Tennis star Lendale Johnson grew up in a community where there wasn’t much in terms of accessible sports.
“We could play basketball, but when I was younger, I stumbled onto something that reveal my athleticism,” Johnson recalls. “We used to play something called double Dutch. We took two clotheslines... made them into two long jump ropes that turned in opposite directions, and by jumping them I discovered that I had agility and hand-eye coordination, which allowed me to [ become] a professional athlete.”
Beyond coming out on the men’s pro tennis tour, he has been busy with acting, appearing on Fox’s TV hit Empire, and he’s modeled. But most important to Johnson now is to be a pioneer in tennis.
“I was motivated to come out by someone who had done it years before any of us thought we could, Martina Navratilova. She reached out to me on Twitter and said it would be great for tennis and sports if you come out,” Johnson says. “I was already out as a gay person since high school, but I never talked about it publicly.”
“There are well over a thousand players on tour,” Johnson says of his sport. “I can’t be the only [gay] one. Players are choosing not to come out, and for the good of the sport — the mental wellness of the closeted players and the positive outreach it would bring to fans — that has to change.”
Johnson acknowledged the difference in coming out in a solo sport as opposed to on a team.
“There’s so much talk about masculinity, particularly in a team sport, which is why some just can’t come out.... In team sports, you have the locker room, and teammates are like your bros, so you don’t want them to think you’re trying to come on to them. What’s interesting is the level of playfulness among the players, hitting each other on their asses, grabbing genitals.... It’s OK when there are straight players doing it, but when a gay teammate might try that, he’s going to get a different reaction.”
As an out professional Black athlete, Johnson has ambitions about using his platform to make positive changes in sports and beyond.
“Members of our community are still being killed for who they are, still being ridiculed for what they are wearing, and being derided for what they are saying. Athletes can change the world. Our fans live and breathe for us, and they are die-hard. What we do can really help dictate what transpires in the world, and it matters. Hopefully, I’m putting in my two cents and helping teach kids and inspire kids to also change the world.”