Last month I went to a soccer game. No big deal, right? It turned out to be a very big deal. The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) game that I attended between the Portland Thorns and Seattle Reign happened right after the World Cup. The place was packed. Over 21,000 fans turned out, making the game the biggest crowd in NWSL history. The enthusiasm in the stadium was overwhelming. Some fans were waving flags for the Seattle Reign. Many fans were waving flags for the Portland Thorns. But also in the crowd were flags that you don’t often see at a pro-sports event: rainbow pride flags.
While sports are often rife with homophobia, women’s soccer has numerous out gay players, and in the bleachers are many, many queer fans. Portland Thorns midfielder Sarah Huffman—who is now retired from the team but whose World Cup smooch with her wife, Abby Wambach, went viral over the summer—talked about the importance of seeing those rainbow flags in the crowd during a 2014 interview with The Oregonian. “Whether it’s in the Timbers games or in our games, there’s flags up in support,” said Huffman. “And it’s just those little things just to know the community’s behind you, the fans are behind you, and they support you. It’s really, it’s a kind of indescribable feeling.”
So why is women’s soccer such a welcoming place for queer fans and athletes? There’s no one better to talk to about this question than Steph Yang, a hardcore soccer fan who has written about LGBTQ identity and the National Women’s Soccer League. She’s also the cohost of the soccer podcast Two Drunk Fans. I called up Steph at her home in Boston. You can listen to our interview or read it below.
All right, Steph, let’s start out with you giving a shout out to any of your favorite teams. What teams are you a big fan of that you want everyone to know about?
Right now, I guess it’s just the one: It’s the Boston Breakers who play in NWSL. They’re going through a really interesting time. They just, their last coach just resigned, and they just hired a new one from England, coming from Liverpool Ladies. So yeah, who knows. He’s probably gonna fire half the roster. So we’re all kind of on pins and needles waiting for the hammer to drop.
Oh no! Maybe a hard time to be a Boston Breakers fan.
Yeah. An interesting time, anyway.
Sports across the board have a reputation for being a breeding ground of homophobia. The first international study of gay athletes ever came out this summer. It surveyed 9,500 people in English-speaking countries. And the results were not good. Seventy-eight percent of athletes said that youth sports are unsafe for lesbian, gay, and bi people. Eighty-three percent said that fans are likely to be targeted if they’re gay, lesbian, or bi. So I wanted to talk to you about your ideas about how women’s soccer is approaching this differently. What is it like for queer fans and queer players in women’s soccer?
It’s changing. It’s changed really rapidly, I’d say, in the last five or so years. I think kind of the jumping off point might have been when Megan Rapinoe came out as openly gay. Before that, there had been queer women in women’s soccer. Natasha Kai came out, I think, in 2008. She just kind of off-handedly mentioned, “Yeah, my girlfriend so-and-so.” But there wasn’t as much of a big to-do about it, and I think part of it was, at the time US soccer wasn’t super ready to deal with an out gay athlete. And American society wasn’t either. But fast forward to 2012, and then Megan Rapinoe’s getting recognized, getting awards, stuff like that.
So is women’s soccer doing something different to be encouraging of queer players and queer fans? Why are women more able and safe to come out as players in national women’s soccer than in other sports?
Firstly, I think just by the act of being a women’s sport, it’s kind of subversive, a popular women’s sport at that, because ever since the national team started winning and winning big, it started getting momentum and money. And it’s kind of hard to argue with money in America. So by just being a women’s sport, you’re already intruding on an area where men have established a ton of dominance. But with women’s sport, especially in America, women’s soccer has grown by such leaps and bounds, and they’ve traditionally always done better than the men have in international competitions because of a bunch of factors, which I won’t get into here. So it’s women’s sport, but it’s popular. So it creates this space where women who are fans of something, something subversive, suddenly find themselves a fan of something that’s big, and it gives them a voice. So I think it attracts people who aren’t necessarily invited into majority spaces. So if you could go to this thing, and it was safe for you to like, and you could find other people like you who enjoyed it, it’s not like going to an NFL game where there’s probably gonna be a lot of cis, straight guys who have some gross opinions about women because they’re in a very macho, masculine-catering atmosphere.
Well, so that’s interesting. So the fact that women’s soccer started out with a smaller fan base in some ways let it be sort of an open ground for new fans to establish themselves and feel safe there, because it wasn’t something that was already dominated by a specific tradition, a specific culture that’s a bunch of dudes.
Yeah, it was a new place. It was kind of unexplored. It’s like when you find this beautiful new island, you get to plant your flag and kind of make it your own. So they were able to shape it from the beginning, and as it grew, I don’t think they were forced out. They just kind of more and more queer women came to the game instead of the original queer fans being forced out by growing popularity, which is great.
One thing I’ve been really struck by whenever I go to women’s soccer games is not only that there’s a large queer fan base in the audience, but there’s really very out messaging. Do you feel like the National Women’s Soccer League has been encouraging of its queer fan base and queer players, or is this happening without any kind of institutional support at all from the National Women’s Soccer League and from the people who buy ads there?
I think league-wide there’s kind of a tacit sanctioning because the NWSL’s essentially an arm of U.S. Soccer, and it would be really crappy of U.S. Soccer not to at least be okay with this when they’re touting out athletes like Abby Wambach and Megan Rapinoe as their heroes. They structure so much of their advertising around Abby Wambach that it would be so hypocritical of them not to acknowledge her as a human being who happens to be queer. So on that broad level, there’s at the very least, tacit acceptance of this. There’s not going to be any top-down mandate that’s like get those rainbow flags out of there.
Well, it’s interesting because the number of out male athletes in any professional sport in the United States can be counted on one hand, and there’s one gay male athlete in men’s soccer. That’s Robbie Rogers of the L.A. Galaxy. But typically, male athletes don’t come out, or they come out in their last season, right before they’re about to retire, or when they do retire. So you’re really drawing a distinction between those sports and women’s soccer, where some of the biggest stars on the field, the women who are the faces of the World Cup like Abby Wambach and Megan Rapinoe, are out players.
Yeah, I think anybody who is familiar with the world would, if they think about that for a minute, go yeah, that makes sense to me. Because in men’s sports, which is considered to be the ultimate pinnacle of manliness, if you’re a pro athlete, that manliness is so incompatible with being queer, to the majority of the world. To be a queer man means to not actually be a “man.” You’ve given up your masculinity because you might not be attracted to cis women. But for women, for one reason or another, women’s sexuality has never been as rigidly constrained. Obviously, women have been, their bodies and their interests are often the target of legislation. But just in the general consciousness, like the zeitgeist of a population, I think women’s sexuality is allowed to have a little more leeway.
That survey I mentioned, Out On the Fields, asked thousands of athletes if they’d ever received harassment, slurs about their sexuality. And the stats are pretty interesting. Among gay, lesbian, and bi men and women, 84 percent of men and 82 percent of women have received verbal slurs about their sexuality—like people throwing really nasty words at them. But male players were far more likely to be physically threatened and assaulted for their sexuality, whereas female players were far less likely to be. So there’s this threat of physical violence facing gay male players that is still very real but less of a looming danger for female players.
Yeah, and I think that kinda tracks with how men and women are raised socially. Men are encouraged far more to go into confrontations and be physical, whereas women’s confrontations are kinda channeled more toward being emotional or verbal. I mean, just as nasty, if you’ve ever had a bully in school, the right female bully can just pick you apart with a couple of sentences. But yeah, I think that’s due to more of an overarching socialization problem than anything super related to sports. And I think for men, it’s exacerbated by being in that sports atmosphere where they’re encouraged to use physical expression as their outlet.
So you’re a visibly queer person. How does it feel different for you being in the stands of a women’s soccer game versus the stands of another sports game where you’re maybe cheering just as hard?
I think it’s not even on the level of being queer, just being female-presenting, where there’s just so many more women in the audience, so many more.
One thing that really gets to me about the homophobia in sports is that it seems like it should be a top priority for people who wanna sell tickets to make sports a safe place for all people to go to. Queer fans are some of the most hardcore fans of women’s soccer. They buy the tickets, they buy the shirts. I wonder what other leagues can learn from the NWSL about encouraging a queer fan base for their own interests. I mean, they’re missing out on a fan base here, on people who love sports, who wanna go buy tickets.
I think what makes so many of them hesitant is they don’t wanna rely on this because they think queer fan bases are niche. And to some extent, and just in terms of percentage of population, they kind of are. Teams want to appeal to that 18-50 year old male demographic because they’re kinda stuck in the past, and they don’t respect the power of women’s dollars. I don’t necessarily know that NWSL was super capitalizing on this either. Right now, they’re at the level of they’re actively okay with it, but I’m not super sure that they’re pursuing this as aggressively as they could. I think a great example to look at is actually the WNBA. The WNBA is now actively marketing to LGBTQ audiences, and when it came out that this was what they were going to be doing as an active marketing strategy, they released a statement saying just because we advertise to LGBTQ fans doesn’t mean we’re going to lose other fans. They don’t displace parts of our audience. They’re just a good addition to our audience.