Almost nothing about the Washington Spirit is dependable. The club has lost a star coach and a dozen star players in its brief history. It’s finished both in the playoffs and dead last in NWSL, multiple times. This offseason saw the team’s second complete roster overhaul in three seasons, as well as a change in ownership. But over the last five years, if there’s one thing that has felt familiar about following the Spirit, it’s seeing Joanna Lohman at the Maryland SoccerPlex.
You only have to talk to one person involved with the Spirit to understand what Lohman means to the club and its fans. But if you talk to several people, you’ll learn that every single person who’s spent any time around the team has a different positive story about her.
Some people talk about their memories of her great performances on the field. Some talk about a pep talk at training, or helping them come to terms with their queer identity, or just being a fun person to hang out with. But whatever the story is, there’s a consistent theme — Jo makes the Spirit family stronger.
That’s why Lohman was immediately offered a job as the Spirit’s club ambassador upon her retirement from playing, and why her number 15 was retired on Saturday. The ceremony honoring Lohman, who is a lesbian and has been out for her entire time with the Spirit, also coincided with the Spirit’s first ever pride night.
“It means so much to them,” Lohman says when asked about the significance of the club’s first pride night to the Spirit Squadron, the club’s supporters’ group. She continued, “they’ve always been a source of inspiration for me personally. Every game, they have flags for everyone on the team, and obviously a rainbow flag. This was an important night for them, and also a validation that every race, gender, and sexual orientation is welcome in this stadium.”
Lohman was born in Silver Spring, Maryland, and since 2001, has played for four different DMV-area teams across five different women’s soccer leagues. She joined the Spirit in 2015, and as an out queer player with local ties, instantly formed a bond with fans.
“She is the face of the team in so many ways,” says Squadron drummer Courtney Buchanan. “Even when she tore her ACL, she was in the stands interacting with people.”
Some fans even say that Lohman helped them come to terms with their own identities, and that her willingness to be herself at all times gave them the confidence they needed to come out.
“Because she’s so out and happy and proud to be herself, it made everyone else feel comfortable as well. I started out in the Squadron as someone who identified as straight, but now I’m totally comfortable with the fact that I’m pan, and I think Jo had a lot to do with that,” says Spirit Squadron leadership member Megan Wesson. “She was always very supportive when I had conversations with her about it.”
“Seeing that Jo was out and proud, it was very intriguing because I didn’t have a lot of gay friends,” says Buchanan. “I started hanging out with her and she was just so comfortable with it, and it just gave me the confidence to be comfortable with myself. The more that I was around her, I saw that she doesn’t care about any of the negative things that people have to say, and that it’s her life goal to make other people feel welcome and included.”
But while Lohman and the Squadron helped a number of LGBT+ Spirit fans become more comfortable with themselves and find a supportive community, others have previously felt ostracized by the club. The Spirit were the last team in NWSL to hold a pride night. They never held one under the leadership of Bill Lynch, but new majority owner Steve Baldwin prioritized adding it to the team’s schedule.
“[Lynch] didn’t want to single out one group was the explanation that had been given, and it didn’t seem to bother the team too much, but I know that a lot of fans were really upset about it. That was a big decision, and why we’ve had a lot of Squadron members come and go,” says Wesson.
Lynch is still involved with the club, and presented Lohman with her framed jersey during her number retirement ceremony. Lohman says that, despite the Spirit being the last club to hold a pride night for fans, she always felt like the club had her back.
“I’ve always felt very supported by the club,” Lohman says. “Not having a pride night didn’t necessarily mean that I felt like I couldn’t be 100 percent myself, but it’s nice to have this added benefit this season and know that the club is moving forward. It’s exciting for all of us to see the changes that have been made and the ownership that’s come in is invested and super positive. You can see it on the field, you can see it off the field, and pride night was just icing on the cake.”
The Squadron sees Saturday night’s events as the club turning a significant corner, and as an opportunity to start significantly expanding their membership.
“I think it makes the statement that regardless of how things played out before, there wasn’t ever an issue with her being gay and being on the team,” Buchanan says. “I think it also sends the message that the LGBT+ community truly is welcome here.”
Making sure that everyone feels welcome at the Plex is surely the primary responsibility for someone with the job title of club ambassador. Thankfully for the Spirit, there’s no one better suited to that job than Jo.