31 | Soccer Star & Olympic Queerspawn

Meet the Guest

Lori Lindsey is a former member of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team (NWSL). As a player, she represented the team during the 2011 Women’s World Cup and the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Lori grew up in Indiana, playing soccer. Her parents divorced when she was young and her mom came out as a lesbian soon after. In 2012 Lori came out publicly as LGBTQ and retired from professional soccer in 2014. Since then, she has been a performance coach, commentator for NWSL games, and dedicated activist.

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Episode Transcript

Emily M.: With me today is someone that many of us have cheered for over the course of an impressive career as a professional soccer player. Lori Lindsey is a retired us Women’s National Soccer Team midfielder who played for several professional teams in the US and Australia as well. Today. Lori is a performance coach and US Soccer League analyst. I got to hear some of Lori’s story a few years ago at a pride event and was just blown away to learn that not only had I been cheering on an out professional athlete, but also a fellow person with LGBTQ parents to boot. So welcome Lori! I ask everybody as we get started, who is in your family and how was it formed?

Lori L.: I was very fortunate in terms of just supportive immediate family. My Mom, which I’ve spoken about quite a bit, is a lesbian and she’s been married for about 30 years I think. Actually this year. Yes. They met and where they’ve been together for 30 years I should say. And then my dad remarried as well many years ago, so just so much love and support for the most part, right in my immediate family. And then I think of friends as family as well. And when you play in team sports, it’s a blessing and a curse to have friends that are close to you but then also live across the world and country so everyone’s sprinkled around. And I have a brother and sister who are in Boston, Seattle and then friends sprinkled all around the world. It is really like a blessing and a curse. Megan Rapinoe and I best friends for a long time now, but she lives in Seattle, so across the country and when we were playing we would see each other all the time and now it’s few and far between that we actually see each other in person. It makes it exciting because when we have reunions and stuff then there are shenanigans.

Emily M.: You mentioned your mom and her partner had been together for 30 years. That’s a lot of social and societal change that they must have seen and that you’re now seeing as well as a family who has spans different generations. Do you talk about how things have changed for your different family members over the years?

Lori L.: Very much so. So I’ve talked a lot about my mom being a lesbian publicly as well. I was born in 1980. My parents divorced in 1982. My mom came out as a lesbian and really that’s all I remember. And essentially, it was pretty powerful when I think of my mom in the eighties or even the nineties in Indiana and coming out and having that life. Being brave enough to be able to come out and live her true self right is quite remarkable. Especially when it meant losing us and not necessarily getting us in terms of full custody and all of that stuff. So from such an early age I saw sacrifices and the commitment to be true to oneself.

Emily M.: So what has it been like for your family and conversations about being out today? As a professional athlete, you’ve had more of a platform than others. How did you talk with your mom about how you were going to out her in some ways when you spoke? I know I personally had those conversations with my parents, one of whom was never out at work as a public school teacher. So that as I got older and I started speaking out more about my family, that was something I had to check in with them about.

Lori L.: Yes and no. From an early age I knew that I was gay and it was whether I could articulate it or not. I mean, as a soccer player, there’s a period of time, especially in high school and even early stages of college before I came out, I was kinda like, I’m not coming out, at that time. I knew that there was always going to be a time for me to come out and then eventually I just couldn’t deny it anymore. Everyone’s like, okay, Lori, we know. In terms of coming out – which we know a lot of people struggle with and are displaced from their homes or just not acknowledged as part of a family – I knew deep down that that wasn’t going to be the case for me. So in terms of that, I was incredibly fortunate.

Lori L.: But then to get to the part that you’re asking about in terms of once I started to speak about it publicly, really what came about with that is later in my years with the national team, I realized how stifling that environment could be. And then also how we had such a myself. And I think I would argue that everybody in that platform has a responsibility to speak out about whatever they feel passionate about. And for me it was, listen, I’m a lesbian and we need positive role models. We need young kids to feel that this is okay and it will be okay. So I felt that responsibility, which came from the fact that that’s how I saw my mom living, even as tough as it would have been coming out in the early eighties. She was never denying who she was. People knew at work. And my step mom, Susan, my mom’s wife knew she was out right there. They have been very active in their liberal churches. And so it was never anything that was hidden and it was always very much a part of my childhood and in my life throughout. So there wasn’t a really need to say, hey mom, I’m going to speak about this. In fact, it was like a natural part of the story. It would almost be weirder if I didn’t speak about it.

Emily M.: So growing up within a queer community, those were the role models I saw. That was the culture I was immersed in and that was who was raising me and loving me. So to not talk about it always felt like this very uncomfortable betrayal of not only my family but my own story, my reality. But at the same time, I knew I had to be respectful of my parents and when they felt safe about being out. So there were times when I was just ready to start shouting it from the rooftops and they were less comfortable.

Lori L.: So that’s an interesting point and I actually really loved that. You’re ready to shout it from the mountaintops, but you needed to be mindful, because my experience was kind of the opposite. It wasn’t that I was afraid to shout it from the mountaintops necessarily, but early on it was almost like I had these two lives. I primarily lived with my dad and step-mom and that was ‘Soccer Lori’. It was like, this is what I do. I play soccer. I started become known and in my town in Indianapolis and high school. And then every other weekend I would go see my mom. Holidays and New Year’s I was banging pots and pans with 50 lesbians. It was like the tale of two worlds – ‘Soccer Lori’ here, and then when I go to my mom’s it was still soccer, Lori in a way. But also I felt very much at home in that environment. And I started to understand myself and I became more comfortable because my mom and Susan were always comfortable. They were always going to be out. They were marching in Pride, all of this stuff. So it was more about me coming into my own and finally becoming more of like a whole person and navigating myself and just speaking out and talking more.

Emily M.: Were there other LGBTQ athletes or teammates that you were meeting?

Lori L.: Oh yeah. Especially once I got to college and then was playing professionally. Then everyone is coming into their own figuring their own stuff out. There’s also the saying, “you don’t win any championships if there’s not a lesbian on your team.” I still live by that one. Whenever I look back at my career that was very fortunate because everyone was always accepting. I mean, look at the national team with myself, Megan Rapinoe, Abby Wombach, right? All of us were comfortable with ourselves.

Emily M.: It’s really wonderful to see how many women on the national soccer team especially are so out and proud. And visibly out with their partners, with their wives. It’s just is so different from when I was younger and I get so excited to see kids cheering on these fantastic role models because I wish I had that. I wish I had known that that was possible because I don’t believe there was anybody that I was aware of as being an out athlete when I was younger.

Lori L.: That’s the reason why I wanted to come out publicly. Right. Essentially, long story short is we were coming back from the 2011 World Cup and Megan and I were on the plane and you could just realize that tournament, the 2011 World Cup in Germany set the precedent, especially here in the US. Prior to that we’ve had a lot of ebbs and flows in the game. Obviously Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy and all those who put soccer on the map for us and for fought for the ways that our current players have to make a living and the lives that they have through their soccer.

Lori L.: I could see how clearly there were a lot of athletes, a lot of people that weren’t coming out. There’s fear around this. And that’s not what we want to put out in terms of for these young kids that need to see this. I was fortunate to have my mom as a role model right in front of me. So how can we step up and start to, quote unquote normalize this for society? When Megan and I were flying home, we both looked at each other and said this is something we have to do. Out Magazine had approached Megan to do a spread before the 2012 Olympics. And it was like, yes, this is what you have to do. You have such a bigger platform than I do in terms of like celebrity status. And I’m not saying that we were the pioneers by any means because there are people that have come before us that are fighting the fight. But often it’s behind the scenes, so that’s why it’s even more important to step up. If you look at even the men’s sports, there’s like one male athlete in major league soccer who’s out – in all of the major sports. And so obviously there’s still fear, there’s still some stigma behind that in terms of coming out. And so the more that one by one, everyone can start to do their part to share their true self, it helps. It helps massively.

Emily M.: I’m interested in your experience with your team is as a family. With sports, it’s something you want to share with your family, especially if you need support after an injury or after a loss. Or I’m thinking about in 2015, at the World Cup, when Abby Wambach kissed her wife on TV and it was like so exciting to see. You should want to share that joy with somebody who loves you, especially after a win. Does that ring true to you, the idea of one motivator for being an out athlete is just being able to share that joy or share those challenges without censoring yourself in some way?

Lori L.: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I think more and more we’re seeing athletes wanting to bring their full selves to their work. And before it was very much like, you stick to your sport and we’re not going to talk about politics. We’re seeing athletes say no to that with Colin Kaepernick, with other athletes coming up and speaking out about what is true for them. Anytime that you’re stifling yourself and holding yourself back, then there’s always some sort of repercussions whether that’s just internally or what. I think to be able to share who you are and bring yourself fully is what we all aim for. No matter what work you’re in.

Emily M.: You knew when you were younger that pursuing an elite college and professional career in soccer was what you wanted to do. Speaking of family, how did your family react to that or support or question that? It takes an incredible amount of your time and passion and body to be dedicating to that goal, to that pursuit.

Lori L.: Oh yeah. Well there’s a couple of things I would say is one. I get the question so much – Would you do that again, if and when you have kids? And I’m like, Hell No! But in some regards I think my parents loved it, even though they might joke about it now. They were 100 percent supportive and from my dad’s aspect, it was his way of contributing. He wasn’t going to be the dad that was going to sit us down and help us with our homework. He was the dad that was building us goals in the backyard. He was like, you’re going to go out and practice soccer before you come in and do your homework, which is the opposite of most parents. It was his way of showing his love and support and pushing us to be the best we could and hopefully get scholarships. And it panned out. Looking back it was quite bonkers the way he went about it. I think from my mom and Susan’s thought process, they were like, this is a little bonkers, but they were also like, great, she’s a really good at soccer. My brother was a great soccer player as well. Fantastic. If this is a ticket to help them get into college, and I would have needed financial support, it was the best away. And then everyone slowly but surely got on the bandwagon. Before I played on national team, I played at UVA. And then of course when you get to the national team, all the parents are like time to party!

Lori L.: But internally in terms of where that drive really stemmed from, like many of us, it came from a lot of pain. No disrespect at all to my dad and step-mom, I love their support and the time and everything that they have given me, but really I wanted to be with my mom. I didn’t see her very much growing up and so for me soccer was that outlet. I wanted to run around and play and my brother Chris, as I mentioned, was a fantastic soccer player as well and we’re only 18 months apart. So I was doing everything that he was doing and from an early age there was this love for this game. It was such a wonderful outlet for me for a long time, to escape from any sort of feelings that I had about being super sad. And also, I think that’s true for a lot of kids too. Even though we don’t get our self-worth from sports, that’s what I felt growing up. It was like, okay, I’m worthy. And so in many ways that’s what fueled that drive. It was like, I am good enough and I’m going to prove it.

Emily M.: Well you, you retired a few years ago, so what are you passionate about these days? You were already really starting to speak out more throughout your professional career, but I know that retiring is not stopping that at all. So I would love to hear more about what you’re passionate about today.

Lori L.: Well, in a couple of ways speaking out and getting more comfortable in that realm has been heightened since retiring. The national team is an interesting environment because there is such a platform. It’s one of the most loved sporting teams in the world, not just in terms of women, but on the men’s side too. You can argue our players are way more visible than any of the men’s national team players and some other sports as well. So you had this unbelievable platform, but at the same time it’s scary to speak out and there’s a lot of fear in that because there’s x amount of contracts. And really our national team is one of the only ways to make a viable living playing soccer. The pay discrepancies between our NWSL, or national women’s soccer pro league, and playing for the national team is remarkable. So if you’re just playing the NWSL, it is such a different income than it is if you’re playing in the NWSL plus playing with our national team. Once you start dipping your toes in that world, it becomes a very interesting path to navigate because the fear does set in. You don’t want to lose your contract. You obviously want to play. It’s what you’ve worked for your entire life and you want to compete at the highest level. But then also there’s this making a living aspect that sets fear in and not speaking out is safer. You’re part of this team that’s very visible and still it feels there’s only a handful of players that have the ability to speak out and everybody else is kind of like treading water.

Lori L.: Look at Megan Rapinoe kneeling during the national anthem a few years ago. Not one person was going to kneel with her, even if they felt exactly the same way, were just as passionate. Look at what happened to Colin Kaepernick. He’s out of work, he’s not playing football. You’re seeing that within our national team. It’s an interesting thing in terms of using that platform and not. And it wasn’t until the latter part of my career that I really realized that I actually had a platform while playing and then navigating that and how I was going to use that and then became more comfortable with that. That’s one long way to say I’m still passionate about speaking a ton about LGBTQ issues. And then I’ve really started to dive deep into the role that white women have to play in terms of social justice and race.

Emily M.: Two organizations that you’re really involved with are Athlete Ally and Equal Play, Equal Pay. Those are two causes that are thread throughout your career.

Lori L.: Athlete Ally is so dear to my heart and they were really the first organization I got involved in when I realized I had a platform. Athlete Ally was that first organization that gave me that opportunity. And I love that because the work that they do is so important because it’s based around education of younger kids. And focusing on them and on their language that they’re using and how they’re showing up in schools. Their work is remarkable and it’s all about inclusion and equality, and fighting homophobia and transphobia, both in and outside of sport. And I love it and it’s such a wonderful group that’s continued to expand. We have a good ambassador group that has a lot of soccer players have gotten on board, which is massive.

Lori L.: And then also with the Equal Playing Field Initiative, which was linked to Equal Play, Equal Pay, which is through our women’s national team. That Equal Playing Field Initiative was started by two women who had experienced inequality through soccer. It’s a metaphor for the mountain we have to climb in terms of women’s equality, not just in soccer but across the world in all sport. And they came up with this idea, let’s play this Guinness Book of World Record highest elevation soccer match on top of Mount Kilimanjaro. And let’s see, let’s gather up some friends. And then what happened was it started getting their friends involved and then the word just started spreading. And then they started getting more and more high profile athletes involved. It was like a nine day trek up Kilimanjaro to play the worst soccer match you’ve ever seen. It was soccer at high elevation. It was terrible and, and so amazing at the same time and life changing. As cliche as it may sound, but it really was.

Emily M.: My last question that I have is for any for any parents listening, do you have any advice for how parents can really best cheer on and encourage any of their kids who are engaged in any sort of sports or athletics? Then also for any youth or young people, any advice for anybody who is interested in continuing and pursuing and excelling in whatever their chosen sport or athleticism might be?

Lori L.: For parents, 1 – it’s not about the parents and to just give the kids choice. Because even today when I’m working with youth, I ask the kids are they enjoying what they’re doing. Parents should ask themselves why do I want my kids to participate in sport? Why do I feel the need that they have to be ‘the best’? Because sport is about participation, it’s about camaraderie. It’s about competition, not among the person next to you, but the competition with yourself. It’s about asking yourself, can I get better? And I feel like that’s what we make sport into being and that’s why everyone’s so crazy. It’s supposed to be fun.

Lori L.: And then if you put in extra work and you’re enjoying yourself – and there’s luck involved too and right timing – and that’s how we see the best come about. Right? This whole thing of parents finding worth in their kids by being the best or playing on the best teams is nonsense. So let them enjoy and ask questions. But if you do have a kid that wants to pursue it – I mean for me, my dad was one of the crazy parents. In seventh grade I was said I’m not playing soccer anymore. I’m done. I’m going to become a famous actress. And I was terrible. And that time off was so important for me. It allowed me to step away and realize how much I did love the game and then I was able to return and everything from that point on was on my own terms.

Lori L.: I trained all the time. I did everything because I wanted to. Prior to that, my dad was like, you’re going to do this, you’re going to do that. But after the break, I understood that I have this desire to be the best that I can be and I’m gonna see that through. And that’s really what fueled me. So if you love it, then seek out people that can help you. Go to coaches that can help you. Watch videos. Do those little extra things. Practice on your own. Get lost in the game. Have fun.