The number of out LGBT players in women’s football should give the men’s game food for thought – but could its rise derail its accepting atmosphere?
“You can’t win a championship without gays on your team – it’s never been done before, ever. That’s science, right there!”
Megan Rapinoe is well-known for being outspoken on almost everything. Whether it’s arguing with Donald Trump on Twitter or campaigning for equal pay for the USA Women’s National Team, she unapologetically states her opinions loud enough for everyone to hear. Her comments about the reality of having LGBT players within football teams after the USA reached the semi-finals of the World Cup in 2019 stood out for their simplicity. “Go gays,” Rapinoe said, celebrating her contribution during Pride month. The confidence Rapinoe felt stands in stark contrast to the statistically implausible, heterosexualised nature of professionalised men’s football.
This contrast was posed by The Festival of Football in conjunction with FARE and Football vs Homophobia to a panel of both professional and grassroots footballers, and football fans. On both a national and international level, the women’s game is full of openly gay and bisexual players. What are the conditions that have allowed women’s football to become a space where sexuality is not something shied away from? And what can the men’s game learn from how the women’s game treats LGBT players?
For many women footballers, the lack of attention the game gets has allowed them to be personally out without needing to discuss it publicly. When media interest is relatively low, there is little to attract trolls and tabloids to players’ personal lives. Players are more relaxed about featuring their partners on social media because there is not a media circus or Twitter pile-on waiting to pounce.
Even limited exposure to the press can quickly become draining as Chelsea captain Magda Eriksson talked about on the panel. Eriksson’s sexuality was thrust into the spotlight when a photo of her kissing her girlfriend, Danish international Pernille Harder, at the World Cup went viral. “Every interview I do, I get questions about my girlfriend and my sexuality,” she said. “Sometimes I just want to talk about football.” Yet that doesn’t mean she regrets what happened.
“Girls write to me on a daily basis saying me and Pernille made their lives easier. I didn’t realise what a role model I was. As women footballers, we don’t always understand our power. I realised after the World Cup, I had a big platform.”
For most players in the women’s game, they can be open about their sexuality without it becoming their defining feature. Even if they are open about it, as Eriksson has almost unintentionally ended up being, it can remain a broadly positive experience. It is unimaginable that this could ever be the case for a men’s player at the higher echelons of the game.
I didn't realise what a role model I was. As women footballers, we don't always understand our power. I realised after the World Cup, I had a big platform.
The sheer number of out players contributes to a much less pressurised environment for women footballers in terms of sexuality. Indeed, when conversations do drift towards the possibility of male footballers coming out, it is often suggested that the most realistic version of events would be for a group of players to come out together. Even the suggestion that something like that would be necessary communicates the depressing reality of culture within men’s football fandom.
There is a concern that this culture is starting to permeate the women’s game. Tottenham goalkeeper Chloe Morgan, another panellist, said that she has already felt the shock of experiencing negative abuse at games. Tottenham’s recent step up from the Women’s Championship to the Women’s Super League has resulted in a noticeable atmosphere change at matches, with an increase in anger and vitriol. Morgan sees it as a result of fans from the men’s game beginning to attend women’s games. The worry will be that if crowds continue to grow as a result of fans from the men’s game attending, the risks that players take by being openly gay increase, contributing to a reversal in the open culture that the women’s game has engendered.
There is also some question as to how accepting the women’s game really is. Eriksson says that she believes the acceptance of her sexuality is linked to her appearance. “I wouldn’t have got the same reaction if I didn’t have long blonde hair,” she said. Eriksson pointed to the experience of her international teammate Nilla Fischer who has faced a large amount of abuse throughout her career for being openly and outspokenly gay, and whose gender presentation is more masculine. “I feel like I’m one of the lucky ones – and that really upsets me,” said Eriksson. The ability to look ‘acceptably’ gay might mean that some players find it easier to be openly out than others, who conform less clearly to societal standards of femininity. As more money, and sponsorship opportunities, trickle into the women’s game, there is a risk that this trend gets intensified. For brands, your sexuality won’t matter as long as you look feminine enough to sell their product.
The acceptance of gay and bisexual players within the women’s game has been a broadly natural progression – a result of being out of the public eye. For the men’s game, this confluence of factors is an impossibility. Any player from a men’s team coming out would clearly require a high level of institutional support. Yet when football associations have been required to deal with issues like racism, they have been extraordinarily slack. It is hard to imagine any footballer having much faith in their ability to deal with homophobia. The danger is actually that the hatred and discrimination which is ever present in the men’s game, and indeed in society, starts to slide into the women’s game. Women’s football has prided itself on being an opening and welcome space. In its ongoing drive for attention, it could risk no longer being so.
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