When Connecticut Sun head coach Curt Miller was a young college assistant basketball coach, there were no openly gay, male coaches in the highest levels of basketball for him to look up to.
“As I was moving through the assistant ranks, that was my biggest question: Could I be authentically myself and be hired as a head coach?” Miller said.
For Miller, the answer was “yes.” Since Bowling Green State University hired him as the head coach of its women’s basketball team in 2001, Miller has been successful at every level he’s coached.
But two decades after he became the first openly gay, male coach in college or professional basketball – Miller is still the only one.
“I hear all too frequently from closeted men – especially in the men’s game – that they don’t have an individual in the men’s game who they can look to, so they wonder if they can be completely open and live authentically, and still be able to advance in their careers,” Miller said.
“Far too often, I’ve heard from male coaches that they’re thinking about pivoting and changing professions, or that they’re going to continue to live in the closet and keep their personal life private, because they worry about opportunities for advancement.”
It’s disappointing for Miller to hear, because it’s a question he struggled with as a young coach.
Miller said his outlook changed when he was an assistant coach at Colorado State University, and he and his partner started to raise his partner’s two, five-year-old, biological nephews as their sons. It struck him that to be a good parent, and to be a good role model to his twin boys, he needed to live authentically, he said.
That perspective carried over into coaching, where Miller worked to be a leader for the young women he was coaching. He decided that he couldn’t be as good a role model to them as he wanted to be if he wasn’t open about his family, he said.
“I got to the point where I said, ‘This is my package, and my family is really important to me,’” Miller said. “If you’re going to take a chance on me to lead your program as a head coach, I wanted the athletic administration to know that.”
Bowling Green State University gave Miller that chance to coach its women’s basketball team in 2001, making Miller – by all accounts – the first openly gay man to coach a Division I basketball team.
Miller’s story didn’t make national headlines in 2001. It wasn’t until he was hired by the Connecticut Sun in 2015 that he started to gain recognition as the only openly gay, male coach in professional basketball. But to Bowling Green, his players, fans and the women’s basketball community, Miller was out.
“I was trying to build a culture and community support, and I felt like if I shared all of that, it would be respected by the fan base, it would be respected by the program even more,” Miller said. “It allowed me to go out and recruit with a lot of freedom, because I could be myself and not have to worry about the audience, the family I’m recruiting – I was always going to be my true and open self.”
At Bowling Green, Miller built the Falcons into a powerhouse in the Mid-American Conference, leading the team to a 258-92 record, five conference titles, and becoming the first MAC team to advance to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament.
There is always interest from Power Five schools for successful mid-major coaches like Miller was, and he said he had seven interviews from large schools that didn’t end up offering him a job. Other gay men questioned if he was being passed up for jobs because of his sexuality, Miller said – but he never let himself think that.
“The only place my mind ever went was, am I so happy at Bowling Green that I didn’t show enough excitement for those Power Five jobs?” Miller said.
In 2012, Miller finally received that offer and became the head coach of the Indiana University Hoosiers women’s basketball team. Even coaching at one of the most well-known basketball schools in the country, Miller’s status as the only openly gay, male head coach went under the radar. Miller introduced his partner and sons at his introductory press conference at Indiana, but nobody picked up on the story, and Miller didn’t push them to.
Miller said there had been times when he avoided speaking engagements or requests for interviews about being an openly gay coach – which he now sees as a missed opportunity. When he was hired by the Connecticut Sun in 2015, Miller saw the opportunity to reach more people with his platform. He took the opportunity, and “came out” to the national media in an interview with Outsports.
“I turned down some opportunities through the years that may have reached some people,” Miller said. “I’m hoping to be someone that could be a role model, and I’m trying to take more opportunities to raise visibility so that it may be seen by more people and have an impact.”
While it has been relatively rare so far for high-profile male athletes to come out as gay, there are many WNBA players who are publicly out. Since UConn and Seattle Storm star Sue Bird publicly came out in 2017, she and U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe have been one of the most visible couples in sports.
Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve has spoken openly about her sexuality. The Washington Mystics’ Natasha Cloud and Puerto Rico National Softball team star Aleshia Ocasio made headlines when their private 2020 wedding became public this year. Close to home, Connecticut Sun teammates DeWanna Bonner and Alyssa Thomas have been public about their relationship – even posing for a cute couples photo in their uniforms during the team’s media day photo shoot this year.
Miller said the players in the WNBA are tremendous role models on and off the court, and that it’s an honor to work alongside them and see them use their platforms to fight for social justice causes.
“It’s a league with true diversity, and it’s just an honor every day to go to work and be surrounded by these amazing women around the league,” Miller said. “It’s given me the strength and the courage to be even more authentic.”
While there have always been gay men in team sports, they have become more and more visible in the time since Miller came out to Bowling Green and the women’s basketball worlds.
In the Olympics, Outsports counted that at least 185 LGBTQ athletes competed in Tokyo – compared to 55 in the 2016 Rio games. Women athletes outnumbered men 9 to 1 on that list, though there are likely many athletes who have not come out yet.
Canadian swimmer Markus Thormeyer – who is openly gay, but was not out when he competed in Rio, told Outsports that “competing at the Olympics as an openly gay athlete is pretty amazing.”
This summer Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib and Nashville Predators prospect Luke Prokop both came out as gay, in moves that many hope will inspire other gay, male hockey and football players.
Miller has made a point of recognizing Nassib, Prokob and University of Wisconsin director of men’s basketball operations Marc VandeWettering in his regular calls with the media – and he expects their decisions to come out will have a ripple effect on the next generation of athletes.
“These male athletes in middle school, high school, who are struggling with their sexuality, struggling with if they can live authentically and thrive in team sports, are now seeing professional athletes come out – that’s going to have such a huge ripple effect on the next generation, and I’m excited to see that continue to gain momentum,” Miller said.
“I think we all hope one thing, that it’s a non-story in the future,” Miller said. “We’re not there, but at some point, I think we will get to where these announcements will be a non-story. It’s just going to be understood that there are gay men in every locker room, and you’re going to have gay teammates. It’s going to normalize the normal.”