Before Sue Bird publicly came out as gay last summer during her 15th season with the WNBA’s Seattle Storm, she and her girlfriend, soccer star Megan Rapinoe, constantly had conversations about why coming out mattered, as the couple told ESPN on Thursday.
For years Bird was more shy about her private life than Rapinoe, the Seattle Reign forward she began dating in 2016. Rapinoe was outspoken, having traveled around the country telling rooms full of strangers about her sexuality as an ambassador for the LGBT advocacy group Athlete Ally.
It wasn’t that Bird was hiding anything, she said. All her friends and family knew.
“But that’s not the same as coming out,” Bird told ESPN’s Jemele Hill. “It really isn’t. Being around Megan, I learned that. And then after I came out, just seeing the reactions, having people come up to me directly. I think there’s just something really powerful about that.”
Now, nearly a year after Bird took that step, she and Rapinoe have become the first openly gay couple to appear on the cover of ESPN’s Body Issue, standing nude side-by-side as Bird spins a basketball on her middle finger and Rapinoe rests her foot on a soccer ball. It is one of 10 covers marking the Body Issue’s 10th anniversary.
The Seattle sports power couple, who have racked up a combined total of five Olympic gold medals, do not want “to do things and be like, ‘We’re the gay couple,’” as Rapinoe put it. But this was special, Rapinoe said, because for a gay couple in an era in which homophobia still exists in sports, “it’s important to come out.”
“Visibility is important,” she added.
“The way I see it is more how you want to change the conversation or change the narrative of things,” Bird told ESPN. “I think having a gay couple on [the cover], hopefully it just becomes the norm. You want it to not be an issue. You want it to just be, Oh, another couple is on there. You know, I think for us to be on it is the first step in that direction.”
Rapinoe came out publicly in 2012 at age 27 while she was playing for the Seattle Sounders and U.S. national team, telling Out magazine that homophobia in sports, and a lack of out gay athletes, drove her decision. “People want — they need — to see that there are people like me playing soccer for the good ol’ U.S. of A,” she said.
By the following year she became an ambassador for Athlete Ally, an organization devoted to ending homophobia in sports. In 2015, after winning the World Cup, Rapinoe went on SportsCenter and chose “gaaaay” as the one word to describe herself — a sense of humor about her sexuality that she told ESPN took time to develop.
“It’s been a journey and a process of becoming totally out and sort of living that truth and having it be a daily thing,” she told ESPN in a 2015 interview. “I’m at the point now that I want people to know that, and I want to talk about it. We’re coming so far as a society, but we still have so far to go. So until we’re all the way there, I’ll probably die talking about it.”
That journey for Bird happened more quietly. She realized she was gay in college at the University of Connecticut, where she helped build the women’s basketball dynasty that still reigns today. But she didn’t come out to her family until just after her pro career began with the Storm in 2002, according to a 2017 ESPN feature. She was the No. 1 draft pick that year.
Her family and friends responded with support, but for years Bird never saw the point in making a public announcement.
Then she met Rapinoe.
As two Seattle sports powers, each was familiar with the other. But they finally got to talking at a sponsorship event during the 2016 Rio Olympics, according to a Seattle Times story about their relationship published this week. That fall, they started dating. Bird shared with Rapinoe her high-vegetable, low-sugar diet. Rapinoe shared her outspokenness — her ideas about coming out.
“She opened my eyes to another way of looking at it, which is that in today’s time, in today’s society, it’s still important to kind of say it to make it the norm,” Bird, 37, told the Seattle Times about coming out. She made the decision to do it in the July 2017 ESPN feature, saying the time just felt right.
Rapinoe said the same thing of the Body Issue cover when Hill asked why the time was now.
“What better time than when we need to be celebrating things that are different about us and accepting them and trying to understand them better?” she responded. “It’s pretty incredible to be in this moment.”