USA Soccer Star Megan Rapinoe Comes Out
With her bleach-blond hair and a breathtaking assist during last year's World Cup quarterfinals, midfielder Megan Rapinoe is one of the most famous women's soccer players in the world. Last week, as Rapinoe celebrated her 27th birthday and geared up for the Olympic Games, fans across the world applauded the athlete for scoring another victory for women's sports: Rapinoe made her homosexuality and her relationship with Australian player Sarah Walsh public.
"I feel like sports in general are still homophobic, in the sense that not a lot of people are out," Rapinoe said to Out.com, in a post that quickly went viral. "I feel like everyone is really craving people to come out. People want – they need – to see that there are people like me playing soccer for the good old U.S. of A."
Rapinoe, a flashy, spirited player from Northern California, joins a small but growing club of elite women's athletes who have come out publicly, including WNBA star Sheryl Swoops and tennis player and sports activist Billy Jean King. According to Rapinoe, her long-term relationship with Walsh was already well known in the tiny world of professional women’s soccer, but to the outside world, she was still presumed to be straight by default. Although top female soccer players are slowly becoming household names, the question of Rapinoe’s sexuality had attracted none of the buzz that often surrounds other celebrities, such as Anderson Cooper, who also came out last week after decades of speculation. Rapinoe, therefore, took it upon herself to step into the media limelight.
“It’s my job to say, ‘I’m gay,’” she told Out.com. “Which I am. For the record: I am gay.”
Women's sports have exploded since Title IX, which celebrated its 40th anniversary this year, but the world--especially at the college and elite level--still remains surprisingly closeted.
"Homephobia in women's sports is "like the McCarthyism of the 1950s," said Christine Grant, athletic director at the University of Iowa. "The fear is paralyzing."
According to a recent ESPN article, college recruiters will still whisper to their female recruits that their program has "family values" while this program or that program is gay.
It's a particular problem for women's sports because of the vast discrepancy in pay and funding between men's programs and women's programs, which makes female athletes particularly reliant on corporate sponsors whose preference for the hyper-feminine Anna Kournikova's of the world is well know.
“The inequality, it’s just so vast,” elite cyclist Kathyn Bertine told Huffington Post, referring both to the disparities in prize money allotted to women’s races compared to men’s and the overall funding of elite programs. “77 cents?” she said, citing the average pay gap between men and women across all industries. “Try 7 cents…If female athletes can only pay the bills by modeling, then something's wrong in the system, not the athletes.”
Bertine and others know from firsthand experience that, with the lack of funding, pay and prize money, modeling is often one of the only options for female athletes—and this means catering to the camera’s heterosexual and masculine eye or being left behind. Case in point: Sarah Roubles, the top weightlifter on the US women's Olympic team, lives in poverty because neither she nor her team have the sex appeal required to attract sponsors.
The few elite women's athletes, like Rapinoe, who do dare to come out are putting both their privacy but also their paycheck on the line, which makes her announcement all the more powerful. (Rapinoe has an endorsement deal with Nike.)
Rapinoe is well aware that she is a trailblazer as an elite and openly out women's athlete--and she used the announcement as an opportunity to call on more players to come out. Yet, while the homophobia can be particularly destructive for gay athletes, it's a poisonous culture that affects all players.
"Homophobia in sports serves as a way to control women, both gay and straight,"said basketball star Mariah Burton Nelson.
Rapinoe's announcement, therefore, is not just a victory for gay athletes; it's a victory for all athletes and fans. And it's one that everyone, regardless of team loyalties or nationality, can root for.