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Why the USWNT’s open queerness matters

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A story about LGBT+ people learning that it’s going to be OK.

England v USA: Semi Final - 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

I’m supposed to cover the United States women’s national soccer team critically, and I try very hard to do that, but I’m also an unabashed fan of the team. I started being a fan when I was a kid because I like soccer, and they play soccer well. Also, they’re women, and even though I’d never heard of trans people before a few years ago, I knew I wanted to be a woman. I could live vicariously though the USWNT players. I thought, I wish I could be like them when I grow up.

Obviously that didn’t happen. But as I’ve followed the team’s development and spoken to some of the players, I’ve come to like the team even more. The biggest reason is the USWNT becoming a bastion of queer hope and excellence along a similar timeline to me coming to terms with being a bi woman, and realizing that was not something to be ashamed of.

The USWNT as a vehicle for LGBT+ pride is a pretty new phenomenon — it did not always feature out and vocally queer athletes. Abby Wambach kissing her partner in the stands and Rapinoe describing herself as “GAYYYYYYYY” only happened after decades of players feeling like their sexual orientation had to remain ambiguous at the absolute queerest in order to retain endorsement opportunities.

But at some point, cultural acceptance, corporate willingness to play ball and individual bravery all met at the same apex, giving us the wonderful gay ass USWNT that we get to enjoy today. Now we have Megan Rapinoe yelling “GO GAYS” and saying she would have no problem competing against trans women. Ashlyn Harris and Ali Krieger are engaged and playing on the USWNT together. Adrianna Franch has been out for several years and is engaged. Tierna Davidson was making Instagram cooking videos with her girlfriend before she was on the team. Official team communications offer support for the players’ queer expression.

This means so much to thousands of people. “Pride” is such an apt word for LGBT+ celebrations because it’s what so many of us lacked for huge chunks of our lives. It’s important for everyone, of any sexual orientation or gender identity, to feel some pride in who they are. That’s often a lot harder for queer people than it is for cisgender, heterosexual people. And seeing openly queer athletes become the best in the world at something like soccer, that’s so visible and so important to most of the world, helps a lot of people find some pride in themselves on days when it’s hard to muster any at all.

But for people who are closeted or questioning, it’s often hard to see themselves reflected in the most proud, vocal players. Megan Rapinoe, bless her, might not inspire someone who is unsure about whether or not they can ever live their life out, to everyone, all the time. It’s easy for someone who has not yet connected with a queer community or figured out some essential truths about themselves to look at Rapinoe and think, “she’s awesome, but I could never be like that.” Not everyone has it in them to be that brash, that confident.

Which is why Kelley O’Hara and what she did on Sunday are so important. After winning the World Cup, O’Hara walked up to the stands and kissed her girlfriend.

United States of America v Netherlands : Final - 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France Photo by Marcio Machado/Getty Images

This is not a shocking or revolutionary act in 2019. Lots of people are queer in public now, and everyone knows there are queer players on the United States women’s national soccer team. But what made this moment significant is that O’Hara had not previously made any kind of announcement about her partner or sexual orientation. She didn’t follow this moment up with an interview, a social media post, or a proclamation of any kind. She just had an affectionate moment with her partner, then continued her life as normal, because what she did is normal and should not require an explanation.

Rapinoe is inspiring, but she’s not what every queer person needs to feel like they’re allowed to be themselves. Some people need to see Rapinoe, but others need to see Harris and Krieger. Some need to see Franch, or Davidson. And some people need to see O’Hara.

There isn’t one right way to be queer. You can be swaggy, outlandish, tough, serious, subtle, or reserved. You can be any of those things while still being proud of yourself and your identity. The USWNT does a better job of helping people feel that than any other mainstream, public-facing entity that I can think of. I hope the players understand how important they are.