Featherweight Orlando Cruz is being called the bravest man in boxing — and not because of his work in the ring. Cruz has come out as the first openly gay active professional boxer in the sport’s history. “I have always been and always will be a proud gay man,” he said in a public announcement on the evening of Oct. 3.
Cruz, 31, competed at the 2000 Olympics and is currently the fourth-ranked featherweight in the world, according to the World Boxing Organization.
“This is something that I’ve been contemplating for years,” the Puerto Rican boxer told TIME, in Spanish. “It’s a difficult decision for many people, but I want to be me. I want to be Orlando Cruz, and I don’t want to pretend.”
Cruz’s announcement came with the twin goals of being true to himself and being a better role model for young fans. He says he has encountered homophobia in the boxing world, but he declines to elaborate on the form that the discrimination took. (And on Thursday, boxing fans on Twitter were not universally happy about Cruz’s news; one fan wrote that Cruz “messed up his whole career [and] he will really be the most avoided boxer.”) His family has known of his sexual orientation for years, and he said he was very happy with his decision to come out — and the positive messages of support he has received from fans and fellow pugilists alike only boost that confidence. “It has to come from you,” he says of choosing the right time to come out. “Every person has that decision to make for themselves.”
But while coming out is a personal decision, there are wider benefits to doing so, says Cyd Zeigler Jr., president of Outsports, the Web hub for the gay sports community. “What athletes say and what they do and how they live their lives has an affect on our culture,” says Zeigler. “When gay athletes come out of the closet and straight athletes come out in support of gay rights, those actions and those words have a reverberating effect. It opens eyes.”
The eye-opening is particularly true for a sport like boxing, which Zeigler says is, along with football, “probably the last place you would think there would be an openly gay athlete.” And — even though, USA Today notes, boxer Emile Griffith came out as bisexual after his career was over; even though NFL players like Brendon Ayanbadejo and Chris Kluwe have recently spoken up in support of marriage equality — that stereotype has persisted until now. And stereotypes work both ways: media portrayals of gay people can often be dominated by clichés that could be knocked out by men like Orlando Cruz. Zeigler says that, as a kid, he thought he couldn’t possibly be gay because he didn’t like “Broadway and Cher and Madonna.” An athlete who was both tough and gay in his public life would have been — as Cruz hopes to be — a good role model.
But Zeigler says that while he was swarmed with e-mails and tweets after the announcement, he wasn’t shocked that Cruz came out. “I’m not surprised because our culture has changed,” he says. “There’s probably still this idea for other athletes that they don’t want to get beaten by a gay man, but gay people are everywhere.”
And Cruz, despite the big decision he made, is similarly calm. He has other things to focus on now, like his next match, on Oct. 19 in Kissimmee, Fla., against Jorge Pazos. He’s still the same fighter as always, a man who’s been boxing for more than two decades. “I’m just looking for people to respect me as the professional that I am when I get inside the ring,” he says. “This happens to be my job.”
— Orlando Cruz interview conducted and translated by Alfonso Serrano