I don’t really do risk assessment, at least not in the traditional sense. If I’m thinking of doing or saying something that might potentially cause trouble, I don’t base my decision on how it might land. Instead, the three questions I ask myself are: (a) Do I believe in what I’m saying? (b) Do I know that what I’m saying is right? And (c) Does it need to be said as a matter of urgency? If the answer to all three is yes, I don’t have anything else to decide. I might avoid an issue if I don’t feel strongly about it or am under-informed, but otherwise I’m getting involved. In 2010, the campaign for marriage equality inflamed and informed me. In 2011, the popularity of my team during the World Cup in Germany gave me a platform that compelled me to act.
On the plane on the way back from Germany, we were all in pretty bad moods. Our bodies were trashed. We’d gotten totally drunk the night before flying. I had Alex Morgan on one side and Lori Lindsey on the other, and Dan, my agent, was sitting behind me. At some point I turned to Lori and said, “This is just dumb.” We had been talking about the way athletes never come out, particularly when the spotlight is on them. I’d never been in the spotlight before. The team hadn’t been popular enough. Now, as we flew back into the eye of a media storm, we were popular and I didn’t feel right. “This is weird, right?” I said to Lori, who is one of my best friends and had been feeling weird, too. “Yup,” she said.
All year I’d been reading about gay rights and the law, and it had made me much more politically aware. Coming out, I understood now, was not a zero-sum game, but more of a process. I wasn’t in the closet, but no one in the press knew I was gay, and that aspect of my life wasn’t part of the conversation. Saying something now might be impactful. I don’t think I used those kinds of words yet, but I was making my way toward that conclusion.
“Clearly this is a public issue and we’re public figures,” I said to Lori, but it wasn’t only that. Not talking about my sexuality felt intuitively bad, like I was operating on a policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” or flying deliberately under the radar. “I’m gay, and an athlete, and I just want to be out,” I said. I looked down the aircraft at all the other gay players, most of them older than me. Why am I not out? I thought impatiently. Why are we all not out?
I had never struggled with accepting this part of myself, so there was no hitch when it came to telling other people. Once a decision feels right, I don’t agonize or have reservations, and after spending the winter break in Australia, I got back to the U.S. and scheduled an interview with Out magazine.
The interview was published in July 2012, and my coming out was presented matter-of-factly. “She’ll be traveling to London to represent the United States at the Olympics this year,” wrote the journalist Jerry Portwood. “It’s a crowning achievement for the 27-year-old. But Rapinoe has decided to pull off another landmark in women’s soccer: to come out and publicly discuss her sexuality.” I said some things I’d been feeling ever since the World Cup. “I feel like sports in general are still homophobic, in the sense that not a lot of people are out… People want—they need—to see that there are people like me playing soccer for the good ol’ U.S. of A.”
Nothing happened. In the best possible way, it was a complete nonevent. My sponsors didn’t cancel me. I didn’t get an angry call from Nike. There was no negative blowback, or, if there was, I didn’t see it. Coming out in this way felt like a positive thing in my life and career. It also felt part of a wider movement. Later that year, a judge found in favor of Edith Windsor, ruling that section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, defining marriage as exclusively between a man and woman, was unconstitutional, and ordered the IRS to reimburse Windsor with interest. The decision was upheld by the court of appeals, and as it began making its way up to the Supreme Court, I was proud to have spoken up in some small way. I felt like I was part of something bigger than myself.
The only regret was that with the exception of Lori, who came out shortly after me, no one else on the team came out. They were all very supportive and lots of players tweeted in my favor, but when I talked to the other gay players, they mostly said the same thing: I just want to live my life. I’m not the kind of person who likes to scream about my sexuality from the rooftops. If you come out, you have to be an advocate, which isn’t me.
I got it. And I got that if in women’s sports being gay wasn’t a big deal, then you could live quite comfortably half in the closet. If no one cared, why go through the hassle of formally coming out?
This missed the point. If you’re a prominent athlete, coming out isn’t for yourself but for others. Until everyone can come out without it being a big deal, nobody gets to “just” live their lives. And the more people who come out, the more we break down the stereotypes of what it is to be gay.
Excerpted from One Life by Megan Rapinoe. Published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Megan Rapinoe.
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