Pernille Harder and Magdalena Eriksson are icons in the women’s soccer world, not just for their accomplishments on the pitch but for the way they’re openly gay in a world that isn’t always accepting of LGBTQ+ people. But even they have heroes, and this week they spoke with one of their role models, USWNT star Megan Rapinoe.
Harder and Eriksson, teammates for Chelsea and in a relationship together since 2014, started a new series with Sky Sports called The HangOUT with Pernille and Magda. Their first guess was Rapinoe, who talked about everything from why there are basically no men’s athletes who are openly gay, why she started to take a knee to combat racism and how she’ll never turn down an opportunity to speak up for human rights.
While Harder and Eriksson were full of praise for Rapinoe, the American also had praise for the two Chelsea players, who went viral in 2019 when they kissed after a Women’s World Cup match (Harder plays for Denmark while Eriksson plays for Sweden). At the time, the couple thought nothing of it, but it became a symbol for LGBTQ+ athletes, showing the world it’s possible to be out and proud and not make a big deal out of it.
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Rapinoe said having players like Harder and Eriksson competing at an elite level shows the world you don’t have to look like a Rapinoe or an Abby Wambach to be a gay athlete, and their viral World Cup kiss had a huge positive impact on the LGBTQ+ community.
“People underestimate how much change even one person can make,” Rapinoe said. “We can’t change the world by ourselves, but sometimes you just need that spark.
“I think with you two, because you’re both beautiful, you’re not gay looking. … It does break barriers. That is different for people to see that, not just for people who may not understand it but for players as well. I think there’s closeted players still who are like, ‘OK, I don’t really look like Megan, so I don’t know if that’s going to be accepted if I come out.’”
Eriksson responded by saying it was their goal to normalize their behavior, to not make it weird. This led the conversation to the part of the discussion that has garnered the most headlines around the world: Where are all the gay male athletes? Rapinoe explained society must do more to make it feel like sports will be a safe place for male athletes to come out.
“We get this question all the time: Why aren’t there any out male athletes in the elite sport?” Rapinoe said. “Well, it’s not safe; they don’t feel safe. They either feel they’re going to be abused by fans, they’re going to be kicked off teams, have slurs thrown at them. It’s not safe, and until it is safe, we won’t see any male players (come out).
“I think it’s safer on the women’s side, and we have a lot of camaraderie just between ourselves and a lot more people coming out which makes it easier for everyone. I would say from the sporting directors to the club owners to the fans, it’s your responsibility also.”
The entire discussion is fascinating, and I recommend watching the entire episode embedded at the top of this article and below. It’s just under 25 minutes long and well worth your time if you have any interest in soccer.
Here are some other standout quotes from Rapinoe.
On the importance of highlighting athletes who are successful and out:
“You’re (Harder and Eriksson) showing a very joyous, normal, happy relationship because so much of the negative rhetoric we hear is that you’re not going to be happy or it’s unnatural. I think being able to provide those joyous stories and happy stories I think is really important to breaking down the stereotypes and getting a different narrative in there.”
On why she feels comfortable being so outspoken:
“I don’t know exactly why I feel comfortable saying things or doing things. I have a really strong support system and family and maybe I’m just kind of wild, but I feel like I always try to take those opportunities as a way to show people it’s OK. Some people might be mad at you, but they’re probably already mad at you. Or some people might not accept you or say something, but they’re probably already feeling that way about you, so how can I own my own narrative and own what I’m saying.”
On her decision to follow Colin Kaepernick’s lead and take a knee during the national anthem:
“It was to be honest not something I put a ton of thought in because it just seemed really easy and really something that I don’t know how I’m going to be able to support but I know I believe what Colin is saying. I just supported him. I felt at the time, I’ve been in a position with marriage equality and gay marriage and just in general gay rights to ask for allies and to ask for other people to believe me and believe what I’m saying. Not to compare the two because I think racism is so much worse, but I feel like I could understand what that position was like. I just thought, well I have some sort of platform, I didn’t think it was going to be necessarily as big as it was, which was part of me being a bit naïve. It was really an easy thing for me to do because I believed him. I can see we have these issues in our country and you don’t have to have all the answers right away and I think I led with my heart and led with my mind on that and that’s what guided me there.
“Obviously, there was a lot of fallout from that, but even from the four short years after Colin kneeling for the first time, look how far we’ve come, and everyone’s been proven wrong. Everyone who had something to say to Colin and something to say to people who supported him or didn’t want it to happen, a lot of people are on board now. Not to say they were wrong and I was right, that’s not really it, but sometimes history catches up quickly, and I think the more people get involved and the more people speak up on behalf of what’s right, the quicker we can get to things instead of laboring through years and years of racism and discrimination.”
On using every opportunity to speak up for marginalized communities, like at her 2019 The Best FIFA Women’s Player acceptance speech:
“I came guns blazing for that one. I also take the approach, especially in a room like that in FIFA, you kind of don’t want me here anyways and had to give me the award, and I had a good year, but I think it was on field, off field, it was both. The world wasn’t really designed for me anyways, so the more I tried to squeeze myself into a really small space to fit in, that’s just really difficult, and knowing I could never really fit in. Just being a female athlete, or being a female soccer player or being a woman, not even the gay part, it wasn’t really made for me anyway, so I might as well say. I’m just going to say it.”
On the works she does to be an activist and why she does it:
“I want to make sure when I am speaking about something I’ve taken care to do it in the right way because I know my words matter a lot, I know I need to say things in the right way. I put a lot of work and effort into being ready and being educated on things so I’m ready to talk about it and I’m ready to have the right thing or enough of the right things to say.
“I don’t care what (the establishment) people think, I care about the kid who’s 13 who is crying themselves to sleep every night. I think about how long I’ve played and how little money I’ve been able to make from playing soccer at the level I’ve been able to play and think how hard we have to work on and off the field.”
Megan Rapinoe’s OL Reign are back in action on Saturday against Angel City FC in the NWSL Challenge Cup. You can next see Eriksson and Harder in action on Sunday when Chelsea visits Leicester City.