FIFA Can Ban the OneLove Armband, but They Can’t Stifle Queer Joy at the Women’s World Cup

FIFA Can Ban the OneLove Armband, but They Can’t Stifle Queer Joy at the Women’s World Cup

The FIFA Women’s World Cup has officially kicked off, and to celebrate VERSUS and GLAMOUR UK have joined forces to bring fans a football series that explores the rise (and rise) of the women's game through features focusing on activism, fashion and beauty.

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July 28th 2023

“You can’t win a championship without gays on your team – it’s never been done before, ever,” said USWNT’s Megan Rapinoe at the last Women’s World Cup in 2019. “That’s ‘science’, right there.” And she was proved right: her side went on to win their fourth World Cup. Rapinoe, a lesbian and outspoken supporter of LGBTQ+ rights, played a key part in that historic win. As the top goal scorer of the tournament she won the Golden Boot, and was also awarded the Golden Ball - an award presented to the best overall player of the tournament.

Rapinoe’s theory will be put to the test once again at the 2023 Women’s World Cup this summer, which kicked off in Australia and New Zealand just last week. And, chances are, it’ll ring true. That’s because this year’s tournament is reportedly the gayest yet: at least 94 out players – that’s about one in every eight players – are competing at the event, according to LGBTQ+ sports publication Outsports.

It’s the highest number of out LGBTQ+ players ever recorded by the publisher at the tournament – more than double compared to the 2019 World Cup. Still, it’s surely an underestimate? Understandably, Outsports’ figure doesn’t include LGBTQ+ players who aren’t publicly out. Hardly surprising considering a large number of footballers currently play in or represent nations where same-sex relationships remain criminalised.

The statistics illustrate how the Women’s World Cup showcases the best footballers on the planet – and those players who boldly set an example when it comes to LGBTQ+ inclusion on a global stage. Just take Pernille Harder and Magdalena Eriksson’s iconic kiss in 2019, after the latter helped her side Sweden beat Canada to a bronze World Cup medal. Or, further back still, the photos of US legend Abby Wambach embracing her then wife in 2015, following her country’s win over Japan.

However, ahead of the tournament’s kick-off, international governing body FIFA confirmed players wouldn’t be allowed to wear a rainbow or OneLove armband in support of the LGBTQ+ community – despite said armband having been prominently worn by numerous captains, including England’s Leah Williamson, at last year’s UEFA European Women’s Championships.

But players have found other, more ingenious ways to wear rainbows. New Zealand’s captain Ali Riley was spotted wearing nail varnish in the colours of the gay and trans pride flags for her country’s first-ever World Cup win against Norway – she was quickly dubbed a “straight, gay icon”. South Africa’s Thembi Kgatlana, meanwhile, sported a rainbow haircut. And the city of Brisbane lit up its entire stadium in rainbow colours before England’s opening match against Haiti. “FIFA may have banned OneLove but they can’t ban gay lights,” wrote one spectator on Twitter. Even before the tournament, FIFA reversed its plans to make Visit Saudi a major sponsor, after receiving massive backlash from players like two-time World Cup champion Alex Morgan in regards to the Saudi government’s stance on LGBTQ+ and women’s rights.

The LGBTQ+ visibility at the Women’s World Cup goes beyond the players on the pitch, too. At least two coaches at this tournament are out: Brazil’s Pia Sundhage and Canada’s Bev Priestman. And, among the pundits, is former Lioness Alex Scott, who made headlines last year when she risked her career and safety for wearing the OneLove armband pitch side at the Men’s World Cup in Qatar – again, a tournament where the armband was banned by FIFA. Her brave gesture was even more significant given that the star had only recently publicly discussed her previous, long-term relationship with ex-teammate Kelly Smith in her memoir.

This year, LGBTQ+ players at the tournament are arguably more visible than ever. On Rapinoe’s part, she will play for her final World Cup trophy after announcing her retirement, having continued to stand-up for LGBTQ+ rights, including in support of trans athletes in sport. “Show me all the trans people who are nefariously taking advantage of being trans in sports,” she recently told TIME. “It’s just not happening.” (Earlier this year, Rapinoe, who is engaged to WNBA legend Sue Bird, also dedicated her TIME ‘Woman of the Year’ to the transgender community.)

Among England’s team, several players have spoken out on the importance of LGBTQ+ representation. Rachel Daly, Bethany England and Jess Carter have all been open about their relationships with other women – with Carter currently in a relationship with Germany’s keeper Ann-Katrin Berger. Although not in this year’s squad, the injured Beth Mead has spoken out about her experiences as a gay player – and is currently dating the Netherlands’ Vivianne Miedema, who is also injured – while Demi Stokes became a mum alongside her fiancée Katie last year. In fact, there are so many out players at this year’s tournament, comedian Mari Taren jokingly described the act of researching them all as a “full time job” in a hilarious video.

Alongside Rapinoe, the tournament will showcase other LGBTQ+ stars of the game, including Australia’s Sam Kerr, one of the world’s best players, who regularly posts loved-up snaps with her partner, Kristie Mewis – who’s also at the tournament playing for the USA. Brazil’s legendary forward Marta, who is engaged to Orlando Pride teammate Toni Pressley, will play in her sixth World Cup this year. Canada’s Quinn, meanwhile, is believed to be the first-ever out transgender and non-binary player to compete at a World Cup – the midfielder made history in 2021 when they became the first transgender and non-binary Olympic champion. To put things into perspective: there wasn’t a single openly LGBTQ+ player at last year’s Men’s World Cup, held in Qatar, where homosexuality is criminalised.

Among the LGBTQ+ players are, adorably, some mums: Sweden’s forward Lina Hurtig has a daughter with her wife and former teammate Lisa Hurtig, while Spain’s Irene Paredes has a son with her partner Lucía Ybarra, a hockey player.

Whilst the wider game and its governing bodies continue to fail the LGBTQ+ community, women’s football remains a shining example of how players should use their platforms to make the beautiful game a truly inclusive one. And although arguably there hasn’t been a lot of commotion about the OneLove armband being banned at this summer’s tournament, that’s because thankfully, these players know full well the fight for equality is bigger than that.

Just as they’ve done in previous tournaments, coaches, players and even pundits at this summer’s Women’s World Cup are continuing to set the bar for LGBTQ+ inclusion in elite sport. Among them are world-class players – from Kerr to Rapinoe – who, time and time again, have boldly spoken up for LGBTQ+ rights and representation at football’s highest level.

Regardless of who wins this year’s tournament, that’s something to be championed.