SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Describing himself as "a proud gay man," Puerto Rican featherweight Orlando Cruz on Thursday became what is believed to be the first pro boxer to come out as openly homosexual while still competing.
Cruz told The Associated Press in an interview that he is relieved about his decision but had initial reservations.
"I developed physically and mentally to take such a big step in my life and in my profession, which is boxing, knowing that it would have pros and cons, highs and lows in this sport that is so macho," he said. "I kept this hidden for many, many years."
His announcement comes two weeks before the 31-year-old left-hander challenges Mexican boxer Jorge Pazos for the WBO Latino title. Cruz is ranked as the World Boxing Organization's No. 4 featherweight fighter and is 18-2-1 with nine knockouts.
Cruz said he met with psychologists and others before making the announcement, adding he has the full support of his family, trainer and manager. He praised his mother and sister for their unconditional love and said his father has always backed him.
"Like every father, he wants his son to be a full-blooded man," Cruz said. "But he is aware of my preference, my taste."
Few active professional athletes have come out. There has yet to be an openly gay player in Major League Baseball, the NBA or NFL.
Pedro Julio Serrano, spokesman for the U.S.-based National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, praised Cruz for his decision and said it breaks stereotypes that gay people are not involved in sports like boxing.
"It also gives a lot of hope to young gays who can see in him the integrity and bravery to be who you are and face a society that is often intolerant, especially in this type of sport," he said.
Reaction to Cruz's announcement was largely positive across social media, with many praising him for taking what they called a brave step given the sport's violent history. Among those who sent messages of support was Puerto Rican singer Ricky Martin, who announced he was gay in 2010.
Some Twitter messages expressed concern for Cruz's safety and wondered whether other boxers will be reluctant to fight him. Dommys Delgado, president of the Boxing Commission of Puerto Rico, brushed aside those comments.
"Orlando has proven to be an excellent boxer with very good chances of becoming a world champion," she said. "We do know that it is a very macho sport. Those who don't want to fight with him, well, don't fight."
The only other professional boxer who was quoted as saying that he had relations with men and women was U.S. Virgin Islander Emile Griffith, who told The New York Times in 2005 that he struggled with his sexuality. His comments came decades after he ended his 18-year career as a pro boxer.
Griffith is best known for his 1962 fight against Cuban Benny Paret, who taunted Griffith with gay slurs before the bout. Griffith knocked him out, and Paret died 10 days later.
Cruz said he is prepared for the fallout from his announcement, saying many boxers had already suspected he was gay but gave him privacy.
"I've been fighting for more than 24 years and as I continue my ascendant career, I want to be true to myself," he said. "I have always been and always will be a proud gay man."