At World Cup, U.S. Team’s Pride Is Felt by Others, Too

PARIS — Like many French fans at the Parc des Princes stadium on Friday night, Marine Rome was heartbroken as her team spiraled out of the World Cup in a quarterfinal matchup against the United States.

But for her, at least, there was some consolation.

Rome, 32, is the co-president of Les Dégommeuses, an amateur soccer team in Paris primarily made up of lesbian and transgender players. For many soccer fans, Friday’s game exposed the gap in talent that remains between the French and American teams. But to Rome and others in France’s L.G.B.T. community, the juxtaposition highlighted a different gulf: one in inclusion, in diversity.

In the American players, Rome observed a walking, running, kicking representation of L.G.B.T. pride and acceptance — a kind she and many others said was still lacking in France.

“In France, with the idea of universalism and equality, when you’re a minority you’re supposed to be silent, because they say we’re all the same, even though we’re not,” Rome said. “I think that’s the main difference with the U.S.”

The difference, she said, felt stark. Five members of the American team and the coach, Jill Ellis, are publicly out, and the team as a whole has worked in recent years to engage with L.G.B.T. communities in the United States. One of the viral moments of the team’s 2015 World Cup championship was striker Abby Wambach’s kissing her wife after the final only a week after the United States Supreme Court had legalized gay marriage.

Such things are nearly unheard-of in France, many people in the French sports community said. Marinette Pichon, the career goals leader for the French team, said in an interview that gay players in her country would not dare come out publicly.

“There is still homophobia in French football today,” said Pichon, who is considered the only player in the country to ever publicly identify as gay.

Attitudes toward L.G.B.T. rights vary widely among the nations involved in the World Cup this summer, and the United States is not the only team that has been so openly welcoming to gay players. But it has the highest profile.

After the game on Friday, American winger Megan Rapinoe was asked about playing during Pride Month, and on a weekend when many cities around the world were holding their annual Pride events.

“Go gays!” said Rapinoe, who scored two goals on Friday. “You can’t win a championship without gays on your team. It’s never been done before. That’s science right there.”

Rapinoe soon had everyone around her laughing.

“To be gay and fabulous during Pride Month and the World Cup is nice,” she said.

Then she smoothly transitioned back to answering questions about soccer.

The moment, in Rome’s view, embodied everything a French player could not do, and the reason she and many of the 20 members of Les Dégommeuses, a nickname that translates roughly as the Smashers, at the stadium on Friday were cheering for players on both teams.

The organization, created in 2012, has about 100 players and two primary aims: to create a safe space — at weekly practices and games in Paris — for people who might otherwise be excluded from French soccer culture, and to press for greater inclusivity in the country’s sports landscape.

“It feels like family because I don’t have one,” said Marko, a lesbian who is a refugee from Chechnya, where the government has arrested people simply for being gay. Marko asked that her full name be withheld for safety reasons. “My only family is Les Dégommeuses.”

Going back to the early 20th century, sports have provided a haven and positive space for many lesbians, according to Susan Cahn, a professor of gender and sexuality in sports at the University at Buffalo. The playing field offered an environment, she said, where many sensibilities — physical contact, intensity, aggression, muscularity — can take on positive connotations.

Over time a stereotype developed that good female athletes must surely be lesbian, leading organizations to an overcorrection, a sort of hyper-feminization that academics refer to as “the feminine apologetic.” Many players felt forced to erase their identity.

The importance of a team like the United States, then, is not only in seeing straight and gay players side by side, but also debunking notions of what a lesbian player might look like.

“The fact that these women are out, explicitly or casually, lets people know that lesbians are in sports, and they come in all shapes and sizes,” Cahn said.

In France, the problem can be deceptively acute. Rome cringed as she recalled a marketing campaign unveiled by the French soccer federation some years ago that reductively revolved around high heels, glitter and the color pink. (She said the team’s marketing promoting the team has improved significantly around this World Cup.)

She pointed to more subtle things, too. In December, Jess Fishlock, a Welsh midfielder playing at the time for the French club Olympique Lyonnais received one of Britain’s highest civilian honors for her services to women’s soccer and the L.G.B.T. community. But the club’s news release about the honor, Rome noted, stated only that the award had been for her commitment to “various causes.”

“In France, you can’t be yourself, you have to hide,” said Frédérique Gouy, 34, a civil engineer from Paris who came out four years ago and joined Les Dégommeuses shortly afterward. “It’s a big difference from the United States and many other teams at this World Cup. We are still at the beginning of the fight.”

Pichon, 43, who scored 81 goals in 12 years playing for France, said she experienced the situation in French soccer firsthand.

“You don’t dare to say that you are homosexual in the locker room because you fear the consequences on the image of your team, of your club, but also on yourself,” Pichon said. “You may well become a punching bag for other players. I know many people who refused to come out because they feared the consequences.”

Pichon saw something different in two stints playing professionally in the United States. She said the American approach to welcoming and integrating L.G.B.T. players into their women’s teams was “the approach we should work toward in France.” And she said she was amazed to see television commercials and marketing content in the United States that featured positive images of gay people.

Pichon did not broadcast her sexual orientation during her playing career. She said she was not desperate for anyone’s acceptance. But many say there are positive effects when professional athletes feel personally comfortable enough to express themselves that way.

Rome, for instance, recalled watching the French tennis player Amélie Mauresmo come out as gay 20 years ago. Rome was 12 and was having trouble articulating why she felt she was different than her peers.

“I realized, thanks to her, that I was not a monster, basically,” Rome said.

Being honest to oneself can have an effect on performance, activists said.

Rapinoe realized the power, and the positives, of being more open about who she was years ago. While she had been out to friends and family since college, she did not come out to the broader public until after starring in the 2011 World Cup.

“When you’re out, it’s only one part of who you are,” she told Yahoo Sports earlier this year. “But when you’re not out, it’s just this all-consuming thing.”

These are the ideas that Les Dégommeuses and others are hoping will be voiced as the United States maintains its platform at the World Cup.

Les Dégommeuses have tried to do their part. They smuggled an enormous rainbow flag into the opening match of the tournament and waved it joyfully for several minutes before putting it away to watch the game. They commissioned posters to hang around Paris depicting diverse images of women’s soccer players. On Saturday, they marched in the Paris Pride parade.

Before the game on Friday, Rome had hoped a French victory would make their players superstars who would feel emboldened to express themselves publicly.

“Maybe they have the next Megan Rapinoe on their team,” Rome said.

That did not happen. France lost, and the United States advanced.

For now, cheering for the real Megan Rapinoe will have to do.

Constant Méheut contributed reporting.

Andrew Keh is an international correspondent, covering sports from Berlin. He has previously covered Major League Baseball and the N.B.A. and has reported from the World Cup and the Olympics. @andrewkeh

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