Diversity in sexuality and gender in motorsports aren’t things most people think of simultaneously.
For years, competitive driving of any sort – from soap box derbies, karts, and minis to Stock, Formula One, and NASCAR – has remained a largely male, heterosexual, and cisgender-dominated activity.
These days that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.
Currently, there are only two known motorsport drivers who openly identify as part of the LGBTQ community.
Devon Rouse is originally from Burlington, Iowa. These days he makes his home in Mooresville, North Carolina. The openly gay young man says he likes living in the area very much.
“I knew the first time I visited, this was where I wanted to be,” he explains. “The move has been great, I’m living on Lake Norman, and it’s really beautiful here. From where I’m located it’s a short drive to the beach and a short drive to the mountains. It feels like home.
“I moved to the area because I knew Charlotte was the place I needed to go to make connections and to further my career,” he continues.
While some motorsport drivers choose Indianapolis, Rouse says he prefers a more cosmopolitan city and surrounding metro area like Charlotte. ”Indianapolis is more involved with the whole indie scene,” he offers. “If you wanna’ be in the industry, you gotta be here.”
Rouse’s interest in racing dates back to his childhood, he confirms. “My dad was a drag racer, and he started me in kart racing when I was just three. And you know what? I remember all of it! I just have to think about it and all these memories from when I was just a little boy come flooding back. I can tell you every kid who was doing it then and is doing it now wants to be a race car driver.”
Rouse made his NASCAR debut in July 2021 in the Knoxville Truck series. “Knoxville is one of the top three series in the world,” he says excitedly. “I started at 40 and got up to 18! I ran Knoxville again last year and I got to do the Daytona ARCA (Automobile Racing Club of America) Menards series, so I’ve stayed pretty busy. When you’re testing at Daytona International Raceway, you’re testing at one of the largest platforms. I was driving the #44 Chevrolet!”
Despite his busy schedule with racing, he admits he still has to work a full-time, separate job to keep the bills covered. “Right now, I’m working full-time selling race gear, and I’m not racing very much because of the lack of sponsorship,” he offered. “They sure don’t tell you how hard it can be, and it’s not cheap. It’s not easy when you’re reaching out and asking for hundreds, thousands and millions of dollars.
“I’m reaching out and hoping someone is going to grab and offer sponsorship. And I handle everything. It’s all me. Drivers should be able to focus on driving, not coming up with sponsorships. I’d like to have an agent, but that’s expensive, too. I’m trying not to let that part of it get me down.”
At 24, Rouse is single and committed to putting everything he’s got into achieving his goals. “I’m happy doing me right now. I’m single and I’ve never dated anyone, because I haven’t met the right one yet. I’m not going to settle until I find someone that is right for me.”
Despite all the pluses he has found here and the happiness he gets from being in the heart of the motorsports industry, Rouse professes there is still palpable hate from some old-school NASCAR fans, who aren’t so comfortable with the idea of diversifying the community.
“It has its negatives,” he says matter-of-factly. “I’ve gotten death threats. But why would I let that bother me? They’re a stranger, and to be honest, some of them are pretty funny, although I don’t think they’re trying to be. I just try not to take it too seriously.”
As for his future plans, they’re pretty much solidified.
“My dream is to be a full-time driver for NASCAR,” he insists. “I will not stop until I get there.”
Michael Klein is another young man who identifies as part of the LGBTQ community (he actually has that detail listed on his website at www.michaelkleinracing.com), but his story and pathway to racing are a bit different from Rouse.
Klein was born and currently lives in Cincinnati, Ohio though he’s about to make a move. Unlike Rouse, he’s headed for Indianapolis. At 25, (just a year older than Klein) he chuckles slightly when talking about his age. “I know I’m getting a late start,” he offers. “I’m older than most drivers who are just getting started. These days most of them are around 16, or 17,” he continues. “But I didn’t have some of the advantages lot of the others did. It’s pretty common, you know, that some of the drivers come from racing families, so they have the support and backing of their families.
“I didn’t come from that kind of a background,” he explains. “I got my start here (Cincinnati) driving carts. I wanted to drive dirt carts.
Klein identifies as a Asexual, or Ace, and now believes he is demi-romantic. “At first I felt like I was aromantic,” he offers. “But now, as I’ve grown older, I could see myself with someone else, so I’m definitely a demi-romantic.”
Not unlike Rouse, Klein says he’s been interested in racing since childhood.
“For as long as I can remember,” he says enthusiastically. “I grew up watching it and loving it. I got my start racing with karts here in Cincinnati, and racing midgets in several different divisions. I’ve also driven a dirt late model at Ponderosa Speedway near Lexington, Kentucky.”
Listening to Klein share his story of searching for sponsorship, moving to a new city for the advantages the region gives him, and grabbing the opportunities to race when he can, it’s easy to see a pattern emerge for drivers with dreams of breaking into the big time, and how they can find themselves frustrated and sometimes disappointed.
Like any creative or artistic field, it comes with its own set of challenges: there’s a lot of competition from other drivers who share the same dreams you do and are fighting for the same resources.
As is likely the case for everyone immersed in the world of motorsports competition, Klein’s dream position is to drive race cars full-time, and he’s committed to achieving that goal. He also hopes to compete in the Carolina Late Model Series in the future.
“I’m open to working with anybody who’s a good fit for our program,” he says. “I’ve been working on developing branding and imaging, so it would be nice to find sponsorship that fits in with my values and the brand.”
From every indication, it appears NASCAR, as a company, has grown and is accepting of diversity and inclusion, far more than it was in its earlier days. But that doesn’t mean the entirety of motorsports, or the fan base for race competition has suddenly become woke overnight.
There are still many out there who see the sport as an entitled right, belonging only to a very specific selection of the population. In other words, there is still some enlightenment left to be achieved, but NASCAR, which has reached out directly in an inclusive and welcoming manner to the LGBTQ audience, seems to be leading the way.
Regardless, pockets of contempt remain.
“I have received some pretty nasty comments on Twitter,” Klein recalls. “But things have changed. For others in the LGBTQ family who are interested in participating in motorsports and racing, if you’re experiencing hate or discrimination, reach out to me. I’ll be your friend. We’ve got to stand up and let everyone know we’re normal people just like everyone else.”
Some history of early diversity in American motorsports
There were others that came before Klein and Rouse. If you dig back deep enough, you’ll find some earlier attempts at merging diversity into the sport beginning with the first NASCAR race held in Charlotte in 1949.
The city and the surrounding region began its love affair with NASCAR and motorsports on June 19 of that same year with the first official NASCAR event, known as the “Strictly Stock” race.
An estimated 22,000 individuals showed up to watch 33 drivers – mostly older white men – to take competitive turns around the slat-board track. While most were men, there was one particular driver in this race of historic note: Sara Christian. Described in literature of the day as an “Atlanta housewife,” she drove a 1948 Ford and was NASCAR’s most famous female racer during that time. Historic notes don’t elaborate on who she was married to, but she was a woman participating in a male dominated sport, and she was there in 1949!
Another significant motorsports driver was Terri O’Connell. She started her career as a race car driver in multiple classifications simultaneously, while still living life as a man and going by the name JT Sumner.
“My dad got me into it,” she recalled in an interview with Etcetera Magazine in the late 1990s. “He was a driver, too. So it was in my blood. The funny thing is, I was around all these really macho men growing up and again later when I first started driving professionally. I acted like one, too, but I never felt like one. I always felt like a girl inside.”
As Sumner, O’Connell’s motorsports history was reportedly one of great success. After gender affirming surgery in the 1990s, she stepped away from the motorsports scene entirely. Although she did return in later years with a substantial amount of media coverage, O’Connell found herself knocking on doors, but getting few responses. These days, she’s reportedly living in California, where she owns and operates a fashion and cosmetic company and she penned a book about her experience, entitled “Dangerous Curves.”