Op-ed: Your Team Can't Handle a Gay Player? Then Your Team Sucks
BY Megan Rapinoe
February 20 2014 6:00 AM ET
It seems like if there's any safe place for an athlete to come out this week, it would be in Sochi, Russia, at the Olympics. I don't think President Vladimir Putin is going to do anything to enforce his so-called propaganda law against any of the Olympic athletes. In fact, I think in a weird, roundabout way he has made an effort to ensure that athletes won't be harmed and that gay athletes will be welcomed. So it would be, ironically, quite easy to come out in Sochi.
You can do it in a tasteful way — it's the Olympics, and the Olympics are special, but the anti-LGBTQ situation in Russia is bigger than just the Olympics. It's about human rights.
As far as the world of athletics go, however, being closeted is not an easy life. In women's sports, you don't really have to hide your whole life being gay. Whether you're out or not, you can live very openly. Before I came out in 2012, I didn't necessarily feel like I had to hide all of the time, but when you are in the media — even to a small extent — and you're not out, you do have to hide part of yourself. I reached a certain point where I started to feel inauthentic. I started to ask myself, Why am I not out? Just not saying I was gay became a weird thing for me.
Once I did come out, it's not like my everyday life changed, but knowing that I helped people made a difference. Coming out is certainly a personal decision, and I would never say that someone needs to come out, but I think it's incredibly important. If you can do it in a way that reaches five people, it helps just as much as someone who can reach 5 million people. The more people who can come out in settings like the Olympics or other major sports where all eyes are on you, it helps with the breaking down of stereotypes. And that's always a good thing.
When you're an individual athlete, you're an entity; a whole brand. For team athletes like me, you're part of the whole. What I do and what individuals do affects the team as a whole, but I think you have a lot more to bounce off of. So I think an individual athlete has to shoulder that pressure alone, which is daunting. I had a team supporting me.
Years after my coming-out, I am grateful to be on a team that is incredibly open and accepting. Before I joined, there were certainly other athletes who were open about their identities to their teammates, but not to the world. When I came out, all of the U.S. players were super supportive, and no one was worried about it being a distraction. I actually got a few hilarious text messages that said, "You are?" I think we have a pretty accepting climate on the team, which is pretty amazing.
It seems silly and even embarrassing to listen to people who say a football player like Michael Sam being gay is a distraction to the team. We're all professionals, and we should be able to go about our business, no matter what. There are many more things going on within a team that are much more of a distraction than one team member's sexual orientation. I think for Michael Sam, it's incredibly brave, especially before the draft, to come out. But I have found some athletes' stance on gay players to be embarrassing. Like, really? You don't think you can handle it? I'm pretty sure you're going to be fine. You hear guys say things like, "Oh, what if he looks at me in the locker room?" Quite frankly, everyone looks at everyone else in the locker room, and if you try to say that you've never looked at anyone else's junk in the locker room, you're a liar! It's human nature.
Honestly, there have already been gay football players in the locker room. Their teammates just didn't know it, and guess what? It was fine. And if you are constantly looking at Michael Sam to see if he is looking at you, then who is looking at who? I just get so annoyed with these guys who are like, "Oh, I don't know if we can handle it." Well, if you can't handle this, there are going to be a million things you can't handle on the field. And the thing about "Well, we can't joke around and use homophobic words?" You know what? Your homophobic jokes weren't funny. Maybe you shouldn't be telling those in the first place.
So, if you are a gay athlete, then that's what you are. Embrace it, and if you can come out, just know that you've helped someone out there feel better about themselves, and you have given people and this world hope for a better tomorrow.
MEGAN RAPINOE is a midfielder for the women's U.S. National Soccer team and an Olympian. Follow her on Twitter @mPinoe.