Meleana Shim is not alone.
The midfielder for the Portland Thorns FC knew before entering the National Women's Soccer League earlier this year that no matter what team she landed on, she would not be the only lesbian. In her first year in the league, she's found that to be more true than she realized.
"I feel like there are a lot of gay women in soccer," Shim told Outsports earlier this week via phone from Rochester, N.Y., where the Thorns will play for the NWSL championship on Saturday. "But not very many of us openly talk about it. I think now more of us are starting to take a stand, but I still don't think it's very representative of just how many of us there are. I think the silence sends a message that it's not okay to be a lesbian in sports, or that it's a taboo topic."
While she has not hidden her sexual orientation since entering the pros, describing herself as lesbian on her Athlete Ally profile, she's taking the unique step of talking about it publicly for the first time in this article the day before she and her team play for the NWSL championship.
"I've been pretty involved with different organizations," Shim said. "I've read a lot and volunteered at LGBT community centers, and I see there's a need for support and for role models for kids. Whenever I hear the statistics about kids killing themselves because of their sexuality, or they're being bullied at school, it makes me want to do something about it."
Growing up in Honolulu, Shim has known she was gay since preschool. She didn't have a name for it then, but she was aware at a very young age that her attractions - non-sexual at the time - were different from other girls. As a youth, she sought out the attractive female friends of her family. She remembers being nervous, acting funny in the presence of women, having crushes on them the way some of her young male friends did.
"I don't think I ever really questioned that," Shim remembered. "I dated guys in high school and wondered if I could do it. But it was more for my own peace of mind, to confirm that it wasn't an option.
"I'm very gay."
Despite her 100%, certifiable gayness, Shim said she often struggles with a frustrating dynamic: People regularly assume she's straight. With long hair and her style of dress, she doesn't fit the stereotypical image that so many still carry around of what a lesbian looks like.
"In some ways, I wish everyone knew I was gay. I wish I was more apparently gay. I get hit on by men all the time, and lesbians don't hit on me because they don't think I'm interested."
Some will say that a lesbian in pro soccer isn't news. They're right; It's not. What continues to be important news is when one of those lesbians - like Shim - decides to speak out about it publicly. While the false stereotype says every female athlete is a lesbian, it doesn't make it any easier for lesbians to come out in sport.
"It has to do with the coach and the leadership of where the person is playing," said Helen Carroll, director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights' sports project. "There are still so many coaches who don't want that 'image' of their team. They think it tears apart the ideas of family values and the family coming to watch the match. That pressure is still put on lesbians in a heavy way."
Shim felt that pressure in a similar way at Santa Clara University. At the Jesuit school just outside of San Jose, Calif., religion played a strong role on the women's soccer team. Bible study and pre-game prayer were staples of their routine.
"There were a lot of very religious girls on my team," Shim said. "Some of them had a hard time with lesbians, to be honest."
While religion plays a role on her Portland Thorns FC team, Shim said the atmosphere is very different.
"My teammates are awesome," she said. "No one has given me a hard time. I talk about my relationships very openly, and we talk about it like we talk about the straight girls. There isn't much of a difference."
Now Shim is preparing with those teammates for the NWSL championship game on Saturday. Shim will not be the only lesbian in the game. They face off against the Western New York Flash in Rochester. The two teams played to a 0-0 tie in Rochester just three weeks ago and tied 1-1 in a July 14 game in Portland; Shim scored her team's only goal against the Flash this season.
"We're ready to do our thing," Shim said. "We're confident in each other. That's the key."
You can find Meleana Shim on Twitter. She is also a pro ambassador for Athlete Ally. The National Center For Lesbian Rights has been working behind the scenes for equality in women's sports for a decade. For the nation's largest network of LGBT athletes, visit GO! Athletes.
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