Last weekend, the United States Women’s National Team demolished Japan in the final of the 2015 Women’s World Cup, held in front of 90,000 fans in Vancouver, Canada. It was the most viewed soccer game in America – men or women – in the history of the sport, and most viewed the triumph of the USWNT as a defining moment in how we perceive soccer as a global trend in America. It is of no surprise that soccer isn’t necessarily the most popular here in the United States; American football and basketball and baseball are the holy triumvirate. But this feels different, to most soccer fans. It feels like a turning point.
One of the stories of the tournament involved USWNT superstar Abby Wambach announcing that this would be her last World Cup. At 35, Wambach (who holds the record for most international goals, men or women, with 184) is edging close to the period where most soccer stars either retire or opt out of more strenuous competition. She has not yet decided on whether or not she will retire from the game, but it is expected she will go on to attempt another gold medal at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.
Wambach also pointed to another reason why she wanted to end her career on the international level – she wants to parent children with her wife, fellow soccer player Sarah Huffman. One of the great moments of the 2015 World Cup was when a camera followed Wambach to the side of the arena, where Sydney Leroux-Dwyer was already embracing her husband. The camera stayed on Wambach, and followed her to where Huffman was waiting. They hugged, cried, and kissed as the camera zoomed in and caught the entire moment. The next day, the story and accompanying video was all over the Internet with titles like “Abby Wambach Running To Her Wife After the World Cup Will Destroy Your Tear Ducts.” I bring up this moment in time because of its significance. When the USWNT won the 1999 Women’s World Cup in L.A. due to Brandi Chastain’s penalty kick, the camera cut away when Briana Scurry raced into the stands and kissed her girlfriend. Scurry has since talked about how she’s noticed a sea change since 1999 and today, and it reflects the overwhelmingly positive shift in cultural acceptance of LGBT individuals.
I’d like to argue that because women have a growing-up period known colloquially as the “tomboy phase,” they are less likely to be seen as strange or abnormal if they end up coming out of the closet. It almost could be seen as a stereotype; if you are a female and you enjoy sports or you participate in sports at a high level, you are assumed to be lesbian. If a woman decides to come out in that climate, it is treated as so normal as to possibly erase its importance as another sign of the shifting cultural tolerance of homosexuality. It’s also fascinating to watch LGBT athletes date and marry fellow athletes, sometimes on rival teams – WNBA star Brittney Griner married fellow pro Glory Johnson earlier this year. While that marriage ended in annulment, it still bears noting as the first time two rivals in the same sport were wed.
It does make sense, sadly, as to why there are barely any current out male athletes at a high level. Justin Fashanu, the first British soccer player to come out of the closet, ended up committing suicide. Even now, there have been articles published about closeted male soccer players who are afraid to come out. The climate seems to be changing slightly in the US – Robbie Rogers made history in 2013 when he made his debut with the L.A. Galaxy, becoming the first openly gay man to compete in a top North American professional sports league. But the amount of male athletes who face struggle and opposition upon coming out is much higher than those who are female and make the same decision.
The most famous example of this trend is former Missouri standout and current CFL player Michael Sam, who came out prior to the 2014 NFL draft to a wave of applause and intense criticism. Some team owners came out as saying they would be concerned about having a gay player in their locker room, famously calling it a possible “distraction.” When he was eventually drafted by the St. Louis Rams, a video of Sam weeping and kissing his partner Vito Cammisano went viral and received both praise and scorn.
Yet when a female athlete comes out, it’s seen as something either to be celebrated or something that isn’t a big deal at all, and it is seen as no barrier to winning. This is a wonderful thing, but why isn’t it something that occurs in all sports, regardless of gender? Because in some ways, it is more plausible for the national culture if a woman plays sports and is gay, than a man to do so. It is more acceptable for a woman to dabble in “masculine” things and then announce her orientation, than for a man to play sports and announce himself as something other than completely heterosexual. Sports are, after all, a male-dominated world.
None of this is to make the point that homosexuality in women’s soccer is entirely accepted; the head coach of the Nigerian National Team is currently being investigated by FIFA for making remarks about using religion to weed out gay players. But the men’s 2018 World Cup is being held in Russia, in a move roundly slammed by gay athletes as an acceptance of Russia’s treatment of LGBT individuals. In a letter panning the decision, Robbie Rogers wrote – “[T]he message FIFA sends to gay athletes is painfully clear…our lives don’t matter.” If we are trying to show gay male athletes that their coming out will be treated with empathy and respect, the least we can do is hold the World Cup in an environment that won’t be fraught with peril for our top-flight competitors.
Gloria Steinem once eloquently said, “We’ve begun to raise daughters more like sons… but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters.” The severe lack of out gay athletes in the international and national scene, in any sport, reflects this lack of equality in the way we treat female and male athletes who identify as LGBT. This listicle from Buzzfeed names all of the known queer players that participated in the tournament. When the 2014 Men’s World Cup was held in Brazil, there wasn’t a single out player on any team in the field of participants. Had there been, I’m not sure if there would have been listicles about them. I’d like to think some day, there will be.