You have helped lead the lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation for equal pay, knelt in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, spoken out about LGBTQ issues — did you have examples of activism around you when you were young? Or at what point in your life did that happen?
Not until much later. I didn’t really have that language — even the word “activism” or an “activist.” I grew up in a pretty small, homogeneous, very conservative kind of town. We didn’t really talk about that. But my parents, and Mom specifically, was like: Okay, just to be clear, you aren’t cool just because you play sports or because you’re popular. That’s not what cool means. So for us, cool was: You’re going to stick up for yourselves and stick up for other people. You’re going to do the right thing. You’re going to use your position of privilege — obviously, she didn’t say it that way — to be a good person and do the best you can and help other people. So I think we always kind of had that in us.
And from the time I came out in college, I never really struggled with being gay. I feel very fortunate for that. And I think that put me in a position to be an immediate activist. Because I was like, I know myself, and I know that I didn’t choose this. And I know that I should have full humanity and dignity and rights and protections under the law. So I think that’s what kind of spurred that [activism]. And then as I got older and started to understand race relations better — or understand them at all, really — and then having our pay equity case, it was just kind of this snowball that culminated in kneeling, really. That was kind of the biggest moment. And it’s obviously taken off since then.
In your book [“One Life”], you contrast the [accepting] reception you got when, as a world-class soccer player and a White woman, you came out publicly to the response you got when you knelt during the national anthem [in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick].
Yeah. Not the same. [Laughs.] It was really strange and disorienting playing with the national team and getting booed by my own fans, by my own Americans. People said crazy things. I’m like: You are watching an American sports team with American fans, against another country, and you’re going to boo a player because they’re standing up for the rights of someone else who lives in the country?
It’s definitely one of those privilege things. Like, okay, you can talk about women’s issues. We’re comfortable with that. Fine. You can talk about being gay. But this sort of strikes at the core of all that’s wrong with our country. It struck a nerve with people. It challenged everything about what America was and the story we’ve been told. You know: land of the free, home of the brave. Work hard, have a good life. All of that. It’s just categorically untrue. I mean, maybe we’re brave in some ways, but we’re not the land of the free by any stretch. Doesn’t mean that we can’t move towards that. But still, to this day, it challenges people’s perception of themselves and who they are as people and who we are as a country and why things are the way they are. And people just went nuts. And they couldn’t articulate really why except to scream “America” in everybody’s face. I didn’t love [the reaction], but I was actually happy that it was done. Because it brought so much light to the insidious nature of what we were talking about.
One of the things that I notice in many activists is the ability to handle discomfort. Obviously, you’ve done that on a national stage.
I feel like if I know it’s right — I mean, I don’t like these uncomfortable situations. My armpits are sweating, too, for sure. And my heart’s pounding. Like, yeah, I said something controversial and I’m striking a nerve. But I’m not wrong. And I’m willing to have this conversation. But you’re always going to get some sort of crazy reaction from people. And so I focus on who am I speaking for rather who am I speaking to. And that perspective change helps me a lot.
So who are those people you are thinking about when facing an onslaught of criticism?
I quite literally have thousands of stories. After coming out, I still, to this day, get a parent with a very clearly nonbinary child or gay child; sometimes it’s unsaid, you know? They have kind of a short haircut like mine, and it’s, “My daughter loves you so much. You’ve helped her so much.” People old and young saying, “You’ve helped me become more of myself.” “I came out because of you.” “My parents are okay with me because of you.” I mean, all the time. It’s like this gift that keeps on giving. It really is incredible. And with kneeling as well, Black people come and just say, “Hey, thank you for speaking out. Thank you for supporting.” Even White people. It’s, “Thank you for saying something.” Or, “We’re with you. We support you.” You know, “We love you. You’re not un-American.” And I feel like that’s what got me through.
Right before the World Cup game against France, you were attacked on Twitter by President Trump for saying that you wouldn’t go to the White House if you all won — and for kneeling during the national anthem. You were already in the public eye, but that sort of ramped it up a thousand degrees. What did that feel like, and what kind of pressure does that create?
It’s funny. Still to this day, I logically understand how much of a big deal it was and how completely insane it was. But I never felt that. My team, we all were kind of like, “Yo, this is f---ing crazy! Are you kidding me?” Everyone kind of had a lightness about it. I think that they saw that I had a lightness about it. I mean, really, truly, he’s just a clown. He’s just a troll. Now, obviously, he was the president of the United States. His actions have severe consequences, as we’ve seen. But he’s not a serious person to me. So it didn’t carry the weight of the presidency. And I am one of how many women that he has attacked? All of these women, who I respect and revere and think are fantastic and do an incredible job. So I was like, Maybe this is validating. [Laughs.] Like, I’ve done so well that he’s coming for me.
What kind of impact do comments like that have on you as a player at that level?
I think honestly, we put so much pressure on ourselves to win. And we’d filed a lawsuit, which put even more pressure. I mean, it takes a particular amount of energy and emotional capacity to sue your employer at a time when you’re going to the World Cup. And I feel like the Trump thing just sort of gave us a little extra juice. I felt like the world was with us — certainly the American fans. Just, like: That is not right. You don’t have to take away the invitation or tell us to win because we already plan on doing that.
As someone with a robust ego — your words — you yelled, “I deserve this,” during the post-World Cup celebrations, which was then panned for brashness and lack of humility on the one hand and lauded as sort of a battle cry for all women on the other. What do you say to those reactions?
I mean, I have felt throughout my entire career — and I’m sure a lot of women feel this — that I deserve so much more than I’ve gotten. Whether that’s monetary or respect. On the field, we’ve done everything that we possibly can. So it’s like, of course I deserve to be paid more than I’m being paid. Like, this is outrageous. We all deserve that. And we’re going to take this moment. Like, you see all these men’s sports teams out here wilding out doing crazy s--- in their celebrations? And that’s all they’re doing. We’re actually doing all of that and we’re inspiring and changing the world at the same time. We’re taking on equal pay. We’re talking about other issues. So we were speaking for ourselves in a big way. But we were speaking on behalf of so many other women, too. Like, I deserve this bottle of Veuve [Clicquot]. And I deserve this parade. And I deserve a raise. And I deserve to be treated with respect. And I deserve to be treated as a full human with full humanity and dignity and to be seen as an equal at the very least. An equal at the very least. We just leaned all the way into that. Like, we can do whatever we want right now, we can ask for whatever we want, and it’s going to happen.
That leads to the lawsuit [against U.S. Soccer Federation for equal pay]. Where does it stand and how optimistic are you that that will be resolved in your favor and anytime soon?
I’m 100 percent optimistic that it will be resolved in our favor. I know exactly what happened to us. I have seen it for my entire career. And I think that we have a great case. But unfortunately, the court really sort of missed how gender discrimination and pay discrimination happen. So we are in the process of preparing our appeal to the 9th Circuit. Obviously, it’s frustrating to have to go into the appellate process, but that is the pervasive nature of the patriarchy and of gender discrimination and pay equity discrimination.
You’ve said that fame gives your words weight, that you could be saying the same thing as somebody else, but because of your success in one arena, you get the mic. How do you feel about that responsibility? And how do you educate yourself so that you can use it properly?
We all live in this world together, and it’s all of our responsibility to do what we can with what we have. I think people underestimate their own individual ability to change the world or even just change their family or friends. I have this amazing platform, and I like to use it. And as I’ve done more and continued to speak out, it is impactful. It is helping. So I do try to do the work. I try to read and educate myself so I can responsibly speak for people who aren’t given the mic. There’s other people that are clearly smarter and more educated than me about every single thing I talk about. But if they don’t get the mic, how can I be at least a responsible conduit. I think about that a lot.
After George Floyd, I was, like, Okay, how do we meaningfully get involved or lift up other people or find a way to continue to use our voices to do good in a time where we’re not going to be out playing? We’re not going to be doing appearances. We’re not going to be out in the public, so how do we find a way to stay engaged? So we did our little IG Live show, “A Touch More.” I talked to AOC. I talked to Vice President Joe Biden, to Yamiche Alcindor from PBS News, to Gavin Newsom out in California. And I felt like, maybe this is a way that I can reach more people who don’t normally watch, you know, PBS NewsHour. Kind of get that crossover
Honestly, I get so much from the position I’m in now, whether that’s getting the mic or whether that’s financially, or whatever it is. And if that is out of balance with how much I’m giving back, then that doesn’t feel right to me. And so that’s my motivation.
Do you have an instance of that sort of impact you talk about when you thought, Okay, this is working?
I just look to my own family — and my mom, I feel like she’s going through this little awakening herself. [Laughs.] She was never super conservative, but I think she would consider herself conservative. And during all of these protests and the conversation around Black Lives Matter we’ve just been kind of talking. I bought her a few books — “White Fragility” and “So You Want to Talk About Race.” And just having her kind of evolve over these conversations. One time we were talking about the “all lives matter”/Black Lives Matter thing and she’s, like, “Yeah, all lives can’t matter until Black lives matter.” Exactly. Just that sort of clicking for her. And those are the hardest ones. You know, it’s very uncomfortable.
Every time someone comes to a game, Black Lives Matter is on the field. Gay is on the field. Women’s rights are on the field. Pay equity is on the field. And so bringing all of that, all the time, is something I’m proud of.
KK Ottesen is a regular contributor to the magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @kkOttesen. This interview has been edited and condensed.