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Rapinoe watches history unfold

Megan Rapinoe
USWNT star Megan Rapinoe is playing for French club Olympique Lyon.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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This is a strange and exciting time for Megan Rapinoe. The U.S. women’s national team colorful playmaker is in France, playing for Olympique Lyon’s all-conquering women’s team and having a great time of it.

But it’s all happening back in the U.S.A. right now.

Rapinoe, 27, was the most high-profile openly gay female athlete in the country until basketball player Brittney Griner raised her hand. And Rapinoe wasn’t in America when NBA player Jason Collins took the biggest leap forward in gay rights in professional sports.

Collins, like Rapinoe, chose to make his announcement in a magazine. Neither proclamations landed with a thud. Both players received congratulations and support. Both gained popularity by coming out. And in both cases, the positivity drowned out any backlash.

“It was different, in a way, than I’d expected,” Rapinoe tells FOX Sports from France. “He’s a shyer guy and it wasn’t the big hoopla that everyone was expecting. Nonetheless, it was incredibly important.”

Rapinoe’s life didn’t change much. “I think that most people either definitely knew or were not going to be surprised by the fact that I came out,” she says. The news was received, acknowledged, digested, and then largely forgotten. Rapinoe became the first post-sexual gay athlete.

Not so for the men – yet. Professional soccer players David Testo and Robbie Rogers came out in November 2011 and February 2013, respectively, and both remain known in the popular media as The Gay Players, for good or ill.

“I think with men it’s got to be different,” says Rapinoe. “They have to hide their entire life. They have to completely hide the fact that they’re gay, not just kind of omit it from interviews [like women]. I think for the guys, on the men’s side, it’s a much bigger decision in some ways.”

Rapinoe notes that, gay female athletes are, ironically, abetted by a stereotype. In a game like soccer that is less finesse and grace than brawn and speed, people jump to conclusions.

“There’s more than a slight assumption, especially with some sports over others,” says Rapinoe, who has worked in advocacy and outreach with GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. “A stereotype about women’s sports is that the women are more masculine and therefore they play sports. Whereas men are more masculine and therefore they are not gay. The stereotypes go the opposite way. Women [in sports] are seen more as gay and men are thought of as hyper-macho straight men.

“With the men I think it kind of comes as a big shock,” Rapinoe add. “I don’t think anybody thought Jason Collins was gay. I don’t think anybody probably ever thought Robbie Rogers or David Testo was gay. Everybody just assumed one thing and then it’s another. The surprise factor is different on the men’s side from the women.”

The debate over perception has been all the more acute for Rapinoe, for while she has missed the rapid progression of the gay rights movement in the U.S., she’s had a front-row seat to the one in France. Gay marriage was legalized there six days before Collins came out, on April 23. The law sparked riots.

“It’s been a pretty big issue here for the last year,” says Rapinoe. “I think in a lot of ways the French culture and society isn’t as progressive as the American culture. When I came over here I knew the bill was before the Parliament so I figured everyone was for it but I don’t think it’s necessarily that way. There’s still a pretty strong religious contingent here in France that’s not supporting gay marriage.”

Recent polls have found that in both countries, just over half of people support gay marriage. Yet whereas every gay couple in France can get married, only a fifth of American states recognize same-sex unions. “It’s kind of an interesting dichotomy to be in two cultures at the same time that are fighting the same battle,” says Rapinoe.

It fills Rapinoe with optimism. She believes that when she returns to the U.S. in mid-June to play for the Seattle Reign in the new National Women’s Soccer League she’ll find a country changed.

“It feels like we’re on the fence and about to topple over in a good way for gay rights and equal rights,” says Rapinoe. “It’s definitely coming to be that time where we’re making history. And you want to be on the right side of it. It’s going to be embarrassing to be on the wrong side.”

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