Coming out is something Megan Rapinoe hasn’t regretted for a minute.
The professional soccer player and Olympic gold medalist announced to the world that she’s gay shortly before the 2012 London Olympic Games. She’d been out to her family and team members for years, but decided to come out publicly after a yearlong thought process because concealing a central part of her identity seemed “weird” and “not authentic.”
“It started to feel like something was being omitted purposefully from my life and my public image,” says Rapinoe, a midfielder for Seattle Reign FC in the National Women’s Soccer League, who prides herself on being open with her personal life. Before coming out, she hated dodging questions about what it was like to have a large LGBT fan base by providing impersonal answers like “Well, yeah, we need diversity in the sport.”
“For me to not be able to say ‘I’m gay, and that’s why it means a lot to me to have my community supporting our team,’ that didn’t feel right to me,” Rapinoe, the 29-year-old guest editor of this sports edition, says.
It is important for professional athletes to come out as gay, Rapinoe says, not only for themselves, but because it helps LGBT fans realize they have someone to identify with on the field or the court. She lauds Michael Sam’s high-profile coming out earlier this year, a move that she calls “courageous.”
“I’m sure there are plenty of gay men and women out there who love football but maybe didn’t always feel welcome,” she says. “Now they can go support one of their own. I think that’s really special.”
But Rapinoe admits that for men, sports are still “hetero-dominated,” and being honest about sexual orientation is difficult. That toxic climate won’t change, she says, until homophobia in sports is finally considered unacceptable.
“The fact that we’re even still having this conversation about, ‘Is Michael Sam gonna be good for the locker room?’ is absurd to me. In 2014 there are incredibly larger problems people should really worry about,” she says. “If nobody ever comes out, then I don’t think that any of these issues we’re fighting for ever get solved or become better.”
Rapinoe has enjoyed considerable time in the limelight as a top player for the Women’s National Team at the 2011 Women’s World Cup and the 2012 Olympics. There’s more work to do, she says, before women’s sports earn the same level of visibility as men’s.
She’s been particularly vocal about FIFA’s decision to permit Canada to use mostly turf fields for the upcoming 2015 Women’s World Cup, quoted in SB Nation as calling the decision “a slap in the face to women’s football.”
Going forward, she hopes to see more funding and exposure for women’s sports. But she’s proud of steps that have already been made by ESPN, for example, which “stuck their neck out” on broadcasting women’s soccer despite skepticism about whether it would be popular. (It was, Rapinoe points out.)
“Men’s sports is ingrained in the culture of the country,” she says. “They are multi-billion dollar industries and it’s already in the media. But women’s teams still need that initial funding and willingness to hedge your bets that it’s going to be something that’s popular.”
In recent years, Rapinoe has emerged not only as a star player but also as an activist through groups like the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and its “Change the Game” campaign, geared toward preventing anti-LGBT bullying in sports and physical education programs.
Growing up, Rapinoe never had role models of her own because fewer women in sports were openly gay. For her, being someone others look up to is an honor, not a burden.
“I don’t feel like just because I’m a soccer player and I’m out I have to be a role model. It’s something that really means a lot to me,” she says, recalling countless times where she’s connected with fans expressing their gratitude for being out and proud.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” she says. “It just reaffirms over and over how right I was to come out and say, ‘This is who I am and I’m totally fucking proud of it.’”
And despite potential blowback, she makes her advice clear for closeted LGBT athletes contemplating coming out: “Do it.”
“It’s one of the best decisions I ever made in my life. You rarely find when a person comes out that they regret it,” she says. “Being true to yourself is a really beautiful thing.”