LGBTQ+ History Month: Mapi León and her influence on and off the pitch

Mapi Leon looks on during a match
Mapi Leon looks on during the UEFA Women's Champions League quarter-final between FC Barcelona and AS Roma at Spotify Camp Nou on March 29, 2023 (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

Each February, Her Football Hub celebrates LGBTQ+ History Month. This year, our writers have chosen to showcase key historical moments in queer football history, share personal anecdotes, and highlight trailblazing LGBTQ+ women in sport. This instalment focuses on Barcelona and Spain star Mapi León.

Mapi León is no stranger to being the first. In 2017, she became the first paid transfer in Spanish women’s football when a €50,000 deal saw her move from Atlético Madrid to Barcelona. In 2021, she was one of the first women to play a competitive match at Camp Nou.

The same year, León was part of the first team in Barça history to win the continental treble. Yet, there is another first which is rarely mentioned.

In 2018, the then 23-year-old became the first openly homosexual player in the Spanish professional leagues. Now 28, and in her seventh season with Barcelona, León is a five-time Liga F champion, two-time Champions League winner, FIFPRO World 11 player, and Ballon d’Or nominee.

León’s glittering career goes hand-in-hand with her firmly-held beliefs. Balancing her amiable personality, otherworldly talent, and seemingly unshakable values, the centre-back has transcended the game, cementing herself as a symbol of equality, tolerance, and justice for all. 

Coming out

After being out for years in her personal life, León shared the fact in an interview with Spanish news outlet El Mundo in 2018. At the time, she had played one season with Barcelona. 

She explained the decision to make her sexuality public: “When you are someone known, you have a responsibility. I think it is important to stand up for everyone’s rights, there is no reason to hide. Many times we hear very ugly things on the football fields, insults that are not only homophobic but also racist, and I believe that in sport we need to send a clear message of tolerance and against hate.”

In the years since, the Spanish star has commented on her sexuality numerous times: “I accept myself as I am, I have no problem. For me, it is natural. I don’t choose who I fall in love with, or which person creates an interest in me. I think it goes to the level of the person. Not at the level of if it is a woman or a man.”

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LGBTQ+ advocacy 

Since coming out, León has become a fierce advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. She openly criticised the decision to hold the 2018 Men’s World Cup in Russia because of the persecution of LGBTQ+ people.

“You shouldn’t look the other way with issues like these,” she said at the time. “These are not just LGBT rights, they are human rights. That is not the message of tolerance and respect that should be associated with sport and, specifically, football.”

Ahead of speaking at the commencement of Madrid Pride in 2019, León reflected on her coming out to the public: “I have not done this for me, I have no need to shout to everyone that I am a lesbian, but I do believe that society needed it. If no one speaks, we continue like this and nothing changes.

“I know it [homophobia] could happen, but if you’re proud of who you are, it doesn’t matter what anyone says. It is a way to go one step further and help future generations, or at least try to.”

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León was listed as one of Spain’s top 50 most influential LGBT+ people in both 2018 and 2019. In 2021, she was also featured in Levi’s Beauty of Becoming campaign to celebrate Pride Month.

The last of Las 15

Despite her visibility as an LGBTQ+ athlete, the Zaragozan’s tenacity is most often cited in relation to the Las 15 strike. León was one of the original 15 players who refused call-ups to the national team following the 2022 Euros, in protest of historic mismanagement. 

While many of the players have since returned to the selection, León has been unwavering in her stance. She was absent from Spain’s World Cup-winning squad by her volition. Moreover, León has publicly called for changes within the RFEF. She was one of just two players who left the national team camp following the forced call-ups of September 2023

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Mapi’s future plans

A meniscus injury in December has sidelined León for the remainder of the season. That said, just weeks later she announced an extension of her contract with Barcelona, which will see her stay in the Catalan capital until 2026. She has yet to indicate when, or if, she would be willing to play for Spain again.

León has been in a relationship with Norwegian international and Barça teammate Ingrid Engen since 2022. The two frequently appear on each other’s social media and co-parent León’s cat, Bagheera.

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