On one level, the Women’s World Cup is a big deal for the cause of LGBT equality in sports. The tournament features at least 17 openly gay or bisexual players and coaches, including high-profile ones such as Canada’s Erin McLeod, Abby Wambach and Megan Rapinoe of the U.S., Caroline Seger of Sweden and Nadine Angerer of Germany. Canada’s support for LGBT equality, including legalized gay marriage and prominent national sports organizations joining You Can Play, also means there’s a far different atmosphere around this tournament and gay rights than there was at, say, the 2014 Olympics in Russia. However, this Women’s World Cup also features countries and teams that have harsh anti-homosexuality laws and policies, including Nigeria, which takes on the U.S Tuesday night in Vancouver. (US beat Nigeria)
As Sports Illustrated‘s Grant Wahl writes, being gay in Nigeria is punishable by a jail sentence of up to 14 years, which means gay players have to hide their sexuality.
The Nigerian source named two players in his/her opinion who would be on Nigeria’s current World Cup team if they were not thought to be publicly gay. What’s more, the source estimated that over the years 30 to 40 percent of the Nigerian women’s team has been gay or bisexual—mostly on the down-low—adding that it’s not possible for a player to be publicly gay to the media and wider world in today’s climate.
“Here’s what might happen to a [Nigerian] player who comes out and says, ‘I’m gay’: You barely can go home anymore,” the Nigerian said. “Even if you have a couple people in your family who say, ‘Don’t worry, we like you and trust you,’ we are still communal at heart. So now your parents, your brothers and sisters are going to go back to the village, and people are going to point at them and make snide stories and talk. Your family gets put into songs. That’s the kind of stigma attached to being gay in Nigeria.
“If a player comes out and says, ‘I’m gay,’ then the trouble doesn’t just start and end with the player. It goes all the way back to the family: parents, sisters, brothers, cousins, everything. One person just sparks off a chain reaction. That’s why it’s so tough.
“You probably also saw the legislation banning homosexuality. If any [legislator] takes something about [passing laws against] homosexuality to the assembly it gets passed almost unanimously. You probably get one or two voices opposing it, but generally it gets overwhelming support. That’s the kind of society we live in. It’s a crime to be gay. It’s a 14-year jail term. That’s national. If you see someone say ‘I love this guy’ on Twitter and someone hashtags it #14Years, that’s what they’re talking about.”
This has also led to Nigerian national team officials publicly stating that those suspected of being gay aren’t allowed to play for the country, as Wahl writes:
Nigerian federation officials deny that any players have been kept off the national team due to their sexual orientation. But in 2013, as the Nigerian government began cracking down on homosexuality with anti-gay legislation, a revealing statement came from Dilichukwu Onyedinma, who’s currently the head of the Nigerian women’s soccer league and an official in the Nigerian soccer federation.
“We don’t tolerate lesbianism, and we always discuss it whenever we meet,” Onyedinma told a Nigerian paper. “We always warn clubs and club chairmen to please tell their players to desist from it, because any player that we pick for national competitions, and we hear a little story that is involved in that, we disqualify the player.”
When her quote was first publicized, Onyedinma denied that she had said it. But the Nigerian paper then posted a recording of her saying it on YouTube.
On one hand, Canada and Canadians can’t do much about the laws of Nigeria and other participating countries (according to this Washington Post infographic, Cameroon is the only other participating country to outright criminalize homosexuality, but that doesn’t mean every other country handles gay rights well). It’s not Canada that gets to choose who’s allowed to play in the Women’s World Cup, it’s FIFA, so Canada unilaterally banning countries for regressive policies certainly isn’t an option.
It’s highly unlikely FIFA will do anything on this front any time soon, either; while the organization occasionally makes noises about equality, they’ve done next to nothing to support it, and women’s soccer is an incredibly low priority for them overall. There has only ever been one woman elected to FIFA’s executive committee, Burundi’s Lydia Nsekera, and the organization seems more concerned with forcing participants to undergo problematic gender-verification tests than they are with equality for gay players.
Beyond that, even if FIFA did investigate countries like Nigeria, they might not find anything. Officials would probably make up performance-centred reasons for dropping players suspected of being gay, and players would likely be reluctant to talk about their sexuality in a country where that’s criminalized. Without a paper trail or recorded comments, pure discrimination is tough to prove.
On the other hand, though, it’s a little surprising that there haven’t been more open protests in Canada against the Nigerian and Cameroonian teams. Officials from those countries are certainly following how their teams do at this Women’s World Cup, and protests against their policies might show the depth of international condemnation for those laws and perhaps even lead to some changes. There were plenty of protests in Canada against Russia’s anti-gay laws before the 2014 Olympics, and while those didn’t necessarily lead to immediate change, they did help contribute to the international outcry that forced Russia to at least rein in discrimination against gay athletes during the Games (and may lead to greater changes down the road). Yes, it’s a little different when you’re talking about participating countries rather than host countries, and yes, the Nigerian players aren’t to blame, but their current and former coaches certainly aren’t standing up for gay rights.
There’s a case to be made that public protests might help boost the international scrutiny of Nigeria’s laws and force some change.
This isn’t to say that the Nigerian players should be villainized, or that the outcome of matches like Tuesday night’s USA-Nigeria clash has anything to do with the push for LGBT equality. In fact, the overriding emotion from openly gay players like Wambach isn’t anger, but sadness. Here’s what she told Wahl:
“It makes me sad, really sad,” she said, “because I’m afforded all these rights that other people in the world aren’t. I’m sad that there are other women in the world who feel the exact same way as me, and they can’t be or are scared to be themselves and feel confident and comfortable in their skin.”
Women’s soccer has come a long way over the years, and it’s so positive that players like Wambach and McLeod can openly speak about their sexuality without fear of punishment. In fact, women’s soccer is way ahead of most sports on the equality front; having 17 openly gay or bisexual players in a top-level tournament is amazing, especially when you compare it to events like the 2014 men’s World Cup (no openly gay players) and all current major American pro sports (the only one that currently has even one openly gay player is Major League Soccer with Robbie Rogers). However, finding positives elsewhere in the tournament doesn’t mean that the regressive policies of countries like Nigeria should be overlooked. There’s no call for trying to ban them or for abusing their players, but you can bet that the country’s officials are tuned into Nigeria’s performance in this tournament. That might provide an opportunity to send them a message that the world doesn’t condone their harsh anti-gay laws.
paula here. To Dilichukwu Onyedinma and others – I would like to comment. Please go on any Psychological or Psychiatric Association or Institution (world-wide) and research what these scientists are stating about homosexuality. They all agree that “homosexuality is NOT a disease, mental illness or PERVERSION.” They further state that homosexuality “cannot be reversed, therefore, it is NOT a choice.”
Why would anyone (Christians, Muslims etc) want to persecute someone born as a homosexual? We have been in every country since the dawn of civilization. Please do not rely on ancient religious texts – written when people lived in tents or in caves. Thank you, paula.
FIFA should be banning Nigeria and other homophobic countries. They once had a moral standard and banned South Africa when apartheid was rampant. paula.