Sports

Megan Rapinoe Is a New Kind of American Hero

Megan Rapinoe as seen on June 24 during the Women's World Cup in Reims, France.
Megan Rapinoe.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Jose Breton/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

When asked last week whether it was particularly exciting to lead her team to a World Cup win over France during Pride Month, U.S. national team star Megan Rapinoe laughed and replied, “Go gays!” She continued: “You can’t win a championship without gays on your team. It’s never been done before. Ever. That’s science right there. … For me, to be gay and fabulous during Pride Month at the World Cup is nice.”

I had to read this quote a few times, in multiple different outlets, before I could believe that an athlete performing at the top of her sport had said, unabashedly and kind of ridiculously, “Go gays!” Rapinoe has been the World Cup’s standout player, scoring all four goals in the United States’ tightly contested knockout-round games against Spain and France. At the same time, Rapinoe has led her teammates in protest speech against Donald Trump and in their own fight for fair pay. And in the jubilant self-expression she brings to everything she does, Rapinoe has given gay fans a sports hero whose queer sexuality is a central part of her identity, activism, and fame.

There are more out queer celebrities than ever. In many industries, coming out is not the career death knell it once was; in some, it’s even used as a profit-boosting publicity tool. Soccer is somewhere in the middle. The women who play the sport at the highest level and their fans have long been disproportionately gay, but soccer’s governing body and the broader universe of sports fans have been slow to show support. Among queer fans, it’s a much-discussed, universally accepted truth that there are many more queer players in professional women’s soccer than have publicly come out. Ashlyn Harris and Ali Krieger, an engaged couple on the USWNT, said they were afraid to come out until recently, lest they put their jobs and sponsorships at risk. Even Abby Wambach, the leading goal scorer in the history of the game and the superstar who, in many respects, passed the torch to Rapinoe upon her retirement in 2015, didn’t come out until 2013—an unspoken implication in an announcement that she’d married a woman.

Rapinoe, by contrast, has been exuberantly out about her gayness. She’s posted photos of her romantic partners all over social media for years on accounts she fills with her warmth, confidence, and occasional bouts of silliness. She posed naked with her current partner, WNBA star Sue Bird, for ESPN’s Body Issue in 2018, and joked around with Jemele Hill about their relationship. After Bird finished a lightly emotional story about working hard to be proud of her body, Rapinoe gave her a cutesy, half-serious pat on the knee. “You should be, babe,” she said with a smirk.

Athletes are famous for being cautious, boring, and/or incoherent in pre- or postgame interviews. Rapinoe is not. (Her off-the-cuff promise that she’s “not going to the fucking White House” was recorded months ago but has recently gotten widespread attention and a dog-whistling response from Trump.) Even so, it’s remarkable to hear an athlete speak of her queer sexuality as not just a non-impediment, but as an asset. As a queer person who feels a small twinge of disappointment each time a gay celebrity makes a canned, bland remark about acceptance and tolerance and love being love, I feel blessed to witness the delight Rapinoe takes in her own queer self, and in sharing that self with the world.

Some gay celebrities, particularly those who came of age in homophobic communities or industries, choose to downplay the significance of their sexuality. When South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg came out in 2015, for instance, he reassured his constituents that being gay had “had no bearing” on his work as a mayor, a naval reservist, or a business consultant. On the occasion of her retirement, Wambach looked back with some regret on the way she all but hid her sexuality for the majority of her career. “For so many years, I never wanted to be this person who put myself on a mountain and screamed from the mountaintops about my sexuality because it didn’t matter to the way that I played the game,” she said. “But it does matter to who I am as a person.”

With her silly and wonderful (and probably accurate) argument that it’s impossible to win a World Cup without gay players, Rapinoe has taken the opposite tack, affirming that queer sexuality can be more than an incidental line in a celebrity’s biography: It can also be a source of strength and kinship, a nexus of solidarity with other marginalized communities, and a wellspring of profound joy. For Rapinoe, it appears to be all of these things. And while her sexuality may not inspire her lively footwork or will her shots into the goal, it’s integral to who she is as a person—and who she is as a person, she’s said, is integral to the way she plays the game. “Being yourself is the most important thing,” she said in a promo video before the 2015 Women’s World Cup. And as Franklin Foer noted in a piece in the Atlantic, she “self-consciously thinks about her performance on the pitch as an outlet for her creativity.”

Rapinoe’s bold and true expressions of her political and personal selves have hastened her rise to fame. They’ve also brought her a legion of haters to go with all her admirers. In addition to the president of the United States and his followers, some soccer fans and fellow players have criticized her decision to kneel during the national anthem in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick. (She was the first prominent white athlete to do so.) When Rapinoe’s Seattle Reign came to D.C. to play the Spirit, the club played the anthem before the players got on the field to head off her protest, citing the “disrespect” such a gesture would represent. Rapinoe modified her actions after U.S. Soccer required her to stand (she now stands but declines to sing or put her hand over her heart), but she hasn’t stopped protesting, and she’s certainly kept speaking about her beliefs. She’s responded to the pushback she’s received with biting criticism—she called the Spirit owner’s anthem switcheroo “incredibly distasteful” and “fucking unbelievable”—and a whole lot of goals for the U.S. national team.

Rapinoe’s on-field swagger may help her win the long game as little soccer-loving boys come to idolize the braggadocious, lavender-haired lesbian who refuses to sing the national anthem in protest of racist policing. Rapinoe’s infectious confidence, which Foer likened to Muhammad Ali’s, would fall flat if she weren’t also a spectacular soccer player. Her efficacy as an activist and beacon of queer triumph for gay soccer players around the world depends on her athletic excellence. Male sportswriters have praised her “soft touch” on the ball, called her goals against France “blazing” and “historic,” and praised the way she puts defenders on the opposing team under “extreme duress.” One wrote that he burst into tears when she scored her second goal against France. When the best player in the game talks, everyone in the world listens, even if not everyone is going to be receptive to what she has to say.

The beauty of Rapinoe’s athletic excellence, especially for those of us who only watch women’s soccer for the queers, is that it’s inseparable from the rest of her outspoken, unbothered self. That’s what’s made her a ready icon: She wins, and she’s great at her job, but she’s also fun and human about it.

A few weeks ago, a feminist writer I follow on Twitter posted a GIF of Rapinoe on the field before a game, wiggling her fingers with a look in her eye—a move so aggressively sexual, it might have been the lesbian equivalent of a dude grabbing his junk for the camera. I saw multiple queer friends post photos of themselves mimicking Rapinoe’s post-goal victory pose at various Pride celebrations this past weekend. “This is now the official Gay Power Stance,” one of their captions read.

Rapinoe has smuggled a dyke haircut, dyke swagger, and dyke sexuality into one of the most-watched sporting events in the world. Pride Month technically ended on Sunday, but with Rapinoe queering the hell out of the World Cup, it feels like we got a weeklong extension.