Erin McLeod became fully aware of the importance of nuanced language when John Herdman took over the Canadian women’s soccer team in 2011.
Herdman was addressing his players one day about an event and mentioned that they were welcome to bring their “partners” or “significant others.” On the surface, his vocabulary could have been viewed as inconsequential. But not to McLeod. It resonated with her.
“His gender-neutral language made a really big difference,” says McLeod, who went on to win Olympic bronze as goalkeeper on Herdman’s squad in 2012. She had become accustomed to hearing coaches use terms like “boyfriend” or “husband” throughout her time in soccer.
“That is probably the quickest way to make an assumption,” says McLeod, who came out over five years ago. “Then immediately, all the people who maybe don’t have male significant others feel like, ‘OK, I’m not seen here.’ … [On the other hand,] when you feel like you’re seen as a human being on a team, it changes the way you play.”
McLeod, 38, has publicly embraced her authentic self while earning several accolades over her successful career, including four trips to the World Cup and two to the Olympics. She’s currently tending the twine for the Orlando Pride of the National Women’s Soccer League and, along with partner and teammate Gunny Jonsdottir, is a vocal advocate for the LGBTQ+ community.
Sportsnet caught up with McLeod during Pride Month to chat about advocacy, allyship and her standing with the Canadian National Team ahead of the upcoming Tokyo Games.
(Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.)
Sportsnet: The last year has brought about a quantum leap in terms of discussion and advocacy in all areas, including race, sexual orientation and more. What are your thoughts on the current climate and how far we’ve seemingly come since the beginning of 2020?
McLeod: You’re right — I think that there’s been fantastic progress as far as so many people are asking internal questions about race and sexual orientation and gender expression. And for me, when [Canadian soccer player] Quinn came out [as openly transgender], it was a significant moment for my personal learning because it was the first time I really thought about gender — in the sense that you either express yourself as a boy or a girl. But I remember growing up not really fitting in either of those categories in a sense that it was confusing because I wanted to be a professional athlete and I thought that meant I needed to be a boy because on TV at the time, there was only male athletes. And I didn’t want to be playing with Barbies. It was just, “Oh, I love the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” And so by definition I was what some people would [call] “a tomboy,” but I didn’t fit into any of the girl gender stereotypes.
And what I realized recently in the past year, which has been great, is transgender doesn’t necessarily mean you’re transitioning from one gender to another. It also can be that you exist in the middle between these two things. And, you know, that’s what it is to be non-binary. To me, it’s more of an education. When you see the world a certain way your whole life and then you kinda start thinking, “Oh, I guess a lot of this is learned through society.” So, in that sense, I feel very lucky to be in this community and still learning about myself and also just kind of questioning. I think it’s important to question what you’ve learned.
Over the last year, has anything changed in your approach to advocacy? Not so much your internal approach or what you’re thinking about, but externally?
Yeah, definitely. It’s two-fold. What I realized when the Black Lives Matter movement started was that it was not OK to just not be racist. It’s about being anti-racist. Because not speaking up was also part of the problem. And I think from that I’ve learned to be more outspoken about every letter that falls in the LGBTQ+ community, and whether or not I fit into any of those categories wasn’t the point. The point is to fight against hate. And I know that ignorance is part of life, but I keep encouraging people to educate themselves. I don’t want to be a hypocrite, so I’m also educating myself, and I think where I feel more secure than I ever have is when I dress a certain way and how I express myself. I don’t do it for anyone else or I don’t do it to fit into a norm. I just do it because that’s how I want to express myself. And I feel very grateful to be in an environment where I’m not judged and I’m just supported and just being who I am.
That self-confidence — would you say it’s grown over the last year?
What’s been really wonderful about this last year is sometimes conversations about race, about gender, about certain things can be uncomfortable because a lot of people don’t like to admit what they don’t know. And sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know, as well. And I think people are becoming more open to having these conversations and educating themselves. The conversations are happening more and more often. I know even here [with] the Pride, we’re having these conversations a lot, whether it’s about race, whether it’s about gender identity. And for me, anyway, it hasn’t been a common topic on a lot of the teams I have played on. And I know with the Canadian National Team, we’ve done some diversity and inclusion training, and I’m very proud of that. And I know everyone has a long way to go. But I think just acknowledging that the education is out there, I think has been inspiring a lot of really honest conversations.
What do those conversations look like?
Well, for example, one thing that we talk about a lot is a kneeling during the anthem. That comes up a lot. And I know there’s been some conversations about whether kneeling for the anthem is about the flag. Is it about the military? Why are we kneeling?
Of course, not everyone is always going to agree. And we’re all in different places of learning. But I can’t imagine sparking that conversation years ago. Racism, homophobia, transphobia — all these are learned, so it’s kind of getting down to, “At what point did we learn this? At one point did we look the other way.” In that sense, I think the conversation has been really inspiring and, yes, uncomfortable at times. But I think acceptance that knowing it will be uncomfortable, but with good intentions, is for the betterment of everyone.
McLeod waves to the crowd after a win over China at the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Edmonton. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)
During the last year, a lot of people became aware of what it means to be an ally, whether to the LGBTQ+ community, to BIPOCs, or to other marginalized groups. So, I want to ask you, what do you make of the current level of allyship you’re seeing with the LGBTQ+ community? Because as a BIPOC myself, there are times when I look at allyship with a jaded lens. I often wonder, “Is it genuine? Is it performative?” Where do you stand?
This is a great question. When we first started kneeling for Black Lives Matter, at first, it was extremely powerful and it still is. But I think at some point it loses its power if nothing is being done. Actions are just as important. And, you know, it still means something to show some support. If you’re an ally and showing support on social media, that is still a great step. But I think the biggest thing that you can do as an ally is learn. Right now in lot of places in the U.S., they’re trying to ban trans youth in sports. There are definitely opportunities where people can start educating themselves and be like, “Why are people fighting so hard against this? Is this ignorance?” And kind of find the answer for yourself.
I think sometimes it can be challenging for allies if they don’t have someone in their circle or maybe there is someone in their circle, but they’re just too afraid because they’re not sure [what to say or do]. So I think there are small things allies can do, like putting their pronouns at the end of their email signature or use gender-neutral language. It’s great to raise money for causes like Athlete Ally and the Human Rights Campaign. But even just following those organizations on Instagram and getting tidbits of information.
But what’s been really cool over the last couple of years is also evaluating yourself and what you want to stand for and your “Why.” And I think people are normally their best selves when they’re concerned with the greater good.
Lastly, the Canadian Olympic squad has a camp and exhibition match coming up. How are you feeling about your standing with the team as the roster takes final shape?
I’m always really grateful to be called in. Two years ago, I had nerve pain in my feet so that I couldn’t even walk. So, I feel lucky to be called in. As far as my chances, I’m at the point where it’s taken me a long time to get here. I’m gonna go and give it everything I can. That’s all I can do. And we’ll see. I think what’s cool is that I know that I’ll be proud of myself whether I’m going to go to the Olympics or not. At the end of the day, I believe in the team.