Bella Black came out as transgender when she was in high school. When she told her high school tennis coach and requested to play on the girls team, he refused. Not only that, he described her coming out as “funny” and dismissed it altogether. Discouraged by the exchange and facing struggles with her family and community in a conservative area of North Dakota, Bella left and moved to California.
Many adolescents look to youth sports as a way to escape from problems at home and the pains of adolescence. For LGBTQ youth, like Bella, however, the system often fails them. Coaches have a large responsibility in that failure as their job is to set and enforce team standards in an effort to create environments that are safe and welcoming. If they aren’t equipped with the right tools, athletes, like Bella, are left behind.
streetfootballworld, the leading global network for soccer development, is looking to change that. This month, the organization launched Play Proud, a crowdfunding initiative led by the Seattle Reign and U.S. Women’s National Team’s Megan Rapinoe to help equip coaches with the tools to make soccer safe for LGBTQ athletes.
Using soccer as a tool to tackle social issues affecting young people is something streetfootballworld embodies in its mission. While it has previously used the sport as a way to educate people on employability, refugees, and gender inclusion, the LGBTQ community wasn’t something it had really focused on until recently, admits Lilli Barrett-O’Keefe, the U.S. Network Manager for streetfootballworld.
At the organization’s most recent regional meetings, however, coaches were informally asking each other best practices on how to handle situations like two athletes on the same team dating, rumors that sports programs were turning athletes gay, or a transgender athlete wanting to play on a team with members of their identified gender. Listening to this and realizing that 73 percent of LGBTQ athletes do not believe youth sports foster a safe or welcoming environment, streetfootballworld realized something needed to be done.
“We started digging and looking around and there really wasn’t anything that focused on working with soccer coaches to give them the tools to be able to kind of handle the problems that were coming up,” Barrett-O’Keefe said.
streetfootballworld teamed up with Rapinoe, one of its ambassadors, to raise money to create the world’s first dedicated training toolkit to be distributed to soccer-based youth development organizations. The toolkit will equip coaches within this organizations with the knowledge, skills, and tools to create a safe space and supportive environment for LGBTQ athletes. The cause is an important one to Rapinoe and she believes educating coaches is a great way to spark change.
“[Coaches] set the environment. They set the attitude of how the kids are going to treat each other,” she said. “It just makes sense that this program is aimed at reaching the kids through this mentor and this person that has a lot of influence through seeing them every day. That can be really impactful in the kids’ lives.”
Rapinoe’s good friend and former teammate on the U.S. Women’s National Team, Lori Lindsey, is also backing the initiative. Both women are out athletes and have been heavily involved in LGBTQ activism.
“From an early age, I saw like the importance of being who you are, what that means, and being true to yourself. As I continued to play soccer and have gotten more into the spotlight, it became increasingly important for me to speak out,” Lindsey explained.
Lindsey believes Play Proud has the opportunity to tackle issues of inclusion starting with educating coaches around appropriate use of language, which can really set the tone on a team.
Barrett-O’Keefe reinforces this belief. She cites the example of the coach of a female soccer team telling their players they can bring their boyfriends to a team banquet. This comment, though likely well intended, projects the norm of heterosexuality onto young athletes. That is impressionable, especially for young athletes who may be questioning their sexuality.
streetfootballworld launched this initiative in conjunction with both Pride Month and the World Cup, leveraging two of the biggest moments for both the LGBTQ and soccer communities to raise awareness about Play Proud. Tapping into this momentum, along with the crowdfunding initiative, streetfootballworld created a three-part mini-documentary that is set to air on Fox Sports during the World Cup.
Alongside Black, introduced earlier, the documentary features the stories of Will Sigler, a gay male, and Melina De La Cruz, a lesbian out of Spanish Harlem in New York. While all of their stories are different, the three strongly identify as athletes and experienced many of the same struggles for acceptance. With the proper coaching, soccer became a safe space for them to truly be themselves.
After Black left North Dakota to start over in California, she experienced homelessness. While staying in a shelter, she was introduced to Street Soccer USA (a network member of streetfootballworld) where, for the first time, she had a coach who accepted her for who she was, which was a huge contrast to her high school tennis coach.
She remembers him telling her, “If you want to play on the women’s team, play on the women’s team. If you want to play on the men’s team, play on the men’s team. It does not matter to me how you identify, just go out there and have some fun.”
Playing on her first women’s soccer team, Bella remembers it being so much fun to be included and not having to worry about being accused of cheating or being a guy on the women’s team.
When she heard about Play Proud and the documentary, she happily shared her story.
“With Street Soccer USA backing me up and helping me realize I could participate and feel so welcome and so much joy from all the things I’ve done. From competing in the National Cup with my women’s team or participating in a World Cup with my women’s team, just knowing how awesome that felt, I want other people to feel the same way. That’s why I think Play Proud, and sharing my story, is the least I can do.”
When asked why soccer is the best platform to launch this initiative, Black responded without missing a beat.
“Soccer is the greatest platform to launch this initiative because we are the loudest and we are the proudest,” Black said.
Black, Rapinoe, and Lindsey all believe that airing the docu-series during the World Cup will have a huge impact.
“It’s really cool that Fox Sports is choosing to put this on their networks and to really take a stand and try to be as impactful as they can with the platform that they have to help these LGBTQ kids,” Rapinoe said.
Lindsey agreed, “I think it is next level and it sets the stage for what’s to come [for the LGBTQ movement].”
streetfootballworld aims to raise $100,000 in Phase I of Play Proud, which will reach 3,600 coaches and 62,000 youth directly. Long term, Play Proud has the potential to reach 35,000 coaches and 2.5 million youth worldwide.
Launching with the world’s most popular sport during its biggest moment is a huge milestone in how far soccer has come in supporting the LGBTQ movement. By bravely sharing their stories on such a large stage, Black, Sigler, and De La Cruz have the opportunity to ignite real change with Play Proud.