Megan Rapinoe for the win

When Megan Rapinoe kissed girlfriend Sue Bird after winning the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France on July 7, it was a kiss seen — and felt — round the world.

Then Kelley O’Hara went and kissed her girlfriend; teammates Ali Krieger and Ashlyn Harris, engaged, kissed each other; coach Jill Ellis, married to wife Betsy, hugged and kissed everyone.

As the Buzzfeed News headline read on July 8: “Lesbians Won the Women’s World Cup.”

In 2015 it was a much different scene. After the USWNT won the World Cup, Abby Wambach, then the only out member of the team, ran to kiss her wife. Media reported the scene as Wambach kissing “a friend” or “a fan,” not a wife.

Now the USWNT is embracing and even celebrating its players’ out lesbianism as led by co-captain Rapinoe. During an interview after the U.S., beat France in the quarterfinal right before France’s Pride Day, Rapinoe said, “Go gays! You can’t win a championship without gays on your team — it’s never been done before, ever. That’s science, right there!”

Rapinoe added, “For me, to be gay and fabulous, during Pride month at the World Cup, is nice.”

The USWNT tweeted her quote. After the win, USWNT linked to their original tweet with a photo of Rapinoe, Krieger and Harris and the caption “Told ya!”

It’s heady stuff for those of us in the bleachers. Rapinoe is the most famous lesbian in the world right now and the World Cup wasn’t just a victory for women’s soccer or the U.S. team — it was a victory for lesbians everywhere. Rapinoe isn’t shirking the lesbian label; she owns it — lavender hair and all.

Earlier in the year Rapinoe had been asked whether she would go to the White House if her team won the World Cup. She said, “I’m not going to the fucking White House.”

She later apologized to her teammates for the obscenity, but not for the comment, urging them to “think hard” about what associating themselves with President Trump would mean. Trump took to Twitter to accuse Rapinoe of attacking the country and the flag and said, “I am a big fan of the American Team, and Women’s Soccer, but Megan should win first before she talks! Finish the job!”

Rapinoe finished the job, scoring the first goal in the World Cup.

Rapinoe calls herself a “walking protest” against Trump, calling him “sexist, misogynistic, small-minded, racist” and “not a good person.”

In a statement after Trump attacked her, she said she was “an American patriot.” She also said in part, “I think that this country was founded on a lot of great ideas, but it was also founded on slavery…. We just need to be really honest about that and be really open in talking about that so we can reconcile that…and make this country better for everyone.”

“It’s almost like it just feeds her,” coach Jill Ellis said of the controversies over Rapinoe’s outspokenness. “This stuff doesn’t bounce off her, it pushes her forward.”

“She stands up for what she believes in,” goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher said. “I have a lot of respect for her.”

Speaking up and out for LGBTQ equality and having the weight of the team, the coach and the franchise behind her, Rapinoe has focused attention on LGBTQ civil rights just as she has on the unequal pay scale for women players compared to men. At the World Cup, fans chanted “gay rights” as well as “equal pay.” On Twitter the hashtags #PayThem and #PayTheWomen trended.

Hillary Clinton weighed in. So did presidential candidate Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY). She put up a video of Rapinoe with a link to her Equal Pay Act legislation.

Numerous celebrities spoke up, including Snoop Dogg. Writer Clint Smith III, whose month-long, all-caps tweets about the USWNT had drawn thousands to the black academic’s normally sedate and serious feed, shouted: “PAY THESE WOMEN WHAT THEY DESERVE YOU COWARDS.” In a follow-up tweet, he wrote: “YALL I AM SO PROUD OF THIS TEAM I AM SO INSPIRED BY THEM THEY ARE LEGITIMATELY ONE OF THE BEST SPORTS TEAMS EVER WE ARE SO LUCKY WE GOT TO WATCH THIS.”

The whole world — and FIFA —
heard it.

Rapinoe led the fight for equal pay, filing suit against the U.S. Soccer Federation. She also led a different fight in 2016 when she became the first professional athlete to stand — or rather, kneel — with Colin Kaepernick in his quest to draw attention to extrajudicial violence against black Americans. She made headlines for asserting her refusal to visit the White House upon winning the title and her vocal disapproval of the Trump administration. She’s been invited to the Capitol by Speaker Pelosi and Minority Leader Schumer. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also invited her to Washington.

In an essay about Trump attacking Rapinoe, girlfriend Bird, herself a WNBA star, wrote, “Megan, man…. She’s going to do her thing, and she’s going to apologize to exactly NO ONE for it.”

Rapinoe is not apologizing for her gayness or her fight to get women paid fairly. The USWNT is the most successful women’s soccer team in the world, with four World Cups, four Olympic Gold Medals and eight CONCACAF Gold Cups.

Yet the USWNT will only receive $250,000 each for their World Cup victory. If the men’s team won a World Cup (they haven’t), they’d earn $1 million each for their victory. But even as losers who haven’t won the World Cup, the USMNT get paid nearly $500,000 each.

Her quest for LGBTQ awareness is also critical to Rapinoe’s message. In a May interview with Yahoo Sports, Rapinoe talked about why she came out publicly nearly a decade ago. She’d been out to friends and family since college.

“When you’re out, it’s only one part of who you are,” Rapinoe explained. “But when you’re not out, it’s just this all-consuming thing. The deeper in the closet you are, the more you lie, the more it becomes this all-consuming thing that it really doesn’t have to be, and it takes over your life. So people getting to a point where they can just live their lives and be happy, if I can have any part in that, that’s pretty special.”

Teammate Rose Lavelle, rising star and the other goal-scorer in the game, said of Rapinoe, “She’s such a special person. People just gravitate to her. She is just a person that people want to listen to and learn from.” 

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.