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When It Comes to Being Gay-Friendly, Women’s Sports Are Ahead of the Game

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This past June, as the US women’s soccer team was dominating the FIFA World Cup finals, player Megan Rapinoe offered one possible explanation for their success: “You can’t win a championship without gays on your team,” she said. “It’s never been done before, ever.”

The comment was a hat tip to Pride month, but it also acknowledged something significant: In this year’s women’s World Cup, there were more than 40 openly gay players and coaches—more than double the number who were out in 2015. (Homosexuality is criminalized in several of the participating nations; otherwise, there might have been even more.) At the last men’s World Cup in 2018, however, none of the players were openly gay.

This imbalance isn’t limited to soccer: The NHL, which began its season last month, has never had an openly gay player. The NWHL, on the other hand, not only has a number of out players, but an official policy to accommodate transgender players (although it’s not completely inclusive—it still limits the use of testosterone). When then-NBA player Jason Collins came out in 2013, he became the first and only openly gay athlete in the major US men’s sports leagues; no other NBA players have come out since. But in the WNBA, many prominent players identify as gay—including league star Elena Delle Donne, who helped lead the Washington Mystics to victory in the finals last month.

The trend continues at the Olympic level: At the 2016 Rio Olympics, where there at least 55 out athletes—more than at any Olympics before—44 were women.

In other words: When it comes to queer inclusivity, women’s professional sports leave men’s in the dust.

The lack of LGBTQ visibility in most men’s sports reflects the hyper-masculine, homophobic culture of that world. “In competitive sport, male athletes who appear to lack aggressiveness…may find themselves labeled a ‘pansy’ or a ‘queer’ by their coaches and teammates,” writes professor of sports communication at Clemson University, Bryan E. Denham in the 2010 volume Sociology in Sport and Social Theory. Queerness is wrongly equated with physical weakness: In American sociologist Eric Anderson’s 2005 book In the Game, he quotes a football player who told him, “My coaches try to motivate us to hit harder, crunch more, or throw farther by calling us fags all the time. And if you can’t do something, or mess it up, you get called a fag.”

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