My wife and I celebrated our second wedding anniversary ten days into the 2019 Women’s World Cup. I wanted to get her something special, and something soccer-related, and settled on a recorded video from the celebrity greeting startup service Cameo, featuring former U.S. Women’s National Team star, Kristine Lilly, one of her heroes since childhood.
The day of, I pulled up my phone and there she was, sitting on her couch at home, watching Japan/Italy, wishing my wife a happy anniversary and thanking her for her years of support. I’ll never forget her reaction, wide-eyed and grinning, repeating “It’s Kristine Lilly!” with the ebullience of a second-grader who had just received a Nintendo 64 for Christmas in 1997.
I didn’t even think about how vulnerable this ask was until weeks later, even if it was one that did involve paying real money to a retired professional athlete and a startup that can get Gary Busey to wish you a happy birthday if you cough up $350. I was asking a total stranger to bless our love and our relationship, or at least pretend to, to celebrate my wife and by proxy, us as a queer married couple. Of course queer relationships don’t have to be validated by straight/cis people, or anyone, to be worthy and beautiful, but you don’t need me to tell you this.
I had no reason to believe Kristine Lilly would be anything less than supportive, and, granted, this was a money-making exercise. But at a time when the few rainbow-colored crumbs of progress are getting swept away and outlets are still issuing opinion polls asking my fellow Americans if they’re cool with people like my wife and I and our queer and trans beloveds, as if a person’s existence was the kind of thing you could agree or disagree about, that kind of validation no longer feels guaranteed, and I feel more and more naïve thinking that it will be. And so any celebration of queer love, joy and desire feels all the more urgent.
I’d been looking forward to the joyful convergence of Pride Month and the Women’s World Cup as soon as the temperature in Chicago started to dip above 30 degrees. My excitement ratcheted even further when USWNT and Orlando Pride teammates and gay icons Ali Krieger and Ashlyn Harris announced their engagement in March, and again right before the tournament when Jessie Losch, a fellow Effortista, tweeted this dispatch from the USA vs. Mexico sendoff match: “The couple in front of me just kissed and shouted ‘for Krashlyn!’ and this match is the best thing ever.” (“Krashlyn”—and I probably don’t have to explain this to most UE readers, but, you know, just in case—is the portmanteau “ship” name for Krieger and Harris.)
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Come on, y’all. Tell me you didn’t feel your heart leap imagining hearing that. Tell me you didn’t shed at least the slightest hint of a tear thinking about a queer couple being motivated to proudly show love and affection thanks to two athletes doing the same. It’s wild to think about how radical and necessary these gestures still seem. Yet in 2019, in the age of Trump and Bolsonaro, in the face of the willful use of homophobic goal kick chants across North America and Legia Warsaw fans hoisting anti-gay tifo and of so many clubs and leagues failing to confront antipathy towards LGBTQ+ players and supporters while hiding beyond rainbow armbands and “#SoccerForAll” platitudes, authentic global-stage visibility and irrefutable evidence of queer joy are still powerful and meaningful for so many people.
The first place I was ever harassed to the point of feeling unsafe for being queer was at a soccer match, while waving a rainbow flag in the stands. To see in the women’s soccer community a space—albeit one that is far from perfect or universal but is ever growing—where queer players and fans and relationships are not just tolerated, but affirmed and celebrated, is no small thing. To know that the existence of two players on the pitch who love each other and do so loudly inspired two women in the stands, and hopefully scores more, to show that same kind of ecstatic and proud love and joy is beautiful. And I am sure they are not the only couple whom Krashlyn has empowered to find their full-throated, exalting voices.
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There are 36 out players at the World Cup this time around—twice as many as in the 2015 tournament—representing 13 countries. It’s the latter statistic that feels particularly important—we know queer people exist everywhere, but so much of what US soccer fans absorb is placed in an American-centric context.
That’s millions of supporters across 37 time zones who saw Chilean defender Fernanda Pinilla holding the line with Cristiane Endler, who perhaps searched for more information about Pinilla and found a powerful interview where she discusses her responsibility to the next generation as an out footballer. They cheered Vivianne Miedema leveling perfect through-balls to Lineth Beerensteyn, and maybe they sought out her Instagram and double-tapped the photo of her with her girlfriend, Arsenal teammate and Scottish national team player Lisa Evans, the two of them dressed as Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter. They watched Lorena Benítez practically run her legs off and her heart out in Argentina’s opening match, and maybe they looked her up on Twitter after, where she writes about missing her partner and newborn twins. Four years from now, even more players will be out on those pitches, playing and loving and existing as their full selves, partners and beloveds in the stands, motivating another generation to live the same way.
And it’s the out stars of the sport who have given the World Cup some of its most bold and iconic kiss-offs. Homophobic trolling catalyzed Sam Kerr’s “suck on that one” remark after the Matildas’ victory over Brazil. Megan Rapinoe, who took a knee in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick two years ago, drew the ire of the big wet president by insisting she was “not going to the fucking White House.” One of the first teammates to back Rapinoe up after Trump attacked her in response was—no surprise here—Ali Krieger. There may be nothing revolutionary about deeply satisfying comebacks and soundbites, especially from famous professional athletes, but in a world that simultaneously decries identity politics and politicizes our identities, small defiances are amplified by their larger context. Sometimes, all it takes is seeing one person to speak out in defiance, to call “bullshit,” whether it’s on homophobic Premier League avi reply guys or Mike Pence, to inspire others watching to do the same.
It’s not just seeing out and proud athletes playing hard or clapping back that feels resonant and heartening during the World Cup, but it’s the joy of witnessing queer relationships and families on such a massive, global stage. It’s seeing Adrianna Franch’s megawatt smile when her girlfriend is cheering her on in the stands in Le Havre. It’s seeing Nikki Stanton on social media, showing off the stickers Chicago Local 134 made of the “suck on that one” heard ‘round the world, cheeky solidarity from an ocean away. Getting a glimpse into our favorite athletes’ relationships reminds us that they are human, and that humans need love and intimacy and affection, and that the right to experience those things unencumbered is worth fighting for. The whole world is watching; let’s kiss.
There’s a balance that has to take place, and I wonder if other fans struggle with it, between feeling emotionally invested in these amazing queer athletes and their love stories unfolding on the largest international stages, and worrying about the invasiveness of “shipping” real people. I know this is a phenomenon that has much more to do with celebrity than with sexual orientation—a relationship between Krieger and Harris or a Daniëlle Van De Donk and Beth Mead would be banal if they weren’t among the greatest athletes on the planet. People find love in the workplace all the time! Nevertheless, there’s a part of me that feels protective of the Kriegers and Harrises of the sport.
There’s pressure enough that comes along with being a public figure, let alone a public figure whose relationship, marriage, family, mean so many things to thousands of strangers you will never meet, and all of that being ratcheted so much further in a World Cup year. I don’t have the answer to how to navigate that, or how to resolve fans’ complicated problem of placing their own emotional needs at the center when viewing someone else’s relationship. But even in the thrill of watching Krieger and Harris don the badge together, we have to remember that these are real people, who sometimes fuck up and and sometimes can’t give everything to their fans, and understand the starry-eyed fantasy is just that—fantasy.
As Pride Month comes to a close, queer folks, soccer fans and otherwise, around the world will be thinking about The Work that still needs to be done in our communities. For many queer and trans folks around the world, the glittery, ecstatic joy of this month has been diminished by a number of horrific acts. Nazis literally showed up at a Pride parade in Detroit and the cops protected them. “Love is love” often doesn’t feel like enough when so many members of our beloved community are subject to hostility and violence with terrifying frequency. “Love is love” isn’t enough when the tides you thought were with you are starting to turn, and when we turn against our fellow queer and trans folks for telling the truth about the urgent work we all need to undertake well beyond Pride month. That Work can feel overwhelming—how can we show up for our LGBTQ+ family members who need it most when we can’t even give proper credence to the continuum of the movement at its birthplace, or to a lesser extent, get the guy next to us in the stands to stop doing That Goal Kick Chant?
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But strength to do that work, to show up for our vast and global and beloved community, has to come from somewhere. And maybe that somewhere is the World Cup. On the pitches of France this month, there’s a glimpse of a joyful, global queer future, with embraces and goal celebrations and kids watching at home in Buenos Aires or Rotterdam or Hobart or Orlando, who see Lorena Benítez and her beautiful family or Vivianne Miedema and Lisa Evans on Halloween and think, “I can have that. This is a possibility for me, and it’s wonderful.” Who see Megan Rapinoe or Sam Kerr standing up for themselves and combating institutional and individual hate and say, “I can do that, and I will do that. I will show up for myself and others.” Who see Ali Krieger and Ashlyn Harris together, on and off the pitch, and feel sparks at the back of their necks and feel the world come into focus.
More and more possibilities are making themselves known since the last World Cup, and more are ahead, and there will be more reasons to throw our heads back and cheer. The work is hard, and there is no backflip goal dance or rainbow armband waiting at the end of every day, but any chance we get to affirm and celebrate this kind of love communally, all together, to take in the joy of that kind of public love, is worth taking, and will only help us along the way.
We will move forward together. We will show up for each other, in joy and sorrow. We will love with everything we have. Beyond Pride Month, beyond the tournament, beyond the pitch. Maybe for Krashlyn, but really, for all of us.