202 Unique, D.C. United’s official LGBTQ+ supporters’ group, may only be a few years old. But the longer history of Washington D.C.’s soccer scene, sports fandom and LGBTQ+ communities runs deep within it roots.
That story dates back at least as far as 1990, when Federal Triangles Soccer Club, one of the longest-serving clubs in the International Gay and Lesbian Football Association, was founded out of what had originally just been an ongoing pickup game at the National Mall where the community could connect, compete and socialize.
Jim Ensor was an early member of FTSC, as well as a local high school coach who also coached camps and clinics for D.C. United. In the late 90s, he had the idea to thank FTSC volunteers with a celebratory evening at a United match, and from there, a tradition was born.
Eventually, in 2009, that event became officially recognized as the club's Pride Night, dubbed United Night Out (which takes place on Aug. 26 this year).
“It's called that for the initials U.N.O., meaning one. So one game, one community. That’s the whole onus,” said Ensor of the homegrown meet-up turned major event that’s now spanned three decades.
Before 202 Unique existed, United Night Out provided D.C. United’s LGBTQ+ fans – who at the time were scattered throughout the club's other supporters’ groups – with a chance to come together as one group. For fans like Travis Alvarado, an original founder of 202 Unique, that annual gathering felt like enough amid a mostly-welcoming SG culture.
“I was coming as someone who's bisexual. The group's people at the games didn't care if I came in with a guyfriend or girlfriend: ‘You're here to cheer on the team, right?’” Alvarado said of the prevailing attitude within the supporters’ groups to whom he originally belonged: La Norte and District Ultras.
“So I felt welcomed. And during that time frame, a lot of the other groups were the same way… It was just a whole 'nother thing for me that I didn't know existed, and that these people did not care, did not judge. And at that time, I didn't think about uniting all the people in the community under one banner because I felt accepted.”
Eventually, though, inspired in part by Rose Room Collective (D.C. United’s independent supporters' group created by and for people of color), Ensor, Alvardo and 202 Unique’s other founders saw the benefits of creating a supporters’ group for LGBTQ+ fans and allies as undeniable.
One of those benefits was practical: By uniting as one group, 202 Unique could present a collective voice when working with both the club’s front office and other SGs to create inclusive environments at Audi Field and beyond.
“The thing about one banner is when we had the different groups, yes, they were all accepting and everything, but each group did things differently – how they handled the supporter groups and stuff. And if we wanted to have a voice within the community, we could bring it up with each of the groups, and each group would handle the same problem differently. But when we have one voice under one banner, we can say, ‘Hey, we want to do this,'” said Alvarado.
“… Now each quarter we meet up with the leadership of the different groups, meet up with the front office and we iron out what we are planning, things we're going to do, events and anything.”
Alvarado and Ensor say operating as a collective has helped them accomplish everything from eradicating problematic language used by fans at the stadium to planning TIFO displays for Pride Nights to working with the club to march and set up info tables at Washington D.C.’s Pride Parade.
A soccer cathedral for all
Another clear benefit of 202 Unique is creating more LGBTQ+ visibility within the SG areas at Audi Field, and showing those rowdy sections can be a fun and inclusive place for all – even if the smoke and drums may seem a little intimidating from a distance.
“Our job was to kind of lift the veil on that a little bit and say, ‘Hey, come on out, be a part of this. We're here every week,’” said Ensor, who told stories of casual fans converting to season ticket holders after tailgating and attending just a match or two with 202 Unique. “You're going to see the rainbow flag in the stands. Hopefully, that is a signal to say it's safe and it's okay and you'll be accepted.”
Alvarado noted the group’s visibility has also helped their members connect and create community at other DMV soccer events like Washington Spirit (NWSL) or even Maryland Bobcats (NISA) matches.
“That's the idea,” explained Ensor of 202 Unique’s growing community presence. “Our whole thing is pride and passion united from a 202 perspective. It's on the back of our shirt: Pride, passion, united. Because you want to bring those two together. You want to be proud of your team. You want to be proud of yourself. When it comes together, it can be special.”
In addition to attending soccer matches throughout the DMV, many of 202 Unique’s members engage in charitable work in the community. Ensor, in conjunction with FTSC and District Sports, recently helped raise roughly $10,000 for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society via the “Give MS The Boot” foot golf tournament hosted by Dave Johnson, a DMV soccer community legend who has MS. Alvarado also cited Jake Didinsky, another 202 Unique founder, for their frequent donations to LGBTQ+ youth outreach programs.
202 Unique’s leadership team hopes to spread the love to potential out-of-town guests as well. Gay Gooners, Arsenal’s officially-recognized LGBTQ+ supporters group, may attend this summer's MLS All-Star Game presented by Target, and if they do, Ensor, Alvarado and company plan to show the Londoners what both D.C. soccer culture and 202 Unique’s ethos is all about.
“The one thing I will say is that in general, D.C. is just a melting pot of cultures and backgrounds from all walks of life, and everyone supports soccer slightly differently. We have people from Europe, we have people from different parts of Africa, have people from South America, Central America, Mexico, all across the US and Canada. And everyone does things differently, and we're like a hybrid of all that,” said Alvarado.
“And we're just all accepting of everyone wherever they come from. We don't really judge you. … We just love the fact that you're here, you're supporting the team. We don't care what color your jersey, whether it’s the Pride Night jersey, one of the original jerseys from '96 – we don't care. We just want to see everyone happy, smiling. It's that cohesive melting pot. And I call Audi Field, where our home is, I call that our church, our cathedral. And everyone that comes there is the congregation, the family.”