The Beautiful (Queer) Game
The idea that playing soccer ‘makes’ women gay is a stereotype that has been used for decades to try to discourage women from participating in sports. But where exactly did the stereotype originate? Vertigo's Claire Matthews examines the radical roots of women’s soccer and why we should preserve them
The past few weeks of the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup have been a great time to be a soccer fan, and an even better time to be a lesbian. What a joy to see queer women openly embracing their lovers and children in post-game celebrations on national TV! To see gender-non-conforming women on an international stage being celebrated and supported.
At the 2019 Women’s FIFA World Cup in France, Megan Rapinoe famously said that ‘You can’t win a championship without gays!’ Considering that all four teams in the semi-finals of this year's tournament have multiple openly out players, I’m inclined to believe her.
As the nation has been gripped by the glory of the Matilda’s, many first-time followers of women’s soccer have been bewildered at the vast number of lesbians within the sport. Almost half of the 23 players on the Matildas team are openly queer.
But is soccer an inherently ‘queer’ sport?
The idea that playing soccer (or sport in general) ‘makes’ women gay is a stereotype that has been used for decades to try to discourage women from participating in sports. It’s the same brand of bigotry that has conservatives in a moral panic around the increasing number of queer and trans people in contemporary society.
The truth is that the safer someone feels, the more likely they are to be comfortable in their sexuality and identity. Just look at mens’ soccer: It is undeniable that there is a culture of homophobia and sexism within mens’ soccer, reflected in the attitudes of fans and players alike. Subsequently, the last Men’s FIFA World Cup had zero openly gay players.
It doesn’t take a genius to realise that a supportive environment with positive queer representation is what fosters higher numbers of ‘out’ players in women’s soccer.
It’s an age-old story: you can’t be what you can’t see.
However, while they may not have been remembered, queer women have always played soccer. Queerness has always existed, whether visible or not, within sports.
A short history
The history of women’s soccer is inherently tied to early feminist and socialist movements and the struggle for gender equality.
Women’s soccer became popular in England during World War I, as men were increasingly injured or on the front. Tournaments attracted crowds of people and were often used as fundraising opportunities for radical socialist causes, with some teams touring the country to raise money for injured servicemen. Soccer became dominated by women who rebelled against the strict gender norms of the time, providing a safe space for marginalised communities.
But this window of opportunity soon passed as the game was banned in 1921, declared ‘unsuitable for females’ by the English Football Federation. The ban lasted until 1970, almost 50 years later. These laws were echoed throughout the world, with some countries, such as Brazil, only lifting the ban in the 1980s.
While these bans were a significant setback to the creation of international, competitive tournaments for women, they also allowed for a culture of diversity, solidarity and resistance within the sport to thrive. The women who persisted in playing the sport challenged gender norms and resisted social expectations.
Eventually, when national associations took control of women’s football, the cost of success was assimilation. These sporting associations were (and still are) almost entirely run by men, meaning that the sport slowly moved away from its radical roots, often at the expense of marginalised women.
As the stereotype of the lesbian soccer player grew, so did the moral panic of businesses investing in women’s games. Lou Englefield, Director of Pride Sports U.K, summarised these attitudes on the Football V Homophobia podcast:
“During that time when women’s football was totally marginalised … is it surprising that women on the margins have been the people that embraced it?”
“And now that there’s money in it, there’s a moral panic about lesbianism and queer women giving the game a ‘bad name’, and I just think- how dare you! We carried your game for 70 years!”
The Matildas & the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup
Former Matilda and Olympian Michelle Hayman was one of the first players in the Matilda’s to be openly out and proud. It was really only in 2014 that women’s soccer in Australia had publicly queer figures in the media. Hayman and other queer teammates paved the way for the current squad, forming the first Pride initiative in Australia while playing under the Canberra United club.
Part of what makes the current squad so special is how seamlessly and casually the queer identities of the players are integrated into the fabric of the team. In documentaries and social media clips, Sam Kerr embraces her partner and U.S. midfielder Kristie Mewis. The families of queer team members have also been highlighted, such as Katrina Gorry’s adorable toddler, Harper.
We’ve come a long way in regards to visibility, but there remains a lot to be said about the commercialisation of the sport by FIFA. Holding the Men’s World Cup in countries with anti-LGBTQ+ policies, refusing to allow players to wear pride-themed armbands, and continually allowing gay slurs and chants to be sung at stadiums all work to cultivate homophobia.
In defiance of FIFA, many female players have painted their nails and dyed their hair the colours of pride. Personalities like Megan Rapinoe, Marta Vieira da Silva and Sam Kerr have been important in speaking out about and advocating for LGBTQ+ rights.
If you don’t think politics belong in women’s soccer, you are clearly ignoring the game's historical roots. The Matildas stand in the footsteps of the thousands of women that played before them. As this historic Women’s World Cup comes to a close, I will be thinking of those players with bittersweet happiness at how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.
Queerness is an integral part of women's soccer's history, present and future. We must preserve the inclusive culture that this sport was built on. Queer and trans people always have and always will belong in sports.