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One Sunday four Julys ago, I stood in a Los Feliz sports bar and watched a packed room of queer women shout “PINOEEEE” at the dozens of TV monitors, just like I had seen so many men yell at so many TVs on so many Sundays. Megan Rapinoe was one of the best soccer players on the field, certainly the one whose vivacious personality inspired the most excitement from women and men alike—yes, even the straight ones—and she stuck out like a sore thumb. I didn’t know who Rapinoe was at the time, but I do now. Everyone does.
Last Sunday morning, US forward Megan Rapinoe scored one of the two goals that won the US Women’s National Soccer Team their second consecutive world cup, their fourth victory overall. Her performance and her outspokenness throughout the tournament shot her to true superstardom. But if she had played 34 years ago, when the women’s team debuted, or even a decade ago, it’s unlikely an out lesbian like Rapinoe would have risen to celebrity in the same way. As a professional athlete who is very visibly queer, and also has a vocal, political, and unapologetic public persona, she might have been encouraged to keep her sexuality to herself, or she would have been an anomaly and an anti-hero.
Here's Rapinoe in a 2015 SportsCenter video, responding to the question “Describe yourself in one word” with “Gay.” Here she is tweeting “Science is science. Gays rule” after her second World Cup win yesterday. And here’s her girlfriend, WNBA player Sue Bird, penning a 3,000 word tribute to Rapinoe, which was heralded on social media as an aspirational example of modern love. It’s astounding to watch: An out, loud, and proud lesbian athlete being lionized as a sports icon, and being called part of “America’s ultimate sports power couple,” just didn’t happen before this.
For an example of how queer women in sports have historically been treated, look to tennis superstar Billie Jean King. In 1981, King was outed in a palimony lawsuit by her ex-girlfriend, Marilyn Barnett. She was the first professional female athlete to admit she was gay, but it wasn’t easy. As long as she could, she doubled down on being closeted, to protect herself and her career—plus, she was on the forefront of the battlefield for Title IX, a civil rights law barring exclusion or discrimination from education or federally funded activity based on sex. So, her impact on women’s sports wasn’t just important, it was necessary. She had so much on the line. Of that time, she told The Sunday Times in 2007, “I wanted to tell the truth but my parents were homophobic and I was in the closet. As well as that, I had people tell me that if I talked about what I was going through, it would be the end of the women’s tour.”
But you don’t need examples or statistics to know that before 2019, being athletic often earned women negative nicknames like “butch” or “dyke,” words stained with negative connotations until recently. My youth was filled with sports balls and bloody knees, and feeling like I needed to dress and act more feminine to offset the name-calling. So, Rapinoe’s visibility is a win. On Sunday, she took every jibe that’s been lobbed at female athletes, every stereotype that’s bogged down and limited female athletes throughout history, and proudly shared her whole self with the world, as if to say, “I’m gay—fuck you.”
Rapinoe is receiving much of the post-Cup shine, but she’s not the only hyper-visible queer athlete on the 4-star USWNT. For example, back in March, teammates Ashlyn Harris and Ali Krieger got engaged to each other. Kelley O’Hara celebrated Sunday’s win by kissing her girlfriend in the stands. Even the team’s coach, Jill Ellis, is an out and proud woman. This whole team is running rampant with rainbows, and finally, it’s not stopping them—it could even be helping them. As Rapinoe said after the semifinals, “You can't win a championship without gays on your team. It's never been done before, ever. That's science, right there." She added: "I'm motivated by people who like me, who are fighting for the same things. I take more energy from that than from trying to prove anyone wrong."
Then, there’s Rapinoe’s habit of speaking out fearlessly about political issues. Two weeks ago, in a now-viral interview, the player was asked if she was excited to go to the White House, to which she responded, “I’m not going to the fucking White House.” At that point, anyone who didn’t know who Rapinoe was, found out real quick—Donald Trump attacked the athlete in a string of tweets, writing, “I am a big fan of the American Team, and Women’s Soccer, but Megan should WIN first before she TALKS!”
After that, Rapinoe was called “arrogant” by certain commentators. She was criticized by fans for kneeling during the national anthem. Yet instead of apologizing or shying away from her queerness and liberal principles, she doubled down by winning the World Cup, being awarded the Golden Boot and Golden Ball trophies, and tweeting about how much gays rule. Like Colin Kaepernick, whose protest during the national anthem Rapinoe has emulated, she’s used her huge, and growing, platform to highlight issues she believes in.
And not for nothing, but she’s extremely hot, and the people love her.
I’ve never seen thirst for a lesbian athlete mainstreamed like this before, and it's a game-changer. I used to be scared to even say Mia Hamm was “cool,” or to express interest in female athletes at all. Publicly lusting after a female sporting celebrity? Off the table—otherwise I’d risk extreme humiliation and discrimination from my Catholic, conservative community. That I can log on at any point today and see a queer woman—or a straight woman, a straight man, or a gay man—lusting after Rapinoe, is stunning. Step on all of us with your cleats, Megan!
Rapinoe is more than just a sports superstar; she’s now reached a level of cultural relevance that athletes like Serena Williams or Michael Jordan have achieved. She’s now a household name, beloved by millions of people, even those who aren’t sports fans. For an out lesbian athlete, that’s monumental. And she’s everywhere: She made history as the first out lesbian to pose for Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue, which highlighted her butch-of-center demeanor and her cut form, rather than catering to the femininity that heterosexual male audiences have traditionally been served up. She’s not playing it safe. She’s not even playing it neutral. And, honestly…goals (pun intended).
As a lesbian, seeing Megan’s signature short hairdo blown up to godlike proportions on a Nike billboard on the Downtown Los Angeles skyline is breathtaking. I’ve never seen anything like it before: a woman who is proud to be queer, and stands mighty and nobly in her power. And I’ve never seen anyone apologize less for inspiring this kind of attention.
At a time in American history when it seems impossible to feel inspired or patriotic, Rapinoe makes me feel inspired and patriotic. Why? She’s America’s first proudly out lesbian sports icon who's been soundly embraced, even outside the queer community. It reminds me that I want more than to be just tolerated or represented in media; we should be past that. Now, I want justice for the decades of repression I endured, and being made to feel like I wasn’t worth celebrating. I want to be desired, admired, revered for being a hot dyke—just like America’s new hero, Megan Rapinoe.
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