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Michael Sam, 24

‘Yes, I’m gay. I don’t think that’s going to be a problem’

In February, when Michael Sam told the press that he is gay, it marked a new era for the National Football League, arguably the most macho of the major sports leagues. “I love challenges,” Sam told PEOPLE in New York City days before being drafted by the St. Louis Rams. “I’ve had challenges all my life, and I’ve overcome all of them.” After a rough upbringing in tiny Hitchcock, Texas, that included a period living in a car and seeing two brothers go to prison and another murdered in front of him, Sam distinguished himself at the University of Missouri. A 6’2″ defensive end, he was named MVP after Mizzou’s 2013 Cotton Bowl win. While Sam is a trailblazer, there have always been gay pro athletes, though for many years most competed while keeping their private lives secret. We spoke with six pros about their choice to play and live openly.

Football came into my life when I needed something to get out. No young child should have to go through what I went through – it was very frightening. So I don’t think NFL camps are going to frighten me. I’m up for it. When I came out to my college team last fall, my teammates already knew. They were like, “Cool, Mike, what’s new?” Some people didn’t agree about my homosexuality, and that’s okay. They understood and respected me [as an athlete]. Vito [Cammisano], my boyfriend, is a swimmer; he showed me that if he was comfortable playing his sport, I should be comfortable myself. If kids can be accepting of a gay person in the locker room, I think adults in a multibillion-dollar organization can be accepting. I don’t feel any extra pressure. I’m excited for what’s to come. I’m there to work hard and help my team win games.

Brittney Griner, 23

‘I know who I am, and I love who I am’

Out to high school teammates since age 15, the 6’8″ basketball center was recruited by Baylor, a Baptist university that bans gay behavior. Despite a quietly supportive coach, Griner felt pressured to keep her sexuality under wraps. She went public at the 2013 WNBA draft, where she was the Phoenix Mercury’s No. 1 pick. Author of In My Skin, she is the first out athlete signed by Nike.

I loved Baylor. I grew as a person, grew as a player, won a national championship. But being “The Face of the Program” and not being able to be the whole face was a challenge. You can’t give all of you, because all of you isn’t accepted. The women’s locker-room culture is a little more open than [in men’s sports]. In high school gym class, there were comments like, “I don’t know if I can change with you here.” Just because I’m gay doesn’t mean I like you! I still get bullied on social media. It doesn’t hurt anymore. Being out, honestly, I think I got more fans. They tell me, “Thanks for being a good role model for my daughter.” That’s rewarding. I want the next generation to know it’s okay to be your authentic self. Our sexuality, that’s a small part of us. Our talent, how we perform on the court, that’s how we want people to remember us.

Billy Bean, 50

‘I’m proud to be one of the first to tell the truth’

A Southern California native, Bean married a woman at 22 and played outfield for three MLB teams from 1987 to 1995. He divorced and later quit the game rather than reconcile life as a gay man who, in his final season, lost a partner whose death he felt he could never reveal to teammates. Now a real estate agent and author of a memoir, Bean, who came out in 1999, hopes to pave a different path for others.

[While playing for the Padres] I lived 20 miles from the stadium to keep people from that casual drop-by. My partner had faith that everyone would be fine with it, but I didn’t. The double life was exhausting. Think if you lost your wife or partner, went to work and didn’t tell anybody? But I thought the world would stop spinning if I came out. [When I did] I was introduced to Judy Shepard after her son Matthew was killed [in an antigay crime]. She said, “Matthew would’ve loved you, and he loved baseball.” I realized there’s a responsibility. Sports can help people to become more accepting. I feel I’ve been a part of that, and I’m proud of it.

Joanna Lohman, 31 Lianne Sanderson, 26

‘When I was in the stroller, soccer was in my blood’

They fell in love with soccer when each was one of the only girls on their respective teams—Lohman in Silver Spring, Md., Sanderson in London. Lohman went to play for the U.S. Women’s National Team, Sanderson, for England’s National team and for its World Cup team, at age 19. Now teammates on the Boston Breakers, the couple, together since 2010, founded the JoLi Academy, which creates opportunities through soccer for girls in developing nations.

Sanderson: “Jo and I are lucky that our families were so understanding. I never felt like I was hiding this massive secret. I went pro at 14, and when I was younger TV or newspapers wanted to highlight the fact that I was a ‘tomboy.’ It’s not about looking like a boy – it’s about being you.”

Lohman: “I have short hair, and I’m muscular, so people assume that I’m a man when I travel abroad. That’s hard on me. [But at home] fans thank me for just being who I am. I never thought when I started playing soccer that I would have this platform to make a difference.”

Wade Davis, 36

‘I wasn’t the athlete getting bullied; I was the bully’

Raised Southern Baptist in a military family, Davis’s introduction to football was a neighborhood game called “Smear the Queer.” Slurs like that taught Davis to hide his sexuality while playing defensive back for three NFL teams and two seasons of NFL Europe. After an injury ended his career, he came out in 2012 and is now executive director of the nonprofit You Can Play Project for LGBT athletes.

From the time I knew what it meant to be gay, it was never positive. There was no way in hell I wanted anyone to know me as that. So I became a bully – it was a way for me to deflect attention. [In the NFL] I remember watching a game film with others. Instead of listening to make myself a better player, I was thinking, “I’m standing so gay right now. Every movement I make allows them to think I’m gay.” I did not tell a soul until I was retired. What I tell [coaches] now is players need to be able to tell you. You’ll not only have a better player but a closer team, because everyone is respectful. The work we have to do is to make sure that not only the more masculine gay kid can play, but also the kid whose masculinity isn’t stereotypical. It’s not enough where the Michael Sams, the Jason Collinses, the Wade Davises of the world can play. Other kids love sports. We’ve missed the boat if all we’ve done is reinforce the idea that masculinity is what’s to be idolized and strived for.