In July, Unusual Efforts published a thoughtful piece on homophobia in American soccer. It related the experiences of a queer person going to an MLS game and being an MLS fan.
What struck me about the piece – and almost every piece that discusses homophobia and transphobia in American soccer – is that I have never heard a comparable story from the women’s side of the game. Why was that, I wondered? Perhaps we simply don’t hear about it, due to the general underreporting that goes on around women’s soccer in the first place.
So I asked a few NWSL fans about their experiences with homophobia and transphobia to see what their lived experiences were. I also asked their thoughts on how to keep anti-LGBT thoughts and actions out of women’s soccer as it inevitably expands.
I spoke with fans of teams from Boston to Chicago to New Jersey and had none of them had any firsthand experience with homophobia or transphobia.
I interviewed the Washington Spirit’s Joanna Lohman, and she didn’t have any firsthand experiences with homophobia either, except to recall a lone person on Twitter.
“I think once on Twitter I put up something about being gay and somebody wrote back to me, like, you’re gonna burn in hell or something like that, but that was literally one person,” Lohman said via phone interview.
That jibed with what I’ve experienced so far going to soccer games since the Boston Breakers were in WPS – fanbases open to people regardless of gender, gender expression, or sexual orientation. So what are some of the factors creating such a markedly different atmosphere between American men and women’s pro soccer? For one, LGBT fans of NWSL aren’t coming to an established group; they were first on the scene, and have remained a visible part of the fandom.
“We have a pretty solid group of queer fans in Cloud 9 [a Sky Blue supporters group],” said Sarah. “It’s not all of us, but it’s a big chunk, and I believe most if not all of the original organizers are queer, so the tone seems to have been set from the beginning.”
Haley, an NWSL fan who identifies as genderqueer, had similar thoughts. “There are other visibly queer people in the fan group and at the games, and I think that visibility is helpful,” they said.
Molly Ferris, a Chicago supporter, also saw their community get in on the ground floor of the game. “I think when the NWSL rolled around, we saw a new chance to build our own environment and community,” they said. “The NWSL fans are a much smaller bunch than MLS. Since we are not as established we have had to work together, within supporters groups and with other SG’s, to make a community, environment and relationships that worked for our needs. When there are not as many of you, you can’t be shouting words that you know directly affects the person sitting next to you.”
Melissa, a Boston fan, said that she had never experienced any transphobia at games, at least not to her face. “It is mostly a younger crowd and one that is generally LGBT-friendly,” she said. “This sport is not well covered in the media and we’re not yet part of mainstream culture. I think generally the kind of person who seeks out a community like this one is likely to be a fairly tolerant person; they’re interested in the sport and not in judging those who follow it along with them.”
All of them kept bringing up the benefit of community, how it sets the tone, the visibility, the inclusion of people who aren’t normally what is pictured by Americans when they hear the term “sports fan.”
“I think women’s soccer is still a very niche sport and it’s not a ‘cool’ sport to watch and you don’t get men from the 18-45 range watching much women’s soccer,” said Lohman. “I think it still is a small group, and it’s a very intimate sport where the players are very accessible. So because of all these reasons I think it’s a community. It builds a community that people want to belong to. We usually get the fans that want something to belong to, that need that, because they’ve been through some type of adversity. They’ve been ostracized at some point in their life. They’ve felt left out of things. They’ve felt like the oddball, and women’s soccer is something that they believe in that’s given them a community where they finally belong to something, and for them it’s such a powerful feeling. So I think that’s why we have a such a passionate fandom in soccer, because it’s finally like they’re accepted.”
In the United States, women’s soccer has, until now, been a sport that gets less attention, so the first fans to get to the American game were already inclined to not be “mainstream” sports fans, falling outside of the 18-45 male range mentioned by Lohman. That set the tone from the beginning, meaning from the start the sport was more open to women and LGBT fans.
The community has also remained small, making it harder or extremely unprofitable to ostracize anyone. The clannishness of the fanbase, especially in the face of disdain from other sports or even men’s soccer fans, has discouraged discrimination. There has been an us-vs-them mentality created by routinely being ignored by the media and other sports fans.
“If you’re a soccer fan in the US, you’re used to being told that soccer’s not one of the major sports in this country,” said Sarah. “If you’re a women’s soccer fan, forget it; you’re lucky if you can find a livestream of some games. I think a lot of us are just glad to finally have a bunch of people we can hang out with in real life to nerd out with and talk soccer, so there’s very little interest in excluding anyone. We just want to be with people who love our team as much as we do.”
“When I started coming to Breakers games, I didn’t really know anyone outside of work,” said Melissa. “I lost nearly all of my old friends when I came out, and the ones left don’t live around here. I suddenly found myself in a group of people who shared an interest in the sport and didn’t seem to care about who I was, only about my support for the team.”
But with women’s soccer growing as a sport, both in the US and internationally, how can fans work to ensure that games stay open and welcoming? If that small, intimate sense of camaraderie goes, will we then see an increase in offensive comments or incidents?
“I guess it’s possible that the atmosphere will become less friendly overall as it grows,” said Sarah, “But I do hope the foundation that the movement has been built on will prevent that. If supporters groups start from a place that makes it clear that homophobic/transphobic/misogynist behavior is unacceptable, I have to hope that will help prevent that behavior in the future. Fans and teams can help by making sure new fans know that kind of behavior isn’t ok – written codes of conduct, maybe, so that as leadership of teams and SGs change, the message remains.”
“I think one really important way to prevent discrimination is to keep channels of communication open,” said Haley. “People should be willing to talk about hard issues and to stand up when they see problematic behavior. They should have no tolerance for discrimination.”
Self-policing is certainly one option, and strong codes of conduct with immediate consequences for bad behavior can help nip problems in the bud. Among current NWSL supporters groups, with LGBT voices already in leadership positions, it should be easier to make sure their concerns are heard and acted upon.
There could also be initiatives from the club side as well, something we’re starting to see as some NWSL clubs institute Pride Nights or start selling pride merchandise, like the Houston Dash, Sky Blue FC, the Boston Breakers, and the Seattle Reign. Those are all signals that LGBT fans are welcome and wanted – after all, that gay cash spends just as well as anyone else’s dollars.
There seems to be a strong base in place to build on to keep LGBT fans feeling welcome. Perhaps as the fandom grows, because it’s building off that base, anti-LGBT incidents will be few and far between. But it’s important to remember how the early inclusion of previously marginalized groups can make it hard for prejudice to take root, and how continuing to include them as the sport grows can keep the fanbase healthy and safe. Soccer is for everyone, and fans and clubs alike must put in the work to keep it that way.