Briana Scurry didn’t start playing organized sports until she was 12 years old. Not only was hers the only African American family in Dayton, Minnesota at the time, but Scurry was also the only girl playing on that first soccer team.
“They put me in goal thinking it was a good idea for a girl to be in goal because it was safer,” she said.
Throughout the journey from small town kid to Olympic gold medalist and World Cup champion, “I was all about the game,” Scurry said. “I was a very private person in general — and I still am, very much so.” But there was one aspect of her personal life that she never felt she needed to hide from her teammates and coaches: “My national teams have always known I was gay.”
The environment on her teams was always one of acceptance and mutual respect, according to Scurry, but she has noticed a change since that iconic 1999 World Cup victory. More players are public about their sexual orientation — and many of them are being celebrated for coming out of the closet. “The society we live in now is very different,” Scurry said. “Even from last World Cup to now it’s very different.”
An Outsports tally found 17 publicly out participants — 15 players and two coaches — at this year’s Women’s World Cup. The impressive level of LGBT acceptance in women’s soccer can be attributed to a few different factors, said Laura Clise, board member of Athlete Ally, a nonprofit fighting homophobia and transphobia in sports. First, of course, is the fact that sports are a microcosm of society and as society has broadly become more accepting of LGBT individuals, there is increasingly space for athletes to go public about their sexuality without the same fear of backlash.
But another important factor, according to Clise, is the influence of players like Megan Rapinoe and Abby Wambach, both of whom are stars on the soccer field and vocal activists for LGBT causes off the field. “These early movers offer proof that it’s possible and acceptable to both be at the top of your game and true to who you are,” she said. “They play a really important role when it comes to shaping progress.”
That’s why former U.S. Women’s National Team player Lori Lindsey decided to come out publicly in 2012. While Lindsey never hid her sexuality, it was important for her to take the step to serve “as a role model [for] young kids/teenagers who are struggling with their sexuality or afraid to come out,” she said via email.
Her fans didn’t have a problem with it — in fact, according to Lindsey, they “seemed to really embrace it and show me additional support.”
For many fans, having those role models is something they don’t take for granted. “I think it’s really powerful and sends a great message to people who might not be accepting of LGBT inclusion and also to young soccer players who might not know if there’s a place for them as they move up and improve,” said Ashley Evans, a 28-year-old DC resident who identifies as queer and is a self-described lifelong soccer fan. “But if they see these women speaking out for them, saying, hey we need to be inclusive of everybody no matter who they love or what their orientation is, just having role models is so powerful and important.”
Despite all of the progress that’s been made in recent years, archaic gender stereotypes still impact the ability of professional athletes to come out while they’re playing. “Homophobia, acting as an arm of sexism, continues to police athletes by enforcing a binary culture of femmephobia among men and anti-masculinity among women,” Katie Barnes wrote in a recent Feministing piece.
“As a society we tend to associate sports with things that are masculine,” Clise said, meaning male athletes who identify as gay face an additional pressure to maintain their masculine athlete identity at the same time. Meanwhile, according to Clise, women face “the presumption that there’s this lesbian undertone if you’re really good at sports.”
While the numerous out players in this year’s Women’s World Cup are featured in listicles celebrating just how “badass” they are, there were no publicly out players at last year’s men’s World Cup. The Football Association and English soccer fans themselves have taken steps to combat homophobia in professional soccer, but we’ve yet to see a top-flight player in English men’s soccer come out publicly.
Women’s soccer may be ahead of the men’s game in terms of LGBT acceptance but this year’s tournament has shone a spotlight on the nagging sexism that is still very much a presence in the sport. From the fact that the women are being forced to play on turf, despite the detrimental impacts, to comments made by the head of the Brazilian federation expressing his approval that players no longer look like “a woman dressed as a man,” it’s clear there’s still a long way to go.
One positive outcome, according to Lindsey, is that it’s provided a platform for athletes to speak out against those forces. “Yes, sexism is still alive and we’ve seen that in this WC, but, in my opinion, we have also seen strong, confident athletes standing up for themselves/teams and igniting conversations whether it’s about the turf, sexist remarks, disparate funding,” she said. “LGBT inclusion is only going to benefit from that as we continue to move forward.”
Of course, being an American or European player who is publicly out is very different from the experience of athletes in other countries. In the lead-up to the 2011 World Cup, Nigeria’s coach, Eucharia Uche, “said that she has used religion in an attempt to rid her team of homosexual behavior, which she termed a ‘dirty issue,’ and ‘spiritually, morally very wrong,'” the New York Times reported. Her remarks prompted an international petition calling on FIFA, soccer’s governing body, to investigate.
FIFA has also received widespread criticism for its decision to award the next two men’s World Cups to Russia and Qatar — among the reasons cited is both countries treatment of LGBT individuals. “If actions speak louder than words, then the message FIFA sends to gay athletes is painfully clear. Not only don’t they have our backs, our lives don’t matter,” openly gay professional soccer player Robbie Rogers wrote earlier this year.
Nonetheless, the ongoing Women’s World Cup has highlighted bright spots for LGBT acceptance in the sport — from fans, players, and the institutions that guide the game. When U.S. Soccer commemorated Friday’s landmark Supreme Court decision bringing marriage equality to all 50 states with a supportive tweet, the team took notice. “I was actually very honored with what U.S. Soccer put out,” USWNT coach Jill Ellis, who is openly gay, told reporters. “When I saw it, I was very moved. Our players, they’re great role models, and to have that now be something that all of us can embrace, no matter where we live in the country, I think it’s tremendous.”
Clise described a moment after the U.S.’s opening match in Winnipeg that illustrated for her how far LGBT acceptance has come. Sitting in the stands, she watched Wambach run over to hug and kiss her wife. Shortly thereafter, teammate Sydney Leroux greeted her husband in the exact same way. “It was wonderful to see the players be who they are and acknowledge the support of their partners … in a very public, open setting,” she said.
As for why the effort to continue to improve inclusion of LGBT players and fans, both within women’s soccer and across all sports, matters, Scurry’s response was simple: “Because everybody deserves to express themselves in the way they feel most comfortable. Period. That’s why,” she said.