LGBT Paralympians, ‘two minorities at once,’ welcome increased visibility
RIO DE JANEIRO — With a gold medal draped around her, U.S. wheelchair basketball player Abby Dunkin talked about being "two minorities at once."
"We're disabled and we're gay," she said.
As the Rio Paralympics closed on Sunday night, they marked a competition in which at least 12 publicly out athletes competed. Roughly 4,300 athletes were entered in the global sports festival for people with disabilities.
For Paralympic athletes, being welcomed into the athletic community is something that has improved over time, but is still a struggle. Add on being a member of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, and it's a fight on two fronts.
Stephanie Wheeler, the U.S. coach and former member of the team, says being visible both as a lesbian and a player with a disability has moved the conversation forward. She came out at the end of her career, and has seen a lot of growth.
"There's been a huge change," she said. "When I was playing, I wouldn't necessarily say that we weren't welcomed, but it just wasn't' talked about, even on the able-bodied side."
Now that this conversation is in full swing, neither Dunkin, nor her out teammate Desiree Miller, had any negative experiences at the Paralympics.
"They treat us just like anyone else, which is exactly what we want," Dunkin said.
"We don't want to be treated any differently. We go out and do the same thing, we play on the same court."
Coverage of the Paralympics has increased significantly since it was born in 1960, with more major media outlets getting on board for every set of games. So, what does this exposure mean for the future? For Dunkin, she hopes it will encourage the next generation of LGBT athletes with disabilities.
"It's so great with media coverage, finally these kids watching at home that are afraid to come out can see us, [can see that] we're out and winning medals and we're playing our sport and loving life and they can finally say ‘Hey, if they're out then I can come out too.' "
Miller is looking forward to full acceptance for members of both communities.
"My dream at some point is that it's not a big shock that somebody comes out as gay — it's just normal," she said. "It's just like I hope that being disabled is not a big shock."
(Nicole Barros is a senior majoring in journalism at Penn State University. Penn State and the University of Georgia are partnering with The Associated Press to supplement coverage of the 2016 Paralympics. This story was originally distributed by the AP and published in SB Nation Outsports.)
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