U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe on what's next for out athletes

October 23, 2015, 1:58 PM

— -- This story is part of ESPN's ongoing series exploring what it means to be an openly gay athlete in the post-acceptance world. Look for stories on Derrick Gordon, Chris Mosier and others in ESPN The Magazine's Being Out Issue, on newsstands Oct. 30. Subscribe today!

After you won the Women's World Cup in July, you went on SportsCenter and the one word you chose to describe yourself was "gaaaay." Why?

I thought partly it was going to be a little humorous and would sort of break the ice. And what better place to do it than SportsCenter? It was a bit of a double meaning because I was very happy at that time and also very gay.

Is that the most defining part of you?

No, it's a big part of me, but definitely not the defining thing. I think it's my joy in life and my charisma. I like that about myself, and I enjoy that kind of exchange I can have with people.

Would you have been able to go on SportsCenter three years ago when you first came out and say the same thing?

Right when I came out? I don't think so. It's been a journey and a process of becoming totally out and sort of living that truth and having it be a daily thing. I'm at the point now that I want people to know that, and I want to talk about it. We're coming so far as a society, but we still have so far to go. So until we're all the way there, I'll probably die talking about it.

When will we move beyond the coming-out stories?

Not for a long time, unfortunately. For female athletes, probably sooner than everyone else, but there's Robbie Rogers [who plays for the LA Galaxy] on the men's side-and that's it.

He's the only openly gay male U.S. soccer player.

Yeah, he is the only [active] openly gay athlete across all the major professional [team] sports in the U.S. It's incredibly sad and mind-blowing at the same time. There are plenty of sports teams that say they're very open and super accepting in the locker room. But are they really? Is it really a safe environment? Have they preset that environment to make these players feel comfortable for coming out? I don't think so because there's none out.

Is it the perception that you can't be strong and gay at the same time?

I think there's a lot of insecurity in those locker rooms, and there's also a lot of ego. That comes from fear, which comes from total lack of education and just ignorance in general. Some of it is cultural. And I just think gay men are looked at much less favorably than gay women. If you look at the overall stereotype, lesbians are sexy, and gay men are disgusting. Girl and girl is fine, and guy and guy seems to just be something completely different.

When you came out in 2012, you were sponsored by Nike. How worried were you about the reaction from the corporate world?

I wasn't really. For better or worse, I had the attitude of, If you don't like it, then get out of here. I felt very secure in it; I never felt that my sponsors-especially Nike-were going anywhere.

What was the reaction from your sponsors?

People were happy about it. I don't know if it has affected other deals or people being interested in me, but the companies I have signed with for the last four years or so have all been very accepting and welcoming and wanting to get in on that message.

How different is that from the reaction to a gay female athlete coming out before you?

With female athletes, a lot of people know they're gay-their teammates know, their coaches know. And it's almost so accepted that people don't necessarily see the need to come out­-or feel the need to come out. They can just live very openly. The climate is much different. You look at the women's national team now. Abby [Wambach] is out. I'm out. Jill [Ellis], the head coach, is out. It's really cool to see some of the bigger names in soccer come out and have it be OK. There's no immediate negative backlash.

How real is a negative sponsorship backlash?

It is an issue, definitely. Even before I came out, looking at me, I've probably looked a little gay. I had short hair, and, you know, it wasn't a huge surprise to people. But some athletes have this image to uphold and may feel like sponsors won't want them if they're gay. I hope no one is sitting in a boardroom wondering which athletes to sponsor. I hope that would never go through their mind, but I think it does. So I think female athletes do feel that pressure, especially in soccer right now. There have always been a handful of players who have gotten sponsorships and have been really involved in that marketing aspect. But now it's blown up, and everywhere I look someone is getting a deal and on a commercial and sponsored by something, which is amazing. But with that comes the pressure of looking a certain way-and companies want you to look a certain way and have a certain message. Maybe they wouldn't discriminate, but you don't know that for sure if you're a player and unsure whether to come out.

That's a real fear still?

I think it is. [Otherwise] why wouldn't more people come out, because it's so accepted in women's sports in general across the board? I think it's very accepted sort of internally in women's sports. So why aren't more athletes out?

Compare the reality of life after you came out with the perception you had going into this.

It's pretty normal in a sense, but I still get people coming up to me and being so thankful that I came out. And that's just an affirmation every day for coming out. It was the best thing I've ever done. It's so cool to have that impact on people and be doing something really important with this platform. We're really lucky to have the platform to be able to reach a broad spectrum of people. And it's not just about the people who are gay. It's about everyone. It's about parents with kids and breaking down those barriers. Maybe you are homophobic a little bit, but then you see me and you've always loved me and you love the way I play and your kids love me. And then you're like, "Oh, that's OK, it's fine." Once it gets a little bit more personal, it helps break down those barriers.

Just weeks after the World Cup, you got engaged to your girlfriend, Sera. How did it happen?

Sera turned 40 this year, so I'm like, "I've got to do something seriously awesome." And she followed me around all summer. I had planned this trip to Orcas Island [near Seattle] and got a cute little cabin. I'm really bad at planning-and Sera knows that. So in her mind, she was trying to figure out all the details. She was like, "OK, I know we're going to go somewhere cute and romantic because it's my birthday." And so she had this whole engagement plan. She had gotten the ring. We had a great dinner. We were in this beautiful cabin. And she just totally surprised me, got down on one knee, and cute nothings, cute nothings, and asked me to marry her. It was really sweet, very, very us.

Why "very us"?

It just felt very simple and romantic and not a ton of frills. We were both in almost similar matching flannel shirts.

What would you say to other athletes who might be nervous about coming out?

I would tell them to come out and that it's going to be OK. And whatever the worst thing that you've conjured up is, it's probably way worse than what would ever happen. I would tell people that you have people to stand next to you. You don't have to be alone in it. And it's very liberating.

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