LGBTQ+ History Month: Five trailblazing footballers to celebrate

Fans hold up signs for Megan Rapinoe
Fans hold signs for Megan Rapinoe after the game against South Africa at Soldier Field on September 24, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

LGBTQ+ History Month is celebrated every February across the UK, and its intention is to claim the past, celebrate the present, and help shape the future.

This year shines a spotlight on medicine and the contribution by the LGBTQ+ community to the field of healthcare, both historically and today.

As the first week of the commemorative month draws to a close, we’ve taken a look back at who we consider to be the five of the most influential footballers within the women’s game, advocating for LGBTQ+ people on and off the pitch.  

Megan Rapinoe

Megan Rapinoe is undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with, both as a player and an advocate. She has consistently used her platform to stand up for marginalised groups and fight for equality for sexuality, racism, and gender.

After coming out publicly in 2012, right before captaining the US at the Olympics, Rapinoe said the positive reaction she’d experienced caused her to think very quickly about how she can use her platform to fight for other people.

Speaking to media ahead of her retirement match last September, she said: “That was a big one. Just the reaction I got, people coming up to me and saying how much that meant to them or how it gave them space to come out. I think I realised right then, as the popularity of the team started to grow, that people came to see us not just for what we were doing on the field. They came to see themselves in us.”

Most notably during her time off the pitch, Rapinoe, alongside teammate Alex Morgan negotiated a deal with the US Soccer Federation to ensure female players were paid equal to their male counterparts.

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The landmark $24 million settlement meant US Soccer would now pay men and women at an equal rate in all friendlies and tournaments, including the World Cup. Rapinoe has described this moment as one of her biggest achievements ‘by a mile’.

Speaking at the same conference, she explained: “That has made such a lasting impact. We’ve been a big part of pushing, talking about off-field issues, whether it’s gay rights or racial justice or trans rights, more into every conversation around sports, particularly around women’s sports.”

Throughout her career, Rapinoe has made every effort to call out transphobia and ongoing plans to exclude trans athletes from sports.

In an interview with Time magazine, she said she found it ‘frustrating when women’s sport is weaponised’. Rapinoe has always stated that she believes the harm caused by people questioning transgender participation goes far beyond the playing field. She also stated she would ‘absolutely’ embrace having a transgender woman in the US women’s football team. Even if it meant they were playing in the place of someone assigned female at birth.

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If anything is clear, it’s Rapinoe’s dedication to going head-to-head against some of the most influential organisations and opinions to challenge and fight for equality.

Although we still haven’t quite got over the fact she won’t be gracing the field anymore, we can be reassured by her pledge to not give up bravely advocating for LGBTQ+ people.

Quinn

The Canadian footballer made history in 2021, becoming the first openly transgender, non-binary athlete to compete at and win a medal at the Olympic Games. The 25-year-old midfielder is from Toronto, and was part of Canada’s starting 11 as they competed against Sweden in the football gold medal match.

Quinn, who uses they/them pronouns, came out as transgender and non-binary in 2020. Assigned female at birth, they were eligible to continue their participation in women’s professional football on a basis of biological sex, which differs to gender identity.

Quinn’s statement posted to social media resonated with thousands after they revealed they had been living as trans ‘for years’.

They wrote: “Coming out is hard. I know for me it’s something I’ll be doing over and over again for the rest of my life. I want to be visible to queer folk who don’t see people like them on their feed. I know it saved my life years ago. I want to challenge cis folk to be better allies. It’s a process, and I know it won’t be perfect, but if I can encourage you to start then it’s something.”

Quinn went on to conclude their post with five simple steps for cisgender people to follow, in an effort to be better allies to the trans and gender non-conforming communities.

They asked fans to put their pronouns in their bios, follow and listen to other trans and non-binary voices such as Janet Mock, Ashlee Marie Preston, and to ‘practice using gender neutral pronouns with friends/in a mirror’.

The last points were to vote and also start to catch yourself making assumptions about people in public.

We take our hat off to Quinn. Their bravery will no doubt have made many feel seen and heard — a true testament to any role model.

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Nilla Fischer

Nilla Fischer captained German side Wolfsburg and earned 170 caps for Sweden during her 20-year footballing career. In recent years, she has been described as ‘one of the sport’s most important voices in support of gender equality and LGBTQ+ rights’.

Fischer has always stressed how important it is to be outspoken about subjects that are important to you. In 2018, UEFA unveiled a three-part documentary series, following the journeys of the most influential players and personalities in the women’s game.

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During her episode, Fischer spoke about how being a gay footballer provokes hate. “Women who play football are already perhaps not very popular, and then as a gay person you also get a lot of hate, and it means players don’t have the courage to be who they are.

“I believe it’s a lot more common in women’s football to be outspoken about a subject that’s important to you. It’s not the same in the men’s game. I know who I am, I’m proud of myself. I’m not just a football player, my opinion counts. I try to take advantage of this to get my opinion through and try to make it better for girls playing football. For me, wearing the rainbow armband stands for quality.”

Fischer is a shining example of how the smallest acts, like wearing a rainbow when you are told not to, can have the biggest impact. Especially to young individuals all over the world.

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Magdalena Eriksson

Magdalena Eriksson has captained Sweden for nearly six years, and most recently announced her departure from Chelsea as captain last summer. Her partner of nine years, Pernille Harder, also left the club.

The couple made headlines during the 2019 World Cup, after a photo of them kissing following Sweden’s win against Canada went viral.

At the time, Eriksson told The Guardian that she wasn’t even aware of the photo, but thanked fans for their support.

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“If you look at the photo from the World Cup and the support we got, imagine what a men’s player would have, it would be massive,” she said. “But it feels like we have to break the norm before that happens, unfortunately. The men’s game has taken a different turn and it’s very difficult for players to come out.

“I think that’s when I felt the demand for role models in that way, because of how big it was and how many people wrote to me on Instagram saying they looked up to us and how much we’d helped them. That’s when I understood that we’re really powerful together. Before, we hadn’t really seen ourselves as that.”

The couple are also two of approximately 100 professional athletes who donate 1 percent of their salaries to Play Proud. An initiative that ‘aims to equip coaches and mentors with the skills and knowledge to establish safe spaces and guided LGBTQ+ adolescents to participate in sports at the youth-level with confidence’.

Eriksson and Harder are proof that a couple who plays together, stays together, and wins together.  

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Lily Parr

We are taking it back to the 1900s for our fifth instalment in this list of iconic LGBTQ+ trailblazers. Lily Parr was an English professional women’s association football player, born in 1905.

Parr was a trailblazer, and continued to play football on village greens and other non-associated land when The Football Association banned women from playing on their member grounds in 1921, despite a growth in teams.

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It’s been said that Parr had a harder shot than any male player at the time, and one male goalkeeper had to be stretchered off after she’d taken a penalty against him.

She also took her talents across the globe, participating in international football, completing tours of France and the US, where she was hailed in the press as ‘the most brilliant female player in the world’.

Parr didn’t shy away from the fact that she lived with her partner, Mary, and continued to do so until her death in 1978. In 2002, Parr became the only woman to be made an inaugural inductee into the English Football Hall of Fame at the National Football Museum.

Without her bravery and courage to play a sport she loved even when she was told she couldn’t, and live her life as an out and proud lesbian, I can say with some confidence, we wouldn’t be where we are today.

Parr undeniably helped pave the way for women’s football. And on that note, I suggest we all try and be a little more like Parr, as we celebrate LGBTQ+ History Month.

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