Why are more female professional footballers openly gay or bisexual than male players?

England's football teams Credit: PA

The most prominent Women's World Cup ever has come to a close with another USA victory.

Not only did the tournament throw a spotlight on how different the women's game is from the men's, it highlighted how different the teams are as well.

Across the whole tournament, there were at least 41 female players or coaches who are openly gay or bisexual.

During the male tournament in 2018, there were none.

Similarly in the Premier League, there is not one single player who is openly gay or bisexual.

At least five members of the Lionesses are gay or bisexual, compared with none of England's male players.

In a society where gay marriages can take place, and same-sex couples enjoy the same legal privileges as their heterosexual counterparts, the make-up of both football teams is at odds with British society as a whole.

Same-sex marriage came into force in the UK in 2014. Credit: PA

According to the Office for National Statistics, in 2017, around two per cent of the population identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual.

It is not that male football only attracts heterosexual males, or women's football a high ratio of lesbian or bisexual players, but largely due to the differing atmospheres surrounding the two games.

"The women's game has a more open-atmosphere at matches, it's more family-orientated," explains Eric Najib, a former player and now manager for Stonewall FC, the world's most successful LGBT+ football club.

While in men's football, he believes there's still "there's still tribalism attached".

Joe White, a co-founder of Three Lions Pride, an LGBT+ England supporters group, agrees, saying: "In the women's game, there's more diversity in the fans, less 'laddish banter'.

"It's more welcoming, more diverse and open, and this atmosphere is reflected on the pitch as well."

Conversely "in the men's game there's more racism, sexism and homophobia", he adds.

Dr Stefan Lawrence, an expert in masculinity in sport and senior lecturer at Newman University in Birmingham, agrees that women's football has a "different culture" to men's.

"It's more inclusive and accepting, you don't see the division between opposing fans," he explains, adding that the inclusivity has created "better levels of tolerance within the culture of the women's game".

Lawrence continues that while the women's game has evolved to be more inclusive, the male game "evolved differently" and is still influenced by "traditional views", and as a result "the fans within men's football play a part in preventing male players sticking their heads above the parapet".

Joe White (far left) and Di Cunningham (far right) founded Three Lions Pride. Credit: Three Lions Pride

The fact that there were 41 players or coaches at the Women's World Cup who were openly gay or bisexual means that being so in the female game is more of a norm.

Whereas in the upper levels of the male game there are none.

"In women's football, there were barriers, but these have been broken down by trailblazers and this has opened the floodgates," explains Lawrence.

"The men's game needs this."

"People are waiting for an elite male player to come out," adds Di Cunningham, another co-founder of Three Lions Pride.

But this just increases the pressure that the first male player to announce that he is gay or bisexual, will come under, she adds.

"It's such a big deal for one footballer to come out, that a few need to do it at once to take the pressure off," believes Dr Rachael Bullingham, a senior lecturer at the University of Worcester who specialises in homophobia in women's sport.

"To be the only one who did it, there would be so much emphasis on them," she explains, that this fear of the scrutiny and pressure they would come under is likely deterring players from speaking out.

Bullingham believes it may be easier for female players to come out because the female game gets "much less coverage and attention" than the men's and there isn't "the media spotlight that there is in male sport".

The USA's Megan Rapinoe is outspoken about equality both within football and the wider world. Credit: PA

The way in which male and female players are developed is also believed to be a factor in why female players being gay or bisexual is more the norm than male ones.

Many elite male players have come through football academies where they have been since a young age.

Because of this, football is a huge part of their lives and there is less distinction between their private lives and their hoped-for career of football, believes White.

It is a belief that is backed by Lawrence.

"It's not because gay men aren't interested in becoming professional footballers," he explains, but because academies are "heteronormative" (where being heterosexual is the norm) environments.

Players are here from a young ages, he explains, and if at the same time as competing in a high-pressure environment - in the UK there are around 12,000 boys in football academies, a vastly larger number than the positions available at top-flight clubs - they are struggling with their sexuality, it is easy for their focus to slip, resulting in their football suffering, and them ultimately not gaining one of the small number of coveted positions.

Cunningham agrees: "People are better at what they do if they are out, as opposed to those who are spending their time and energy hiding it, allowing them to give their full attention to what they do."

This is not to say academies are not giving help and support to those in them, they offer LGBT and relationship education to those passing through their doors.

England's Jodie Taylor is married to New Zealand player Emma Kete. Credit: PA

Meanwhile for in the women's game, players have often had to work part-time to be able to make ends meet while playing football.

"They've not always had the funding, and often football isn't the only thing they do, so they bring their private lives with them" when they become professional, explains White.

As such, female players' lives are often less-dominated by football and they may come to the professional game at a later stage of their lives than male players who come through academies, meaning they may have come out well before turning professional.

White's Three Lions co-founder, Cunningham, agrees with him, adding that societal interest in male players confounds this.

"Women's football hasn't been a mass spectator sport until recently," she says.

"There is less pressure from the public on social media, allowing them to get on with their lives, whereas in the Premier League, players are under the spotlight in all aspects of their lives."

Dr Lawrence argues that there is a 'heteronormative' atmosphere around men's football. Credit: PA

While the male game is "heteronormative", according to Lawrence, the female game is the opposite and "homonormative", he says, meaning that players who are lesbian or bisexual do not hide their sexualities as they feel that being homosexual is "much more accepted".

And until the "heteronormative" atmosphere in men's football is broken, by players coming out, it will continue to self-perpetuate.

Football is a very male-dominated industry, and to take part and succeed in the field requires female players to break down traditional feminine stereotypes.

To succeed in football, players need to be athletic and competitive, two character traits which are not traditionally feminine.

Women in sport "have already overcome obstacles", says Najib.

"They may have developed a thick-skin breaking down the barriers they already have," meaning coming out is one more in a series of hurdles for them to overcome.

Rory Magrath, a senior lecturer at Solent University who specialises in homophobia and masculinity agrees that female footballers may just see it as yet another barrier they must break down in order to succeed.

Stonewal FC are the world's most successful LGBT+ football club. Credit: Stonewal FC

Another reason why players may not want to come out is that those at the top of their game will travel around the world.

The next men's World Cup is in Qatar in 2022, a country in which being homosexual is punishable by up to seven years in prison.

"Homophobia in football is declining, but in some countries it is still illegal," notes Bullingham.

"Why would a male player come out when the next men's World Cup is in Qatar, and the last one was in Russia?" she asks.

Players may be fearful about travelling to such countries if they are gay or bisexual, and she adds that their partners might also worry about going to such countries to support them.

The Al Wakrah Stadium in Doha, Qatar, has been built from scratch for the 2022 World Cup. Credit: AP

All of those interviewed - those who play football, manage teams, take part in supporters' groups, or conduct academic research on the game - said that the sport's governing bodies in the UK are working hard to make football more inclusive.

"The FA is working very hard, progress is being made... but male football still has some way to go... the problem has not been eradicated, but it is improving," said Najib.

In a statement, The FA said: "Coming out, irrespective of gender, is an individual and personal decision.

"Having a support network and allies, whether that’s teammates, friends or family, can be crucial in this process.

"The FA is committed to tackling homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in football at every level of the game.

"We will continue to work with partners across the game, such as Stonewall and LBGT fan groups, to encourage fans and players to report abuse, both at a national and county FA level, and work with the leagues, campaign groups and the statutory agencies to sanction and educate perpetrators."

The FA took part in Saturday's Pride march in London "as part of ongoing efforts in reaching out to the LGBT community to get involved in the game".

The FA took part in London's Pride march on Saturday. Credit: Twitter/The FA

All of those interviewed also agreed that the main factor about why so few male players are openly gay or bisexual is the atmosphere surrounding the game which stems from the stigma historically attached to homosexuality.

While the 1967 Sexual Offences Act decriminalised "homosexual acts" between males aged 21 and over in England and Wales and was the first step on a path towards the ongoing goal of equality, it did not wipe away prejudices overnight, nor did it mean equality, for example it barred two gay men from having sex in a hotel.

However, in the UK, it has never been illegal to be a lesbian.

Educating people is the best way to change perceptions, Najib believes, and this is not just confined to football.

"Anything which can be done to promote equality should be done in all areas of life, not just sport," he adds.

White also believes current players need to use their "influence" to be an ally of the LGBT community.

"Being an ally is so important, you don't have to be BAME [black or minority ethnic] to challenge racism," he adds, so neither do you have to be LGBT to support those who are.

Given time, attitudes and atmospheres around LGBT players will change and "we will see young male players confident about their sexual orientation," says Cunningham.

"We need to keep calm about male players, things are changing," she adds.

Ending with a final prediction that for once the game of male football will "follow women's example".