Note: I’m sure y’all have noticed my colleague Travis Waldron’s frequent guest posts in these parts over the past couple of months. Today, I want to announce that we’re making it a regular thing: Travis will be writing here on politics and sports on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. For those of you who don’t know him, his bio and an archive of his other work on ThinkProgress is here. And you can, and should, be following him on Twitter here.
Megan Rapinoe shot to stardom in women’s professional soccer last summer, when her 121st minute cross set up an improbable game-tying goal in the waning seconds of the U.S. Women’s National Team’s World Cup victory over Brazil. Rapinoe and her teammates will begin their run toward a gold medal at the London Olympics later this month, but what has Rapinoe in the headlines again isn’t her soccer — it’s that as of last week, she is now perhaps America’s most prominent openly gay athlete.
Though the news has certainly made headlines, it has not shocked the sports world the way a similar revelation from a male athlete would. “An openly gay female athlete almost isn’t news,” Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky wrote. “A lesbian in the locker room conforms to a stereotype, just as a straight male athlete is a stereotype.”
This perception, however, that there is an abundance of openly gay female athletes — that the assumption that so many female athletes are gay makes it easier for them to come out if they are — is almost entirely incorrect. It is certainly news, and welcome news for those who support equality in sports.
The stereotyping of female athletes as inherently gay may actually make it harder for women, as in the past, they helped create “an amazing division between lesbians and straight women in sports,” Dr. Pat Griffin, a professor and advocate for LGBT rights in sports, told the Journal for the Study of Sports and Athletes in Education. “I think straight women historically have been very concerned with the image of sports and being tagged with the lesbian label, which has lead to a lot of division among woman in sports.”
Those divisions, Griffin says, are beginning to fade, and for Rapinoe, many difficulties that face other athletes didn’t exist. She has been open with teammates and others in the sport about her relationship with Australian soccer player Sarah Walsh, and she made her announcement now only because someone finally bothered to ask.
That doesn’t mean women have it easy, though. In college sports, female coaches who are gay or thought to be are often the subject of ugly smears on the recruiting trail. Former University of San Diego coach Kathy Marpe, for instance, closeted her homosexuality throughout her 25-year career because she feared it would cost her recruits; on multiple occasions, she told ESPN, rumors about her sexuality did just that. Other coaches preach “family values” as code for the heterosexuality of their programs. “The takeaway for coaches is clear: Be straight, or, at the very least, act straight,” ESPN’s Luke Cyphers and Kate Fagan wrote. Too many female athletes face the same dilemma — some are encouraged to stay in the closet to avoid confirming stereotypes, others live their sexual lives in the shadows, scared of the reaction they may receive.
It’s no wonder then, that the most prominent openly gay female athletes are almost all retired, much like the only openly gay male athletes in major American professional sports came out only after their careers ended. It has certainly gotten easier for an athlete like Rapinoe to openly acknowledge her sexuality. That it may be easier for a female athlete, however, doesn’t make it easy, and it certainly doesn’t mean the world of women’s sports is the open, tolerant place we often imagine it to be.