Netherlands women's national team defender Merel van Dongen [she/her], 28, plays her club football for Atletico Madrid, and played collegiate soccer for Alabama Crimson Tide. She played for the Oranjevrouwen at the 2015 and 2019 FIFA Women's World Cups, finishing second to the USA at the latter.
What was the 'coming out to myself' process like for you?
I'm from a family that is very open-minded and accepting. I never had any trouble with the fact that I'm into women. So when I discovered it, it wasn't stressful or anything. I can't remember any stress or any 'oh my god what do I do...' like you read sometimes. It was a peaceful period, with lots of room to figure out who I was and who I loved.
Did you have a specific reason for coming out to the media/public, rather than keeping your private life private?
I do a lot of interviews with newspapers and magazines and so on, and they ask personal questions. It wasn't like I wanted to come out to the media, but if they asked me about my love life, I told them. So that got the ball rolling and someone quoted me as being very happy with my girlfriend. Some media still find that very interesting, or special, for this society we live in. And that resulted in extra interviews about coming out... or about being a lesbian in the soccer world. So it's not so much that I was eager to come out to the soccer world. It's more that the media were eager to ask me why I'm so okay with talking about this. I don't mind talking about it, but It would be good to create a world where it's no longer interesting whether you're into women or men.
Has coming out impacted your career and opportunities at all?
I'm almost sure... No, I'm 100% sure it has not affected my achievements and my career. It hasn't kept me from things, or the other way round: That I got special treatment because I'm a lesbian. That happens too. But either way, that's not the case. The situation I'm in is pretty ideal.
How has your sport changed with regard to the LGBTQ+ community during your career?
I simply came out of the closet, it hasn't bothered me. But it's not like that for everyone. There are girls for whom coming out is really hard. I do see that we're becoming more open about our relationships, that we no longer think it's something you should keep to yourself. It's fine to post a picture of your girlfriend on Instagram. And in men's football it would be great if that were to happen. But, sadly, that's not happening yet. When you look at football as a sport, women's football could be an example of openness about who you are and who you love, as a great soccer player. In men's football the opposite is true, you can't be who you are. So in that respect, the men can learn from the women that it makes no difference who you are [off the field], you're a professional.
What is the most rewarding, and perhaps unexpected, part of being out?
I get the most satisfaction out of messages in the socials from girls or guys in the closet who decided to come out after seeing an interview with me. With good results, that I was helpful to them, or my advice helped them. That I can be a role model for people outing themselves. That is by far the greatest satisfaction for me since I came out in the world of sports.
What would your advice be to folks who are struggling with their identity?
It's okay to be who you are. Maybe people around you want you to be different, but that is really their problem, not yours. That's my main message. If it's a problem to others, you don't have to solve that. You are fine the way you are. It's totally normal to be into girls, or guys, or everything in between. Find your moment when it's okay for you to come out. Just remember: They should accept you just the way you are. A lot of young people are afraid that they're weird. But people who think it's weird to be gay, that's weird. I hope everyone realises that.
When debating coming out in your mind, what were your worst - and best - case scenarios? And did either come to pass?
Like I said, it was all pretty peaceful. But I was scared that my friends, my really close friends, would think I'd be in love with them too. That was difficult. It never happened, I still have them, we're still close. Nothing went wrong there, I'm happy to say. And the best thing was that I could be myself and bring my girlfriend to parties and to matches and all that. I never had to hide her. Everyone knows: This is Merel, with her girlfriend, that's it, deal with it. That's what happened. So on both counts it has gone well.
Did you ever feel any pressure, either internally or from speculating fans, to be a role model or an ambassador for the queer community? And is that something you embrace now?
I've done a lot of interviews about having a girlfriend, in every interview there are questions about that part of me. I don't mind that at all, but I want the media to focus on me as a professional football player, on the Dutch team, second in the world. Not on Merel van Dongen, the lesbian with the nice girlfriend. I want them to think of me as that great football player. If it's an interview about relationship advice, then sure, call me. But it's usually interviews about sports that turn into interviews about being a lesbian. That's a shame. I don't mind answering those questions, I'm completely open about that. But I'm a sportswoman, rather than a lesbian sportswoman. It's about as interesting as me preferring endives over curly kale. It's a silly issue in a sports interview. I hope I'll be remembered later on as that great football player, not as Merel the lesbian.
Read Merel van Dongen's interview in Dutch HERE