Only days ago, the US Women’s National Team won their fourth Women’s World Cup title, broke the internet, became the subject of numerous memes, and did a whole lot of things besides. And perhaps none has been more high profile, or become as much of an internet fixture as Megan Rapinoe. The lilac-haired powerhouse was a significant part of the United States Women’s title defence, and has successively been called “Our President”, a superhero and the latest deserving of the title “America’s Sweetheart”. In so many ways, Megan Rapinoe has been a pathbreaker – last year, Rapinoe and her girlfriend, the WNBA player Sue Bird, were the first gay couple to appear on the cover of ESPN’s The Body.
Right after her team’s win at France’s Olympique Lyonnais stadium, 34-year-old Rapinoe sought out her partner in the stands to kiss her.
2019 means that today, although bigotry is still perhaps alive and well, Rapinoe’s gesture to her significant other is now considered for the most part, no different than Iker Casillas finding his then-girlfriend to kiss her following Spain’s World Cup win in 2010.
Statistically speaking, 30 percent of the USWNT is openly gay – of its current squad, four members – Rapinoe, Kelley O’Hara, Ashlyn Harris and Ali Krieger are all out; incidentally, Harris and Krieger recently got engaged.
But before them, came the USA’s former captain, American football (or should I say soccer?) legend Abby Wambach, who led the way in their sport. The team themselves have done a significant amount for LGBTQI+ visibility in the sporting arena, and it is that visibility that has significantly helped the cause in the USA.
Without a shadow of a doubt, Wambach – who has always lived her life out, in the public eye – has been one of the greatest in the game. Just as Rapinoe did this year, Wambach ran into the stands following the USA’s emphatic 5-2 win over Japan to take the title. Seeking out her then-wife, Sarah Huffman, Wambach embraced – and kissed – Huffman in celebration.
Getty Images would label that image “Abby Wambach of USA celebrates with a friend”, all but erasing the couple’s very public identity. Although the faux pas later spawned numerous internet memes, the damage had already been done.
The role of increasing visibility is one that the USWNT has readily adopted, and truly gone on with. Fewer than 20 bisexual and lesbian players participated in the last Women’s World Cup in 2015; this year, the number was higher than 40, according to the sporting website Outsports.
And that visibility, that openness in relationships and in identity, has done phenomenal things for an avenue in which many athletes find themselves struggling to come out due to locker room interactions and ‘banter’ which is anything but, that prevents them from doing so, particularly when they are active on the tour.
For the USWNT, their brilliant tournament, combined with their openness about their identities, has brought back to the fold so many LGBTQ+ athletes who may have been discouraged from joining team sports by the fear of homophobia and homophobic abuse, and that in itself is an achievement. In their public interactions, the USWNT, particularly Rapinoe, have given young queer sports aspirants open role models whom they can emulate, whom they can look to for inspiration and a lack of fear. And the fear of locker room culture is very real, as tennis former World No 1 Rennae Stubbs once told the writer. “People are afraid of what’s said in the locker room, and that sort of pushes them away from being able to be their authentic selves in public.”
With an entire country now completely embracing, even worshiping a group of queer athletes who, in the past had – and unfortunately today, still are ostracised in some parts of the world, the team has lead the media – and with it, the public, in the direction of inclusivity. Discrimination may be one thing – but truly including those across the LGBTQI+ spectrum and fostering that courage, that spirit that the USWNT has so effectively brought into the public sensibility? That’s progress – and rapid progress at that.
Even twenty years ago, what the women’s team achieved – not on the field, but in newsprint in terms of visibility, may not have been as possible. Some of the greatest athletes in the world did not feel comfortable coming out even in the late 1970s and early 1980s, many of them forcibly outed by the press. Among those was Martina Navratilova, who had come out privately as bisexual in an interview to the journalist Steve Goldstein, but had asked him not to publish the interview until she was ready to come out publicly.
The interview was published regardless, and even through the early 1980s, Navratilova struggled for endorsement deals, directly as a result of her outing.
Before Navratilova was another tennis legend, Billie Jean King, who was outed as a result of a palimony lawsuit by her former partner, Marilyn Barnett; the public statement caused King to lose what was then estimated to be approximately $2million in endorsement deals and sponsorships, and the mounting legal bills forced her to continue playing longer than she had wanted to.
2019 has, in such big part, been a watershed year in terms of granting the LGBTQI+ community more legal legitimacy. A number of countries this year legalised same-sex marriage – most recently Ecuador and Taiwan. Even the USA only made same-sex marriage constitutional, rather than just state-restricted, in 2015 – in the not so recent past.
In the past month, a number of athletes, Rapinoe and the USWNT aside, have been open, vocal and “loud and proud” about their identities, even using their public personae as a way to advocate for causes, to speak openly about being queer, and in the process, help those who lack visibility, or are hindered in some way from coming out.
Last week at Wimbledon, Belgian tennis star Alison Van Uytvanck, a former quarter-finalist at the French Open, and her partner of three years, compatriot Greet Minnen, became the first openly gay couple to play at SW19.
Now, apart from Van Uytvanck and Minnen, several other players have called repeatedly for increased awareness of the idea of LGBTQ+ representation in the sport. No longer does that openness and living an ‘out’ life have to mean ostracisation and a hit to income.
Today, women’s football has been in so many ways the antithesis of the men’s game, where so many eminent coaches and former players have suggested men “remain silent” about their sexuality whilst active on the field, reminiscent in a way of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” A far cry from the homophobic comments of some iconic footballers’ suggestions that gay players not be allowed on the team, the current USWNT, the class of 2019, has seized its somewhat collective public identity by the horns, put itself firmly into the public sensibility – not just in newsprint, and used its loud, out and proud voice to speak about issues that even a decade ago, were not as commonly spoken about as they are today.
Closer to home, Indian sprinter Dutee Chand only recently came out as being in a same-sex relationship, a decision she says was encouraged by the Indian Government’s decriminalisation of gay sex in 2018. Her announcement spurred a number of queer Indians active on social media to come out themselves – showing just how deep and significant even the smallest public change can be.
Now, anyone on Twitter searching for discussions with and around the US Women’s Team is likely to see a number of threads and conversations around equalising men’s and women’s pay, about Rapinoe’s enthusiastic celebrations, and about How the Cup was Won. They also celebrate the open happiness of each player – including Kelly O’Hara, not previously out, running up to her girlfriend in the stands, kissing her, celebrating, and not needing to follow that gesture up with a statement, any official announcement, but just celebrating.
In a world where inequality and phobias are still rampant, where prejudices are still more common than the lack thereof, it is heartening to see just how far we’ve come – and just how transformative sport can be.
For the USWNT, changing the public narrative and fighting homophobia has been as big an achievement as their trophy; their sexualities are part of their truest selves, their identities as sportswomen, and in 2019, everyone who wants to should be able to be out and proud of it. And therein lies yet another World Cup.
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