have access to sports, especially young folks,” Quinn said. “I think that myself and other older people in the LGBTQ community need to work tirelessly to fight these bills.”

In that same interview, while acknowledging the importance of their own visibility and historic achievements, Quinn stressed that when it comes to LGBTQ sports inclusion, “There’s still such a long way to go.” 

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