Jumping on Megan Rapinoe’s bandwagon

The last few weeks have been filled with news stories about the US footballer Megan Rapinoe, a woman who is managing to piss off a lot of people at the same time as inspiring many others. In case you’re avoiding news stories, or just don’t follow football and aren’t on Twitter, I’ll give a brief synopsis of the story so far.

Megan Rapinoe is a professional football player (or soccer player as they’re known in the US) who is part of the USA’s international team, and played for them in the recent Women’s World Cup in France. She was already controversial for being one of the first non-white, non-NFL athletes to kneel during the national anthem, in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick and his protests against racial injustice. After players were banned from kneeling during the anthem, she stands, but refuses to sing and doesn’t put her hand on her heart. She is also openly gay, having come out publicly in 2012.

During the Women’s World Cup, an old video was circulated in which Rapinoe, when asked if she was excited about going to the White House should the US team win, responded with: ‘I’m not going to the fucking White House’. Trump then tweeted about her, complaining about her lack of patriotism and gratitude, and saying ‘she should WIN before she TALKS’.

Rapinoe scored all four of the USA’s goals in their next two matches, including two penalties. After one goal she celebrated by standing with her arms spread wide like wings, staring upwards – an image which has since gone viral, sparking countless memes and even being printed on t-shirts (on RedBubble, if you’re interested).

The US went on to win the World Cup, with another penalty scored by Rapinoe in the final game. She won the golden boot for most goals scored during the tournament, and the golden ball for best player. On the team’s return to the US, she has given speeches in public and on talk shows, calling on people to ‘do better, listen more and talk less’, and celebrating the win with her team by standing holding the World Cup trophy and a bottle of champagne, shouting ‘I DESERVE THIS’.

If you haven’t seen her, Rapinoe is slim and muscular with cropped short hair, usually dyed blonde but dyed pink (which faded to purple) for the World Cup. I mention this only because it is part of her controversy for some people.

To me, her story is something out of a film. She is outspoken, unafraid, and incredibly good at what she does. She is seen as something of a hero in the US, and elsewhere around the world, for her sexuality, her confidence, and her activism for LGBTQIA+ communities, but also for other oppressed peoples in her country.

However, all the things that make her a role model for me, make her a hate figure for others. Some of it is clear homophobia. People don’t like that she’s openly gay, or that she talks about it, or that she attributes her success in part to her sexuality. The BBC tweeted an article about Rapinoe with the line ‘Can a pink-haired lesbian be an American hero?’ which they deleted after everyone pointed out what a ridiculous question that was, and that phrasing it in such a way was pointing to their own disappointing attitudes towards homosexuality. The NYPD are currently investigating as a hate crime homophobic graffiti scrawled across posters of her on the New York subway, and others have said that she only gets contracts with football teams because she is gay – I suppose as some kind of super-liberal campaign, as if being a politically active lesbian and a controversial figure is the main reasoning behind being hired to play football. People see her decision to talk about her sexuality openly as ‘pushing the gay agenda’, that she is in some odd way recruiting gay people to her cause.

You could argue that they have a point on that one, if the number of women saying on Twitter and elsewhere that Rapinoe has turned them gay is anything to go by. But a) people say that a lot as a tongue-in-cheek remark, or just to acknowledge that they find her attractive; and b) who cares if they do feel closer to the homosexual end of the spectrum now, having seen Rapinoe in the spotlight and felt attracted to her? Some lesbians have reacted angrily to ‘all these straight girls saying they’re gay’, and I can understand how people making a joke out of trying on a new sexuality for a suddenly popular figure is annoying. But people should also give some space to the idea that, genuinely, Rapinoe’s appearance, her unapologetic acceptance of herself, and her message that being true to yourself is fun and uniquely attractive, has helped some women come to terms with their sexuality – be that pansexuality, lesbianism, or bisexuality, in my own case. Anyone who sees that as being due to Rapinoe ‘pushing a gay agenda’ need to go and educate themselves – being gay, bisexual or pansexual isn’t something you’re taught to be, it’s something you are, even if you don’t know or don’t come to terms with it until you’re older. Rapinoe has helped me and I’m sure many others people become more completely who they are, and that is something to be applauded, not denigrated.

Other people claim that they don’t dislike Rapinoe because she’s gay, but because she’s unpatriotic and un-American for not singing the national anthem at matches. Frankly I don’t understand this argument, but then I’m not someone with a particularly strong nationalistic identity anyway. I am proud of some aspects of my country, and I love many things about living here, but Britain’s history is way too chequered from any moral standpoint for me to be able to say that I love everything about my country. Similarly, Rapinoe has described herself as incredibly proud to be American, but she wants her country to be better, to exclude fewer people, and to acknowledge the difficulties in a past that some see through rose-tinted (white, straight, ableist) spectacles. Rapinoe believing her country can be better and using a clear moment on a very public platform as a way to draw attention to that is brave, and honest, and doesn’t mean she doesn’t love her country.

Even if people aren’t bothered that she’s gay, or unpatriotic, Rapinoe’s confidence all by itself is enough to rub many people up the wrong way. Her celebratory stance with arms spread wide caused numerous people to complain about her arrogance, and various stories have been found or interpreted since as further evidence of her overly confident attitude, including the video of her shouting ‘I DESERVE THIS’. I do wonder if it would make any headlines at all if a male footballer celebrated a goal by standing with their arms held aloft. It seems to me like something they do constantly. But for a woman it is unusual and, having tried it myself, it feels very unnatural and uncomfortable. I bought a t-shirt with a picture of Rapinoe on and wore it to Pride in London last weekend, and on our way there I asked my partner to take a picture of me doing the pose myself.

Well. I had no idea how strange it would feel to take up so much room in a public space. The street we were on was almost empty, but as soon as I heard someone anywhere near us I felt bad and apologetic and wanted to drop my arms at once. It was only then that I really understood how much confidence and power it took for Rapinoe to take that stance, and hold it, alone, celebrating herself and her own strength. I can see why it would frighten people who like their women to be small and docile, to ask ‘is this okay?’ and always ask permission before stepping forwards. Some might not admit that’s what they want, but in reality, strong women unnerve them and the only way they know how to react is to try and drag that woman down. They call her names, label her as arrogant, or say she looks like a man with her short hair. It’s extraordinary to me that women having short hair is still so controversial, and seen by people as automatically unattractive. Someone pointed out that all the women on Love Island this year have long hair, which I do find quite funny – traditional women’s beauty still has to come from long, flowing locks. How dull.

Of course, you don’t have to like Rapinoe, and if you don’t, it doesn’t have to be for any of the reasons here. But for me, she is a role model of special significance, and I’ll be using ‘what would Megan Rapinoe do?’ as a mantra for all my more anxiety-ridden, do I dare moments from now on.

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