Small moments can lead to big changes, and seeing a small sign that lets you know you’re welcome can inspire you to let others know they’re welcome as well.
In the case of LGBTQ+ supporters’ groups across MLS like All Stripes in Atlanta and Pride Republic in Los Angeles, small moments of inclusivity have led to the creation of large spaces where LGBTQ+ supporters and allies gather to support their club and create community.
All Stripes began in Atlanta in 2017. The presence of rainbow Pride flags and scarves in the stands helped inspire co-founders Nick Jones, David Prophitt, Sean Ellis and Ben Nicoara to join Atlanta’s growing collection of supporters’ groups with an SG of their own. All Stripes, now 500 members strong, has a significant presence on Atlanta United match days.
Their growing presence even extends beyond Atlanta. When Paul Ruiz’s job tasked him with traveling with LAFC fans to Seattle, the rainbows at Lumen Field surprised him. Two days later, an article about All Stripes came across his social media feed. Ruiz began to wonder if there could be a similar LGBTQ+ presence at LAFC games. He reached out to the club, and a connection with Dexter Quinn began.
Quinn, an Army veteran, was looking for a way to combat bullies. Whether he knew it officially or not, he was also hoping to create an environment that welcomed his son.
“Again, I don't like bullies. I saw a community that has been picked on for too long. And I just wanted to work and talk to the team about how we can do this,” Quinn said.
“And I kid you not, a month later my son came out. My oldest son came out and it went just like this: ‘Dad I'm gay.’ And I went, ‘Yeah, I know buddy. You know I'm going to love you no matter what.’”
Ruiz and Quinn proceeded to create Pride Republic, which has since blossomed into a supporters’ group with 136 members. Now, at every LAFC game, Ruiz is the one making sure people feel the way he did in Seattle.
“I think it's huge,” Ruiz said. “And if I was a 14-year-old kid in the stands questioning who I am, or my sexuality or my gender or whatever the case may be, to see those rainbow flags on the staff, to see us in the stands waving our flags, I'm just hoping that that has an impact on somebody. That it can make somebody realize like, 'Oh, it's OK. I'm OK. I like sports and I’m OK.'”
While MLS and its fans work to create environments that help groups like All Stripes and Pride Republic get off the ground, things aren’t always perfect. Early in their history, both LAFC and Atlanta United worked with fans to immediately end an infamous homophobic chant that's used on goal kicks. Teams around the league have taken similar measures, mostly to a successful degree. However, there are always going to be those who are unaccepting and uninformed. The stands at MLS games aren’t utopias.
That’s where a new kind of supporters’ group called “The Plastics” aims to step in. The group began in 2020 with the purpose of creating an inclusive community across MLS, NWSL and USL for women and LGBTQ+ supporters. From there, The Plastics grew online while fans were away from stadiums due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The group now has members across the country, as well as affiliate supporters' groups who they work with to ensure everyone feels welcome at a match. The idea is that if you come across a member of The Plastics or an affiliated SG, you can sit with them and enjoy the game. The Plastics’ hope that their ideas will spread throughout the stands.
“We have a powerful voice online and the more we use that, the more we amplify and the more that people believe in what we are preaching, the more people take those values into their own home stadiums and hopefully make that difference as well,” Plastics moderator Eboni Christmas said.
“Even if one person sees a difference and change and feels welcomed, then we've done our job,” Christmas continued. “So the more that we stay active and we continue to listen to fans as they call out their clubs, their SGs, these injustices that people see, the more we amplify that, the more we can make the change that we hopefully want to see. Not just online, but in the stadium.”
Those changes can lead to further small and big moments that help more people feel welcome at MLS stadiums. In addition to All Stripes, Pride Republic and The Plastics, there are other LGBTQ+ affiliated groups throughout the league working to make that happen, including Pride of the Sound in Seattle, The Dark Glitterati in Minnesota and 202 Unique in Washington, D.C.
Who knows just how important those groups are to someone looking to belong now or years down the line? What we do know is that all of these groups offer a space for authenticity. In a sport that prides itself on a fan culture that's more passionate, more connected, more real than others, authenticity must be considered crucial.
There’s genuine joy in being yourself and watching others experience the same. That soccer can create an opportunity for that experience is powerful – and it just might mean everything to someone.
“Knowing that there are people out there that are like-minded or that support you in your own identity is really appreciated,” All Stripes president Ryan Keesee said. “Growing up, playing soccer, there were often times that I wasn't out to my group of friends or I wasn't very forward about my sexuality with others. So, it was kind of like that part of me was hidden.
“Then finding a group where I could share my passion for soccer and be my authentic self, it was just kind of a dream come true. I was telling my family and friends like, ‘Oh my gosh, I found this group. And they're just everything.'”