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On the importance of Pride in the NWSL

During Pride Month, NWSL clubs host Pride Nights to showcase the importance of visibility.

SOCCER: JUN 22 NWSL - Portland Thorns at Houston Dash
Corner flags are decorated for Pride Night during the soccer match between the Portland Thorns and Houston Dash on June 22, 2018
Photo by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Early in the morning of June 28, 1969, police raided a popular gay club located in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City - the Stonewall Inn. It was not the first time this particular bar had been raided by the police, but this time, it sparked something in patrons who decided that enough was enough. This raid initiated six days of protests now known as the Stonewall Uprisings and the event is considered the catalyst for the LGBTQIA+ rights movement in the United States. Now, to commemorate this important time in history, the month of June has been designated as Pride Month.

For celebration and necessity

This year, every club in the National Women’s Soccer League is hosting a Pride Night, and to many players across the league, these celebrations are crucial for visibility and showing their fans that everyone is welcomed here.

For Gotham FC defender Imani Dorsey, who partners with Athlete Ally, hosting Pride Night is paramount to spreading the message of the importance of inclusivity and representation.

“I’m grateful to be a part of it and try to use my voice with my teammates,” Dorsey told reporters after Gotham FC’s Pride Night win over the Washington Spirit. “Especially when it comes to the climate of our world right now in terms of a lot of the terrible legislation that’s been attacking trans youth and LGBTQ youth, it’s really important that we speak up and show our fans in this community that you’re welcome here as you are no matter what.”

Around the league, players are speaking up on the importance of representation and visibility. For Maddie “Po” Pogarch of the Portland Thorns and Christen Westphal of San Diego Wave FC, who met while teammates on the Portland Thorns, seeing the evolution of Pride Nights in the NWSL has made them feel supported by the league to be who they are.

NJ/NY Gotham City FC v Portland Thorns FC
Christen Westphal and Madison Pogarch met while playing for the Portland Thorns FC.
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer/ISI Photos/Getty Images

The couple recently appeared on CBS’s Attacking Third podcast to talk about Pride Month and noted that although it is a celebration, it is also necessary to provide visibility and show that representation to young fans around the world.

“It’s very important and very necessary for younger generations to see people and have visible examples of queer families, trans people, non-binary people, and all that the community encompasses,” Westphal told Attacking Third. “I think [Pride Month] is really positive and needs to be celebrated, but I think it’s still very necessary for younger generations and the youth to see examples that they can relate to and say, I can feel more comfortable being myself because that person is out and is comfortable and is received well.”

Pride on the field and in the stands

In addition to the players, supporters groups around the league have used Pride Night to unveil incredible tifos celebrating Pride and recognizing prominent historical figures in the fight for equality. Cloud 9, the official Gotham FC supporters group, designed a breathtaking tifo celebrating two pioneers in the fight for LGBTQIA+ rights, Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, with a quote from Rivera that reads, “We Have To Be Visible.” The Rose City Riveters, an official supporters group for the Portland Thorns, also unveiled an incredible tifo that both celebrated Pride and nodded towards the initial act of resistance that pushed forward the movement for LGBTQIA+ rights.

While the NWSL has a significant number of players and fans who are part of the LGBTQIA+ community, there have also been moments of difficulty. Recently, the North Carolina Courage re-signed Jaelene Daniels (formerly Jaelene Hinkle) who notably sparked controversy for declining a USWNT call-up in 2017 over having to wear a rainbow-themed jersey. At the time, U.S. Soccer stated that Daniels had declined for “personal reasons,” but Daniels appeared on an episode of the Christian talk show “The 700 Club” the following year where she spoke in further detail about the incident.

When a clip from the show went viral in 2019, then-USWNT goalkeeper and current Gotham FC keeper Ashlyn Harris, herself a prominent out athlete and vocal supporter of LGBTQIA+ rights, took to Twitter to respond to Daniels’s statements.

In 2020, Daniels retired from professional soccer but was re-signed this season by her former NWSL club the NC Courage, much to the disappointment of the club’s LGBTQIA+ fans and allies. The club put out a statement addressing their fans and the impact that it had on the community and highlighted ways that they would work to show their support throughout the season.

However, fans and supporters remained skeptical. The Uproar, an official supporters group, put out a statement on Twitter when the re-signing was announced.

Looking towards a better future

Situations like these showcase why Pride Nights are so important to NWSL fans. Thankfully, the league continues to be a beacon of hope for LGBTQIA+ players to find acceptance and community, and for fans to see themselves represented. In fact, Kristie Mewis recently spoke with AllForXI about the importance of Pride and finding a community in the NWSL.

“We need to use our platforms as much as we possibly can to give [young fans] someone to look up to, and to be a safe space for them. I think it is super important,” Mewis said. “It has been such a great community for me to be a part of and I want to help and do whatever I can to make everyone feel really safe and really special in their own way.”

Even though LGBTQIA+ rights have come a long way, there is still so much work to be done to ensure safety and enshrine hard-fought rights, especially in light of the rise in anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation around the country, mostly targeting trans people. This Pride Month, while we celebrate at Pride Night matches around the league, let’s take a moment to reflect on how incredible it is that we have made it this far, honor the people who have paved the way, and to remember how important it is to be visible.