Unlike many pro athletes a generation ago, when soccer players Joanna Lohman and Lianne Sanderson came out in their early twenties, their families, friends and teammates were more than accepting.
“When I told some of my ex-teammates, they didn’t care,” says Lohman, 31, who now plays for the Boston Breakers with Sanderson, her partner since 2010. “They were like, ‘Whatever. That’s great.’ ”
Sanderson, 26, who also plays for England’s national team, tells PEOPLE, “Our families were so understanding. We certainly have friends and people who have reached out to us who weren’t that lucky.”
Indeed, fans and strangers reach out to the engaged couple, asking them for advice.
“I get people writing to me probably bi-weekly telling me about their journey and how they don’t know how to come out and that they don’t know how to tell their parents,” says Lohman, speaking with PEOPLE exclusively for a portfolio of gay professional athletes on their choices to play and live openly. (Watch a video of all the athletes below.)
“I try to give them advice and make them feel like they’re not alone. Everyone wants to be accepted. When they see me and Lianne out on the field, they think, ‘Wow. If they can do it on that stage ‘ It gives them power to really live their lives honestly.”
Lohman, who has played on the U.S. women’s national team, volunteers with Go! Athletes, an organization committed to ending anti-LGBT bias in sports, speaking at colleges about her experiences as an out athlete.
“I never thought when I started playing soccer that I would ever have this platform to truly make a difference,” says Lohman. “Never did I think it would be through my sexuality, but I’m very open and honest. I like to interact with the fans and hopefully they believe that I’m down-to-earth and accessible.”
Sanderson understands what it feels like to be singled out. Growing up, she was the only girl on an all-boys’ team. “If I was playing in a game and I was getting a goal, some of the parents would say, ‘Oh. She’s only a girl,” and say derogatory things about me,” she says.
“My mom and dad would get upset, but then at the end of the game, those same people would come up to me, shaking my hand and congratulating me. It shouldn’t have even gotten to that point.”
Hearing those comments only made her more “inspired,” says Sanderson, who turned pro at age 14 and played on England’s World Cup team at 19. “It didn’t really affect me. I think when you get older things that people say may affect you more. I just wanted to play soccer and wanted to run around in the mud and be outside.”
For more on Joanna Lohman and Lianne Sanderson and the exclusive portfolio of gay professional athletes, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now