By Shaley Howard, PQ Monthly
Of all the sports I’ve watched throughout my years growing up in Portland, soccer has become one of my favorites — and I’m not alone. Since the Portland Timbers Football Club joined Major League Soccer in 2011 and the arrival of Portland Thorns Football Club this year, it seems like our city has gone soccer crazy. (Try meandering through Northwest Portland on a game night.)
What’s interesting, however, is how overtly friendly and welcoming the soccer scene is to the LGBTQ community compared to other sports in Portland. Wanting to figure out why, I started talking to fans.
Dwight Adkins wasn’t much of a soccer fanatic before the Timbers came to town, but he decided to buy season tickets anyway — he thought it would be a great way to socialize. He soon realized the Timbers have an amazing fan base that’s extremely community-oriented and welcoming of queers. He suggested that perhaps part of the reason homophobia isn’t as prevalent might be, in part, due to Major League Soccer’s “no tolerance” stance and “Don’t Cross the Line” campaign — featuring a video of MLS players promoting unity, respect, fair play, equality, and acceptance. The campaign states clearly that discrimination and harassment of any kind will not be tolerated.
“As an openly gay man, to see a professional sports organization embrace all fans and celebrate an atmosphere of inclusiveness made me feel welcome,” Adkins said. “I don’t have to hide who I am.”
Long-time supporter and fan Megan Banasek shared, “Anyone who goes to a Timbers or Thorns match knows that the queer population is 100 percent accepted, from the front office down to the supporters. It makes for a very safe space to be a sports fan. I haven’t felt that same safety at the other major league sports franchise in Portland; it’s nice to be in a group of supporters and sports fans who love me and my family for who we are, and [we] don’t ever give any kind of odd looks. I can kiss my fiancé as part of a goal celebration without fear.”
Perhaps another reason queer fans feel comfortable has to do with the number of professional players who are either out or straight allies — including Megan Rapinoe, Sarah Huffman, Abby Wambach, Keelin Winters, Marian Dougherty, and the first player to enter the MLS as an openly gay man, Robbie Rogers.
On the website for Athlete Ally, a non-profit organization dedicated to combatting homophobia and transphobia in sports, Western New York Flash player Sarah Huffman explains why she is a “pro ambassador” for the organization:“I am proud to be an athlete ally because I dream of a world full of equal opportunities and treatment. I believe that sports are a place where everybody belongs. Discrimination based upon sexual orientation, race, gender have no place in the world — nevertheless sports. I am excited to be an ally and stand up for people like me in the LGBT community.”
Fan Sarah Gilleland thinks credit for the tolerant atmosphere needs to start at the top. “If you have an organization that from the top down clearly is stating homophobia will not be tolerated, followed by players who are supportive, it does seem that it’s bound to trickle down to a crowd that’s more welcoming and diverse,” said Gilleland, who moved to Portland in 2008. “The soccer scene here in general has a completely different vibe than other sports where homophobic attitudes and stigmas are still alive and well.”
Timbers fan and soccer mom Brenda Dixon-Smith offered this perspective: “It’s a younger generation that’s active in the Portland soccer scene. They’re more gay-friendly and it’s just cool. There’s huge crowd participation, rainbow flags along with soccer ones waving. No one seems to care who your ‘family’ is; gay or lesbian, all are welcome. It’s almost as if you’re part of the soccer family”.
Speaking of the soccer family, let’s not forget the influence of the Timbers Army (TA) and Rose City Riveters (RCR). These fan groups seem to be the pulse of Portland’s professional soccer scene. The Timbers Army, for example, consists roughly 5,000 fans who never sit down and continually cheer throughout games.
True to form with the MLS’s stance of no discrimination, the ever-on-their-feet Timbers Army lets the world know where they stand. On May 12, 2013, the TA used 4,500 colored flags to create an enormous rainbow with a sign in the middle stating: “Pride, Not Prejudice” to show its solidarity with the LGBT community for the upcoming International Day Against Homophobia.
“The TA has had a ‘zero-tolerance for intolerance’ policy since its inception in 2001,” Timbers Army 107 Independent Supporters Trust Board Member Abram Goldman-Armstrong told MLSsoccer.com. “Our display in honor of the International Day Against Homophobia demonstrates our commitment to making certain all people are welcome.”
So perhaps what’s created this queer-friendly soccer scene is the combination of top-down MLS “No tolerance for intolerance” management, a younger more gay-friendly generation, MLS players who openly support the LGBTQ community, and rowdy and vocal fan groups that have no room for discrimination.
Sunday White, a “capo” for the TA and RCR — which, roughly speaking, is Italian for “leader,” not to be confused with cheerleader — summed her experience with the Portland soccer scene thusly:
“I am honored that as an out, proud lesbian my sexual orientation is not an issue. I am seen as just another person, doing what I can do to support these teams and my community. My hair stands on end when the entire stadium joins in and raises their voices in a powerful [PTFC clapping cheer]. That’s my favorite part. The fans are not just random people; they are my friends and family and they speak up against hate and inequality. I feel it makes for a great environment that draws focus to the game, not to our differences. In reality, it is all our differences that make this such an amazing city, so they happily support and celebrate them.”
Shaley Howard is a sports writer for PQ Monthly as well as an athlete, sports enthusiast, and organizer of the annual HRC Women’s 3×3 Basketball Tournament. She is also is the owner and operator of Scratch N’ Sniff Pet Care, which she considers the best job in the world. Shaley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.