One of my favourite photos is of Swedish footballer Magdalena Eriksson, kissing her girlfriend, Danish footballer Pernille Harder, at the World Cup. A few days later, Megan Rapinoe would win the tournament and tell the world that you need gays to win things. “It’s science”. Rapinoe, like Harder and Eriksson, is openly not straight. Many other world-class players are also open about their identities. Women’s football is known as a supportive environment for the LGBTQ community.
Why then, I often wonder, was my first experience of homophobia on the football fields I grew up playing on?
“Aren’t you worried,” a parent asked “that people will think you’re not straight?” I was 11. “Little lesbians,” another spectator would joke. I was 13. “The whole girls’ First XI wants to date each other,” a PE teacher said to the boys in our class. They laughed. We were 14.
Before I even knew who I was, I had learned to hate it. I learned that deep, internalised hatred while doing the thing I most loved. From sidelines, I gleaned that if I were gay, I would disappoint my parents. I learned to feel anxious about it, as though homosexuality were some kind of dormant threat. I learned to be cautious about my identity as an athlete, how I dressed, how I spoke, always wanting to disprove the stereotypes that attached themselves to my talent.
The stereotypes about the women’s game, and the fact the community is so accepting of LGBTQ people, are somewhat chicken-and-egg. Perhaps we have more out footballers because they actually feel accepted, not because all women’s footballers are gay. But our community is continually becoming more accepting as more people talk about who they are, who they love, and their experiences. These are good things. But, that does not make the stereotypes benign.
Football was a sanctuary for me. When everything else in my life was very loud, football was peaceful. And, I am good at it. I have trained hard and gotten strong, and all the while tried to balance incredibly complicated questions of femininity and sexuality, because the adults around me tried to fit me into boxes. I did not do what a little girl should – so in some way, those parents reasoned, I must be wrong. These toxic ideas of gender proliferated throughout my entire career as a young athlete, and they got through. No child has skin thick enough to resist – that takes time. I gave up many sports that were too masculine, “too gay.” And when I did begin to realise that I was not straight, I struggled with it. I struggled with asking whether I was actually feeling these feelings, or if the stereotypes had misled my own mind. I struggled with whether I could have the life I wanted, be the person my parents wanted me to be. I struggled with the idea that all those people on the sidelines were right.
“Women’s footballers are all lesbians” is reductive and wrong, and yet it is not often treated as problematic, because of a tendency to conflate the stereotype with the accepting culture of women’s football. But, LGBTQ people have worked hard to build that culture, and the stereotype robs us of that work. It also makes it harder for young women to reconcile their identities with their own talents, to be strong and find out who they are in their own time.
I wish I’d had that chance. I hope the young women I coach will have more of an opportunity than I did to know who they are and accept it from the start, and then go do what they love on the pitch.