Tuesday, August 7, 2012

All In, All Out: a note on the amazing Megan Rapinoe

In two interviews, four years apart, two different USWNT players casually identified themselves as gay to reporters. Neither did so with the solemn declaration, "I'm a lesbian." Both players answered a reporter's question in a way that snuffed out the presumption of heterosexuality maintained by mass sports media on those rare occasions when it addresses women athletes, a presumption it maintains in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

In 2008, Natasha Kai (remember her?) responded to an NBC interviewer's question about her rocky start on the national team squad:
"It was a hard time," remembered Kai, who saw limited action under former coach Greg Ryan as one of the last three players added to the 2007 World Cup roster. "I had missed the first camp [under Sundhage] in early-January because I had bronchitis, and I was going through a nasty break-up with my girlfriend. Then [Coach Sundhage] told me my job was on the line."
The fact that she's gay was not only subordinate to a story about her fitness; it was subordinate to the story of relationship trouble. The "problem" was not that she had a girlfriend, it was that she and her girlfriend broke up. It was gay drama, but it wasn't drama because it was gay. It isn't at all clear from that interview that Kai was coming out to anyone but the reporter, or to the reader who assumed she was straight. Her answer is structured by the assumption that this is just her life, and anyone who knows her would know this.  Which is a coming out - and it's the kind of coming out that has to be staged over and over again within a discursive context that prefers not to notice that there are a lot of gay people in the sports world. Scarcely any of the media discourse asking "when will it be OK for a soccer player to come out" qualifies the question by pointing out that in fact prominent women athletes have come out, and are a part of our sport. And that this hasn't magically banished homophobia from it.*

Megan Rapinoe's coming out was even less direct than Kai's. In May, Jimmy Conrad (former US national team player) interviewed Rapinoe for KickTV. At the end of their conversation (at about 5:20), he observed that she's been supportive of the gay and lesbian community. By even pointing this out, Conrad identified himself with that community as at least an ally. When does Bob Costas take notice of something like that?


KickTV isn't like mainstream sports media. The Youtube channel is closer to a fan forum. Conrad is very relaxed and familiar with his interview subjects, and his interviews are conducted with a sense of humor. The whole affect of the video is closer to what soccer culture actually feels like (alternately technical, serious, self-deprecating, goofy, bashful). It is much more familiar to me than is anything I've seen from NBC this summer.

Conrad's question seemed pulled from conversations about the men's game. Things are pretty stark in that world. It is indeed hard to imagine a current EPL player coming out to the media. The question seemed like it was pointing in the direction of the men's game, but this wasn't at all clear.

In the women's game, things aren't so black and white. There are, in fact, quite a few high profile figures in women's soccer who have spoken publicly as lesbian athletes, usually without making the fact that they are doing so into a headline. Pia Sundhage, Nadine Angerer, Hope Powell - in most of these cases, the fact that these women have placed themselves within the lesbian and gay community isn't news, except to LGBT media. (Outsports.com keeps a constant eye out for players who take this step, as does After Ellen.) Mainstream sports media avoids acknowledging the sexuality of out lesbian players, even as it apparently can't stop itself from addressing the romantic lives of straight players. (Thank god for Hope Solo, who forces heterosexist media to wrangle with a loud-mouthed shameless man-eater. HA.)

In any case, when it comes to naming a player as not only lesbian, but "out," in the women's game we are often discerning between shades of gray. In an interview for a program called Abbey Road, for example, Marta was asked about the impact of her international travel on her relationship with her girlfriend (also a soccer player). She said that of her two loves, soccer comes first. Is that a coming out? Can a player be out in Sweden but not in the US? Seems so. So why, in the US, does the air get sucked out of the room when the word lesbian is put in the same sentence as "Marta"? Perhaps while she was under contract with the WPS, the desire was that everyone practice a "don't ask, don't tell" policy? What was the fear,exactly? That lesbians might suddenly start attending soccer matches?

In Strong Women, Deep Closets (1998), Pat Griffin offers a table of escalating categories of "outness" to describe how people manage their identity in sports.
  1. Completely Closeted             Concealing lesbian identity from all in athletic context
  2. Passing as heterosexual         Intentionally leading selected others in athletic context to see self as heterosexual
  3. Covering lesbian identity      Concealing lesbian identity from selected others in athletic context
  4. Implicitly out                        Allowing selected others in ahtletic conext to see self as lesbian without naming self
  5. Explicitly out                        Intentionally revealing lesbian identity to selected others in athletic context
  6. Publicly out                           Revelaing lesbian identity to everyone in athletic context.
It's a helpful scale for at least presenting something other than the "closeted" or "out" binary that usually shapes this conversation. A lot of public figures in sports seem to fall somewhere between 4/implicit and 6/public, but of course these would be the athletes that we are mostly likely to notice. 

Even within the top of that range there seems to be room for nuance and gradations, given the complexity of the media sphere. Today, it isn't like you are coming out to one of three networks. Instead, you talk about your girlfriend within a very specific media context that cares and respects you for the player you are. It's not the same interview you'd give to ESPN - it is unlikely that ESPN would solicit that kind of interview from you. They aren't going to ask you what it's like to have a girlfriend who also plays your sport at the international level. Or if coming out shifted your play at all. Or if there are lesbian athletes who inspired you. (espnW might, someday.) The remarks you do make on these subjects within the micro-media of (e.g.) women's sports blogs may or may not be picked up by larger media networks. Given the paucity of attention given to the women's game in general it isn't likely to be as big a story as, say, a ponytail pull. 

Anyway, Pia Sundhage has said that for her being a lesbian "is no problem," and that she and her partner were welcomed when they came to the US. (See Patricia Nell Warren's recent article on Sundhage.)

But it is a problem for plenty of people. As readers of this blog will know, there's a broad and deep culture of homophobia in and around women's sports. And if players are pressured to be very, very discrete about their homosexuality, you can assume that this pushes a lot of women out of the sport entirely. Gender policing and homophobia push a lot of people out of sports. No news there.

Athletes decide to be discrete about their sexuality for lots of reasons - and I'm not in any place to speak to their experiences. Coming out to the media is a political act and what that means to the person who does it is something only they can tell us. But the ramifications of coming out seem to be more complicated than we want to believe - for women have come out, and that doesn't seem to change how women are represented. If anything it just seems to make the commercial organizations that manage sports anxious.

Conrad's question to Rapinoe:
You've vocally supported the lesbian and gay community. What do you think about the absence of out athletes in sports? Do you think we'll see a high profile soccer player come out soon?
This question replicates a lot of assumptions - assumptions built on years of not remembering or noticing the women athletes who are out. I mean, her coach is out. And she's one of the most famous people in the sport. How can you ask a woman on the USWNT soccer team that question without erasing the lesbians who are a part of it?

There was no way for Rapinoe to address that question with a "Yes/No/Maybe" without replicating its assumptions. And there was no way to respond honestly without "outing" herself. Without promoting herself from perhaps level 5 to level 6. So Rapinoe answered:
Hopefully. I think that obviously we're out there. It's weird. I guess on the female side, not on the men's side. But it's accepted within the teams and within the sport. But it seems sports is that last...institutional homophobia.
Welcome to level 6. I love how in getting stuck with explaining a pretty complicated subject she just sends a cross to "institutional homophobia." For that's the right move: if you haven't noticed that quite a few of the most famous women in the sport are out to the media, then that's a symptom of a big problem.

Rapinoe refused to allow herself to be interpellated as closeted, and she also refused to allow the question to situate her as somehow in the dark about the fact that there are, in fact, quite a few out lesbians in the sports world. Obviously. That is as important as the word "we." Obviously we are out there.

All of this is to say that there are out women in sports. Pia Sundhage, Hope Powell, Nadine Angerer - that's just a few. None of them are shrinking violets, none of them are in hiding. But there are days when it seems like the media is hiding from them.

As we all know, Megan Rapinoe has gone on to have a fantastic tournament. Obviously, there's no hiding from that.

*For bloggers trying to find their way through this thicket, GLAAD offers a media guide for addressing sports and homophobia. You can download it here.


  1. Excellent post. When WILL the mainstream media stop being afraid of asking the same personal questions of gay & lesbian athletes that they ask of straight athletes?


    1. As a member of the soccer media, I can say that the fear is more about not wanting to put an athlete in an uncomfortable situation that has nothing to do with sport.

      For instance, if there is a player that I know is in a long term, committed relationship with another woman, but that player only refers to her in interviews as her roommate or friend, I won't go there with that player. The same goes when I notice a player that hasn't "come out" is wearing a Beckham-esque athletic tape ring on their left ring finger.

      The fear is that if the question is asked, that it will make it difficult in the future to get guests for the show.

      If a player is open with their relationship (straight or gay), then we tend to be more likely to ask. For instance, Alex Morgan has been really open about her relationship with Servando Carrasco of the Seattle Sounders. So, I feel free to ask questions about it.

      We've also had situations where even questions about the relationship status of straight players has been off the table due to a pending divorce in one instance.

      So, while the last time we talked to Megan Rapinoe we didn't talk about her girlfriend. But now, we might bring it up because the fear factor has been taken away by Megan.

    2. This was exactly the perspective I've been thinking about. A while ago, I had a great discussion on twitter with soccer-specific journalists about the desire not to out players - it's just plain ethical to respect people's boundaries. For me, a more LGBT positive environment would be one in which the USSF, the Olympic Committee - organizations like that - started doing more of what we are seeing at the grassroots level. One might, for example, embrace LGBT media and address queer fans.

      Conrad's innocent question was revealing - "outing" athletes isn't the answer if the fact that she has done so is forgotten by the next news cycle. There must be other ways of telling stories about the LGBT side of things beyond a coming out narrative. I wonder if this is one reason why the fact that folks are out is forgotten is that USSF/sports media/sponsors don't know how to tell a gay story beyond indicating that someone is gay? That's where that GLAAD media guide is useful.

      You know, at the World Cup semi-final against France - both team captains read anti-discrimination statements as is the ritual (WC semi-finals being FIFA's not to fights against racism and now homophobia). This was when Nigeria's no-lesbians ban was much in the WC news. France actually named homophobia in their statement. The US made a generic statement that made no gesture towards homophobia.

      That's telling, for me. And somewhat crazy making that no one notices something like that. That, for instance, is a big "gay" story that has nothing to do with outing players.

    3. It will be interesting to see if Megan can help push US Soccer to cover her relationship like they do with players like Alex Morgan and Christie Rampone.

      I also wonder if a player with big endorsement deals like Megan coming out will make it safer for other "big name players" to feel comfortable talking about their relationships.

      I know there are times that I would have liked to talk about how a player's SO has helped them through the toughest parts of their career, yet I haven't felt entitled to bring it up. And I felt sad that they didn't feel comfortable talking about that.

    4. Yeah. That's the thing. As a fan, I think we all find ourselves feeling sad when we see the anxiety that structures the way the game and its players are framed....

      I posted an interview with a transgender athlete on this blog recently. His interviewer approached him from a trans perspective. Asking him direct questions about the weirdness of competing as a woman, for example - what transition means for him, as an athlete.

      He talked there about how track and field basically saved his life - that the sport was a way of being happy in the world, and being happy in his body. Deeply moving, open and honest interview.

      I think that's true for athletes in general (that your sport makes you feel alive and happy), but for LGBT athletes there's something about the joy expressed in a sport that makes room for all the things that make you feel awkward or unwelcome in other spaces - as long as we live in a sexist and homophobic environment, women athletes will do a certain political work just by playing hard. Marta and Cristiane's style of play, for me, is super political because they are both ferocious and joyful.

      There's this sense of liberation that gets expressed on the pitch - a kind of escape - this is a part of the game. I never know how to talk about this without making it simpler than it is - but I find something just plain liberating about the diversity in the way that women athletes inhabit gender. This isn't reducible to sexuality. And I'm hardly alone in that. It's just rad.

    5. I apologize, I didn't mean to imply the media should out players (or anyone). I just don't foresee anyone on the Today show asking Megan about her girlfriend, whereas I don't think they'd hesitate to ask, say, Lauren Cheney about her (famous) boyfriend; or perhaps ask Christie Rampone how her husband has been handling the kids while she's been at the Olympics. Even though Megan is now officially out, I still don't think media outlets like NBC, CBS, etc, would touch the topic with a 10-foot pole. I hope I'm wrong. More... relaxed? or gay-friendly media (Anderson Cooper, MTV, Ellen) obviously wouldn't have a problem. It's the networks I see as not willing to broach the topic.

      And to another of your points, James: I think every time a famous person comes out, it helps other famous people come out. So Pinoe coming out now I really do think will affect in a positive manner other athletes' comfort level, confidence, and fear. That's part of what makes someone like Pinoe coming out so powerful.

  2. I mentioned this briefly on twitter, but now that I have a full keyboard--

    One of the reasons I thought this was so interesting was how you see 'political acts' being pushed on two fronts.

    As you said, Conrad's question (ps- typo on his name ~paragraph 15) is one that identifies him as an ally. For Conrad to even to ask that question on Kick, which *is* non-mainstream but is owned by Soccer United Marketing/MLS along with some partners, is partially a result of awesome coalition building and networking through sites like gay4soccer and their relentless work on twitter (they have Conrad listed on their 'allies' page here: http://gay4soccer.com/allies/), not to mention the work of LGBT members of supporters groups in Chicago, Portland, LA, Philly, and lots of other places in between that have made LGBT-solidarity tifo one of the nicest developments in MLS this year. Heck, even the fact that MLS ditched the Boy Scouts this year is remarkable, considering MLS is still mostly a subsistence league and is happy to have sketchy pyramid scheme jersey sponsors. So we see a sort of fan-generated momentum for American soccer permeating all the way up to the league offices and the leagues' media holdings like KickTV, which is a really positive development.

    But as you say, the wonderful thing about Rapinoe's answer is, as you also said, it doesn't let that be enough, but pulls it even further to a point where both interviewer and interviewee are agreeing on the existence of institutional homophobia, as if cali-bro Jimmy Conrad and badass Pinoe talking about how much work is left to be done is as fun and normal as talking about goal celebrations or whatever. And I think that's really what my dream of how politics should work--with allies not saying "look how great and progressive I am" but rather constantly listening to the voices of people who tell them how much more there is to do.

    Thanks so much for writing this post, I really enjoyed thinking about it. Hopefully we'll see some more Pinoe goal celebrations in the final!

  3. SO much terrific information filling out the picture here! Thank you! So glad to have a sense of where Conrad's question was coming from. And I didn't know the MLS dropped the boyscouts. WOW.

  4. This post hit the nail on the head for me, thanks so much for posting it and writing this blog-- it's such a breath of fresh air! I've been interested in how popular Tumblr has become for young USWNT fans, gay and straight, to create the dialogue that we don't get from mainstream media. I wrote this from my perspective as a fan: http://scoringwithladies.tumblr.com/post/29056949454/why-uswnt-fans-found-a-home-on-tumblr

    1. Your Tumblr is fantastic! I hadn't seen the Pinoe interview you posted. It's so great. http://yhoo.it/MyA4ST


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