Jess Fishlock: How Wales’ first centurion is changing the face of football

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Welsh superstar and bastion for equality Jess Fishlock recently sat down with the game changers podcast. In a powerful interview, Fishlock discussed her career so far and her status as a role model for the LGBTQ+ community.

"We do have a voice. We do have a platform. We're not just footballers and we can help create change."

Wales's leading international, an MBE and a leading voice for those who need to be spoken up for – Jess Fishlock's career is a thing of true beauty. But what ties the bow on the OL Reign midfielder’s package is how she goes about her distinguished career in such an understated manner.

Despite leaving the familiarity of her hometown in Llanrumney to take her career to the next level, Fishlock's roots run deep in the red and green of Wales. Forget Gareth Bale or Ryan Giggs, the 34-year-old holds the torch as her country's most capped player and was the first footballer, male or female, to reach centurion status for Wales.

In terms of contributions to her nation's international football scene, no one comes close to the midfielder's numbers. Fishlock prides herself on her 117 senior appearances for Wales, having represented her country against some of the best sides in the world.

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After being told she would never play for Wales because she was too small, Fishlock has gone on to become a beacon of positivity for others desperate to chase their dreams. One thing she has stressed is that football is not just the art of finding the back of the net – the importance of the sport runs much deeper than that.

Speaking to the game changers podcast, Fishlock discussed how football created a "safe space" for her when growing up, as she came to terms with her own sexuality.

“I'm always, always an advocate for youth because I feel that they're the most vulnerable and we let them down way too much.”

"I didn't really know how to navigate through that [being gay]. You know, that was very difficult, and just kind of normal life, everyday life, but also in school," she explained. "I would go training twice a week and I would be surrounded by people who were very visible to me, very understanding and just made me kind of feel like it was okay.”

"It really helped me find my own identity, but also navigate through the other aspects of my life that I was finding very difficult."

As a leading name within the sport both domestically and internationally, Fishlock opened up about her desire to give back to the community she grew up in and flourished as a queer young woman.

"When I was growing up, the LGBTQ community was just completely underground," she said. "And I want there to be visibility – specifically in Wales because there just isn't enough for the youth.”

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During her career, Fishlock has represented sides in England, Holland, Australia, Scotland, Germany, the U.S. and France. She now plies her trade in the Women’s Super League, on loan to Reading from OL Reign.

There is a huge chasm in the visibility of same-sex relationships in men and women’s football. The comfort that both athletes and supporters find within the women's game is testament to the harmonious nature of the sport and the safe community cocooned around it. For their male counterparts, being openly gay is still unheard of in elite-level football.

Fishlock has acknowledged the stereotype of being a gay female athlete but believes that, while the stigma is an irritating one, it at least creates space for those under the LGBTQ+ umbrella to feel safe.

“Because we are visible and because we are open, then it does lead to the fact that everybody just thinks every female athlete is gay and that's, you know, just unfair and unjust," the 34-year-old discussed.

“I think the bigger picture is that the visibility is so important.”

"And so, you know, if that means that some people get labeled as gay and they're not, I'm really sorry, but I'm kind of okay with that because I think that, ultimately, you know you're not gay, so it's all nice, you know? Like you're alright, your life's okay."

Indeed, the level of homophobia within sport continues to be a huge issue. Recent studies revealed that 80 percent of a pool of more than 9,000 gay and straight people had witnessed or experienced homophobia within sport, with 78 percent admitting they do not think LGBTQ+ supporters would be safe at a sporting event.

With well-known athletes like Fishlock and her teammate Megan Rapinoe openly discussing same sex relationships, it provides a safe environment for their peers — and in turn, supporters — to be themselves and embrace who they are without fear of judgement.

Rapinoe is a trailblazer when it comes to fighting political issues and injustice. The U.S. international is constantly speaking up to try and make the world a better place, with her recent trip to the White House paying testament to that.

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When Fishlock first broke onto the scene as a professional footballer, there were no out gay icons for her to look towards for comfort or inspiration. Now, there are so many like-minded people, such as herself and Rapinoe, who are notable role models within the game.

"Sharing the locker room with Megan Rapinoe – like it's such an honour," Fishlock said of her OL Reign teammate. "Not only because she is an incredible football player and athlete, but who she is as a person – she's great.

"And now people have a lot of problems with Megan, especially over here. She's just so raw, but so honest in what she wants and what she thinks. Nine and a half times out of 10, it's for other people, you know. What she wants in social justice and against racism and the LGBTQ community and youth, everything that she fights for is basically for other people."

Fishlock continues to represent her country at the highest level and play alongside some of the sport's best. More importantly, though, she is a constant representation of the change that should be happening in the world.

The passionate patriot continues to provide a voice for those who need it most. Her MBE for services to the LGBTQ+ community only highlights that the world is listening.

This article was produced in partnership with the game changers podcast, which is supported by Barclays. You can listen to the full episode with Jess Fishlock here.

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