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The Forgotten Pioneer of Gay Rights in Major League Sports

There has been a lot of talk about Michael Sam, who may soon be the first openly gay man in NFL Football. This is very similar to the conversations around Jason Collins when he came out last year. Both these men should be applauded for breaking down barriers and living their true selves, but they were not the first men to do so.

Illustration for article titled The Forgotten Pioneer of Gay Rights in Major League Sports

Meet Glenn Burke. He was an Outfielder who played for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Oakland As from 1976-1979. He is also the first, and as far as we know the only, major league baseball player to come out as gay to both his team mates and the front office during his time as a player.

While he didn't officially come out to the world until after he retired in a 1982 Inside Sports article, Burke was always very self-assured in his sexual orientation. He later wrote in his autobiography that he would talk freely about his status as a gay man to sports writers while he was a player, but they weren't ready to hear it. He was a man ahead of his time. He also wrote that he was offered $75,000 by the Dodgers Management to enter a sham marriage, but he refused. He claims that his refusal to hide who he was and the prejudice that came with it is what forced him out of baseball.


Not only was he a pioneer of gay rights, he also invented the high five. During a 1977 game he wanted to congratulate his teammate Dusty Baker, on his 30th home run of the regular season. So as Baker jogged home from third base, Burke raised his hand up over his head. Confused, Baker decided to slap it – and thus the high five was born. After retiring, Burke would often walk around the Castro district of San Francisco and high five people, and it soon became seen as a symbol of gay pride in that city.

Sadly, Burke passed away from AIDS related illness in 1995, but he has left us a lasting legacy. As he told People magazine shortly before his death: "My mission as a gay ballplayer was the breaking of a stereotype ... I think it worked ... They can't ever say now that a gay man can't play in the majors, because I'm a gay man and I made it."


For more on the amazing man that was Glenn Burke I recommend his autobiography "Out at Home" (which is out of print but can be found at many libraries), and the 2010 documentary "Out: The Glenn Burke Story".

Update (2/12/14): In the original version of this post there was a typo in Dusty Baker's name. I have corrected it and I apologize for the error.

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